The path to the Stanley Cup is rarely a straight line. Sometimes it’s the direction a puck takes when it banks off the post and in — or out.
Four years ago, Artemi Panarin clanked a shot off the post late in regulation that could have put Columbus up three games to none in the first round against Washington. Lars Eller scored, the Capitals won the series and went on to lift the Stanley Cup.
Andre Burakovsky looks back now and acknowledges he and the Capitals got some lucky bounces on the way to their first championship in franchise history. Now with the Colorado Avalanche, he’s well-aware that’s just one part of what it takes for a playoff team to get over the hump and win it all.
“It’s so hard to win the Stanley Cup,” Burakovsky said. “You’re going to need a little bit of luck and you’re going to need everyone in your team to be extremely dialed in and sacrificing and doing whatever it takes to win.”
The NHL is full of title contenders that turn out to be pretenders and plenty of success stories about teams that figure it out and get the job done. As the playoffs begin Monday night, Burakovsky and the Avalanche, the Carolina Hurricanes and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers are among the teams looking to make the leap — a challenge that is part good health and great luck but more about figuring out how to ride the roller coaster of wins and losses through four rounds.
“Once you commit to something, be it the defensive part of the game or whatever was holding you back and you commit to it and you break through, then it becomes easier because you know what’s there,” said Barry Trotz, who coached the Captials to the Cup. “It’s almost like climbing Mount Everest. You want to do it, you think you can do it and then you actually have to do it and you get to a certain place.”
Players and coaches who have won the Cup or reached the final described that climb as a combination of consistency, confidence and the right combination of goaltending and timely scoring.
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The Tampa Bay Lightning certainly had all that when they won back to back the past two years. In 2021, they eliminated Florida in the first round, Carolina in the second round and Trotz’s New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference final.
Ken Daneyko, who won the Cup with New Jersey three times, pointed to a penalty by Sam Bennett that cost the Panthers last year. Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin said special teams were the difference against Tampa Bay and in their previous playoff exits to the Boston Bruins.
Current Devils coach Lindy Ruff is on board with that being a crucial part of winning in the playoffs.
“If your penalty killing’s strong, if you’ve taken penalties and you don’t give the other team an opportunity to take advantage of it, it’s another big area,” said Ruff, who coached Buffalo to the final in 1999. “A lot of times power plays can struggle. As a team that’s looking to win, if you can keep the other team’s power play off the board, it gives you a better chance to win.”
Five of the past six champions have finished top five on the power play or penalty kill in the playoffs. Five of six also were in the top five in goals against.
Rod Brind’Amour, who captained the Hurricanes to the Cup in 2006 and coaches them now, said getting strong goaltending and keeping guys in the lineup are among the keys.
“What does it take? You’ve got to be healthy when you hit playoffs,” Brind’Amour said. “If your top guys are out, it’s going to be hard.”
Brind’Amour and the Hurricanes go into the playoffs with a double whammy there: starting goalie Frederik Andersen is injured. Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry is also out, while Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau are among the other top players banged up.
Some Cup champions overcame injuries, like the Blues losing Robert Thomas in 2019 and the Lightning winning again after Alex Killorn went out during the 2021 final.
The Capitals lost center Nicklas Backstrom to injury and winger Tom Wilson to suspension before Game 6 of their second-round series against Pittsburgh and put the spotlight on reserve players to fill in. Jay Beagle and Nathan Walker assisted on Alex Chiasson’s goal in regulation, then Ovechkin assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime winner to get Washington past the second round for the first time since 1998.
“Everybody had counted us out for dead and that’s when we might’ve played one of our best games because there was that resiliency that you’ve been punched in the nose and you’ve got to keep getting up,” Trotz said. “You’re going to get punched in the nose. You’re going to have to get up a few times.”
When the Penguins fired Mike Johnston early in the 2015-16 season, Mike Sullivan took over and told players to forget about what happened the previous game or outside the rink and “just play.” Several months later, they won the first of consecutive Cup titles that veteran defenseman Ian Cole credits to that mindset.
“We had so much confidence,” said Cole, who’s now with Carolina. “We would lose a game, go down in a series and it was something where it’s like, ‘OK, go win the next one.’ It’s just a confidence and a consistent game plan and a consistent game. I think it’s having the right mindset and knowing how to win and not getting rattled if you don’t, but being able to bounce back immediately and win the next one.”
Daneyko, now an NHL Network analyst, said he and his teammates learned in 1994 that every play matters. After the Devils lost a lead in Game 6 against the New York Rangers and got knocked out in seven, they learned a lesson and won the Cup the following year.
“We knew what it was going to take: You couldn’t sit back,” Daneyko said. “The emotion has to be balanced, has to be in check. You have to stay even keeled but play your game.”
That style of game does not have to be the same. Three years ago, the Blues bruised their way to a title and now have evolved to win with skill and scoring.
No matter how the hockey happens, the key is getting to the playoffs to have a chance to win. Among recent Cup champs, Tampa Bay has made the playoffs eight of the past nine years, St. Louis 10 of 11, Washington nine of 10 and Pittsburgh 16 in a row.
“You just have to get there as much as possible and breaks are going to happen,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “You need things going your way. You need health, you need a couple of breaks and then just ride it as far as you can.”