Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A history of great (and awful) starts to NHL seasons

Four weeks into the NHL season, several teams are off to great starts. The Sharks and Avalanche have been virtually unbeatable, and the Lightning, Ducks, and Maple Leafs have also had an impressive opening month. At the other end of the spectrum, teams like the Sabres, Flyers, and Oilers are off to the kind of starts that can torpedo a team’s playoff hopes before the calendar even flips over to November.

Nothing has been as extreme as what happened last year, when the Blackhawks made it to the second half of the lockout-shortened season before suffering a regulation loss. They shattered the NHL record with their 21-0-3 start, coasted to the Presidents’ Trophy, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Of course, not every early-season streak — good or bad — will lead to such a predictable ending. So let’s see if we can learn anything about what to expect by looking back at five of the greatest starts in NHL history, along with five of the worst.

1984-85 Edmonton Oilers

How they started: 12-0-3

The Oilers were the defending champs entering the season, having finally ended the New York Islanders' run of four straight Cups. If the rest of the league had any hopes of an Edmonton letdown, they were doused quickly by a 15-game unbeaten streak.

How they finished: The Oilers finished with 109 points, which was actually second in the league to Philadelphia’s 113. But they ran the table with relative ease in the playoffs, cruising through the Campbell Conference before beating the Flyers in five to win their second consecutive Cup.

By the way, this team featured a 208-point season from Wayne Gretzky, 71 goals by Jari Kurri, and 37 goals and 121 points from Paul Coffey, who was a defenseman. The '80s were a crazy, fun decade.

1943-44 New York Rangers

How they started: 0-14-1

The Rangers lost their first 11 games and didn’t get a win until mid-December. That actually kicked off a stretch of four wins in five games, perhaps affording some small degree of hope heading into the new year. That was immediately followed by another seven consecutive losses. The 1943-44 Rangers were horrible.

How they finished: The Rangers didn’t get much better. Their record stood at a pathetic 6-39-5 through 50 games, which was especially problematic given that back then the season was only 50 games long. Their 17 points were easily the low point in franchise history, and earned the 1943-44 Rangers a permanent spot on just about every “all-time worst teams in pro sports history” list.

The season’s rock bottom came in a 15-0 loss to the Red Wings on January 23, 1944, which still stands as the biggest blowout in the history of the league. That kicked off a 21-game winless streak to end the season. Yes, the Rangers actually finished the season even worse than they started it. They were that bad.

For all their historic futility, New York’s nightmare season does come with a significant asterisk: the roster had been decimated by World War II, with 10 Rangers leaving to join the armed forces.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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