This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on January 23, 2014.
Take a good look at the National Hockey League standings when the league goes on a 16-day Winter Olympics break starting on February 9. They may not change much for the rest of the season.
Since 1998, when the NHL starting sending players to the Winter Games, only seven clubs (10.9%) that were among the top eight teams in its conference at the Olympic break failed to qualify for the postseason. Teams that were in the top-six heading into the break have made the playoffs 95.8% of the time.
Any team in the top four spots of each conference at the break should feel particularly confident, as no squad ranked that highly at that point has ever fallen out of the playoffs by season’s end. Of teams in the top four at the break, 90.6% of teams maintained home-ice advantage by remaining one of the top four seeds when the Stanley Cup playoffs began.
There is one bright spot for franchises that aren’t among the top eight in each conference at the break. Of the seven instances when a team out of playoff position managed to climb into the postseason, it won at least one playoff series five times (71.4%), despite not having home-ice advantage.
The Edmonton Oilers were the only team in 1998 to qualify for the playoffs that wasn’t in that position before the Nagano Games. Following the 2002 Salt Lake Games, three clubs—the Montreal Canadiens, Phoenix Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks—had a successful second-half surge, while the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks made a playoff run after the 2006 Torino Games.
The last team to make the playoffs while outside of playoff contention at the Olympic break was the 2010 Detroit Red Wings, who went on to advance to the conference semifinals after the Vancouver Games.
Coincidentally, the Red Wings find themselves in a similar position this season, two points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But if they don’t go on a run over the next couple of weeks, Detroit fans can likely start following Tigers’ spring training a bit more closely.
Starting this postseason, the NHL is shifting to a new playoff format. The top three teams in each division will make the playoffs, along with two wild cards in each conference. Other perennial playoff contenders besides Detroit that remain outside playoff range entering play on Wednesday include the Washington Capitals and the New Jersey Devils.
(photo by Matthew Barera)