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Playoff success in the NHL is so hard

It’s a fine line between winning and losing, and more often teams are going to lose

Florida Panthers v Boston Bruins - Game Seven Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It’s a subject that is worth repeating and thinking about since it can be so jarring: winning in the NHL is incredibly difficult and surprisingly rare.

Just ask Toronto, who literally set off fireworks for winning in the first round over the weekend. It’s the Maple Leafs’ first series win in the NHL’s salary cap era, which is almost two decades old.

Or go over to Boston, where the record setting 65-win Bruins blew a 3-1 series lead to lose at home in overtime of Game 7 to the Florida Panthers. That series will go down as one of the most shocking results that the sport has ever seen.

It was a similar story for the defending champs out in Colorado. The Avalanche bowed out of the playoffs last night just a few hours after Boston by dropping a Game 7 to the Seattle Kraken. Two mighty division winners, washed out just like that.

All of these lessons reinforce common hockey tropes that have been said many times, but are worth repeating due to their accuracy.

#1: Just make the playoffs. The Panthers finished with one more point than the Penguins in the regular season to clinch the last playoff spot. Their hot goalie in Alex Lyon came back to Earth. It didn’t matter, Florida was competitive against and eventually edged out the best regular season team ever.

This is not to say that Pittsburgh could have or would have defeated Boston — just that you can never, ever know or predict what the NHL playoffs will hold. The best logic, wisdom, common sense and statistical analysis get tossed out the window and mean as much as home ice advantage these days (which is to say: nothing, considering that road teams have a winning record in the playoffs so far). Anything can happen — and sometimes DOES happen — in the playoffs. That’s not just an empty sentence or an open-ended wish, 2019 Tampa getting swept by Columbus and 2023 Boston losing in the first round show that unpredictability in the NHL playoffs is the only accurate prediction that can be made.

All fans prefer to see a well-rounded, complete team with no weaknesses make a strong case for success in the regular season with an over-powering amount of skill, but that’s usually an illusion that is either unattainable, or unnecessary (just ask Bostonians today). While those traits are comforting and perhaps preferable to demonstrate a team is controlling what they can control, it doesn’t portend to playoff success. Being healthy, lucky, and “peaking at the right time” is largely what fuels results like Florida beating Boston, or even Seattle knocking off Colorado. Those are a lot less predictable or areas to count on, it sometimes happens, or it sometimes doesn’t — and it doesn’t matter if a team won 65 games or barely half to get there. You just gotta get there.

#2: Winning is so hard. The list of teams that don’t win is so much longer than the teams that do. Washington and St. Louis haven’t won playoff series since they have won their respective Stanley Cups (both teams also finally benefiting from the “just make the playoffs and anything can happen” trope). That isn’t rare to those cities, Los Angeles and Chicago haven’t won a playoff series either since their respective Cup wins dating back almost a decade now to 2014 and 2015.

Rod Brind’Amour is generally seen as one of the best coaches around (if not the best), he just got his NHL coaching playoff series record up to 5-4 and is looking to get to the conference finals for the first time. The Bruins are 2-4 in playoff series since making it to the SCF. The Devils tonight will be looking for their first series win since 2012. The Rangers have only won two series in the last five years (and only then in position to do so due to a third string Pittsburgh goalie and an elbow to Sidney Crosby’s head).

This could go on and on, with the moral of the story being that the number of teams that have success are very small, and usually success is an isolated incident surrounded by several years of pain, misery and frustration. (That should be the NHL’s new tag line). Of course, the Pens aren’t immune from that either, having not won a playoff series themselves since 2018.

The results of the first round are enough to make one dizzy. Maybe they shouldn’t by now, we’ve all seen the story unfold before but that never seems to reduce the dramatic effect when it happens again and again. Achieving playoff success in hockey is often rare, sometimes random and usually earned through years of dry spells. Coming up empty is typically the norm for many teams to endure almost every year — whether they finished in first place or not.