Complete Blueprint to Peak Before the Stanley Cup Playoffs
There's much more to playoff success in the NHL than having the best team.
Timing is everything, and playing your best hockey of the season going into the playoffs is just as important as having the most talent.
Several different factors determine the outcome of the first round of the playoffs, which is why the opening group of matchups often produces the most exciting hockey of the postseason.
Let's look at the blueprint for what teams need to do in order to go into the playoffs on a roll.
Practice and Fine-Tune Special Teams
The last two Stanley Cup champions (Kings in 2012, Bruins in 2011) had awful power plays in the playoffs, but they were strong enough at even strength to overcome their struggles with the man advantage.
Despite these teams' success with a lackluster power play, it's very important to have strong special teams in the postseason. For clubs that don't have reliable goaltending and/or defensive depth, an effective power play is a very valuable weapon.
For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins rank third in the NHL with a 22.9 power-play success rate. With several talented forwards such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Jarome iginla, along with an elite offensive defenseman in Kris Letang, the Penguins' power play is one way for them to overcome any defensive or goaltending issues they may face in the playoffs.
Converting on the power play also gives teams a lot of momentum, which really benefits teams without a lot of playoff experience.
In addition to an effective power play, having a good penalty kill is important to playoff success. Mistakes are magnified in the postseason, and not letting your opponent score a crucial goal and gain some confidence plays a key part in every series.
The Kings had the best penalty kill percentage (92.1) of any team in last year's playoffs, and this was a major part of their Stanley Cup triumph.
Fine-tuning the power play and going over penalty-killing situations will be a primary focus of NHL coaches in the remaining practices and film sessions before the regular season ends.
Have a Hot Goaltender
The No. 1 ingredient for playoff success is strong goaltending. To win the Stanley Cup, a team doesn't need to have the best goaltender in the NHL—just one that is playing very well and has a lot of confidence into the postseason.
One example of a low seed beating a Stanley Cup favorite in the first round of the playoffs happened last season when rookie goalie Braden Holtby led the Washington Capitals past the defending champion Boston Bruins in an intense seven-game series.
Holtby nearly led the Capitals past the top-seeded New York Rangers in the second round before losing in Game 7. In 14 playoff games last year, the 23-year-old netminder posted a .935 save percentage and a 1.95 GAA. He also went into the playoffs with a 4-1-1 record in his final six starts of the regular season.
Since the playoffs are much more physical than the regular season and defense dominates games, a hot goaltender is often capable of leading a good-but-not-elite team on a deep playoff run.
Another common situation is when a goalie's incredible performance carries a talented team to a Stanley Cup when the team wasn't strong enough offensively to win.
The two most recent examples of this are Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings last season and Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins in 2010-11, both of whom won the Conn Smythe Trophy and set NHL playoff records en route to a championship.
Overall, consistent goaltending is the common denominator among all Stanley Cup teams. Without it, your team's chances of winning 16 games in the playoffs are very slim. This is why teams will do everything they can to raise the confidence level of their No. 1 goalie over the final weeks of the regular season.
Chemistry is important throughout the season, but it's even more of a factor in the playoffs because shuffling lines and trying out different combinations in the middle of a series is a risky move for a coach.
Forcing players to develop chemistry and succeed with teammates who they aren't familiar with is not an ideal situation in a playoff setting where every game is a must-win.
Teams with strong chemistry will have a huge advantage in the playoffs because their players trust who they are playing with. This trust gives players confidence and allows them to be more comfortable on the ice.
Teams like the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks have been successful in the playoffs over the last few years because they have strong chemistry and a group of players who know their role and excel in it.
An important task for coaches in the final few weeks of the season will be to determine which lines and pairings give their team the best chance to win. Injuries will make this a difficult challenge.
Being able to roll four lines is crucial for a head coach. The physical wear and tear that players face in the postseason makes it impossible to win the Stanley Cup with just one or two quality lines.
The Kings and Bruins are two great examples of how depth gives teams a tremendous chance to win a championship. They were able to wear down their opponents physically over the course of a seven-game series.
Boston's fourth line of Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton all got over 10 minutes of ice time during Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks, and their physical play was a key part of the B's success in that game.
Los Angeles was bolstered by the impressive play of forwards Dwight King and Dustin Penner during last year's Cup run. These players gave a struggling Kings offense more scoring depth and allowed head coach Darryl Sutter to use all four lines, which was important because all of the teams L.A. faced in the playoffs had strong goaltending.
It's very possible that the Penguins could be saved by their depth in this year's playoffs.
Injuries to forwards Sidney Crosby and James Neal, along with defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin, have weakened the team's roster, but the trade-deadline acquisitions of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen will provide head coach Dan Bylsma with some much-needed depth.
Depth doesn't guarantee playoff success, but it makes teams tougher to defend because opponents cannot focus their efforts on shutting down just one or two lines.
Take Steps to Ensure Your Roster Is as Healthy and Rested as Possible
Going into the playoffs with a healthy and rested roster is the most important goal for teams that have clinched a playoff spot.
The intensity and physical grind of this 48-game shortened season could result in a first round of the playoffs that's not as exciting as last season. Players have been given fewer off days than normal this year due to the condensed schedule.
Since there are so many teams still fighting for a playoff spot and/or a higher seed, it's going to be very difficult for coaches to give players enough off days to prepare both physically and mentally for the postseason.
The result of not having important players healthy could be disastrous for some teams. If Patrice Bergeron is unable to be in the Bruins' lineup for the playoffs, Boston will be without its most valuable player, best defensive forward and strongest leader.
His absence in the lineup weakens the Bruins in all three zones. Boston is a favorite to win the Stanley Cup with Bergeron, but if he's unable to return to the team, it will have trouble reaching the second round.
Sidney Crosby's injury could also have a major impact on the Penguins' chances of winning the Stanley Cup depending on his availability for the first round.
He leads the team and the NHL in scoring with 56 points and makes everyone around him better. His absence from the lineup would give whichever team Pittsburgh faces in the first round a lot more confidence and a stronger chance of pulling off the upset.
When teams finally earn a playoff spot, expect coaches to start resting some of their best players to make sure they go into the postseason with the rest and stamina needed to withstand two months of the most intense hockey competition of the year.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.
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