One of the most common denominators among Stanley Cup-winning teams is playoff experience, and for obvious reasons.
Similar to certain on-ice skills such as speed, playoff experience cannot be taught. It's also impossible to duplicate postseason scenarios in practice settings. This is something that must be earned, and while it doesn't guarantee success in the postseason, it makes a tremendous impact in moments of adversity.
For example, the Boston Bruins recently found themselves 10 minutes away from elimination in the first round when the rival Toronto Maple Leafs held a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7 at TD Garden.
The battle-hardened Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago with much of the same team as this year's edition, were playing in their seventh Game 7 since 2008-09.
Meanwhile, a good portion of the Leafs roster had never made a postseason appearance until this lockout-shortened season. Going into their first-round series, the Bruins had an overwhelming advantage in playoff experience. From CSNNE.com's Joe Haggerty:
In total Bruins roster has 1,273 games of playoff experience while the young Leafs roster has 206 games of playoff experience #BruinsTalk— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) May 3, 2013
The Bruins' playoff experience was evident as they made one of the most amazing comebacks in NHL playoff history, as the Leafs were unable to handle the Bruins' final push in the final two minutes of regulation.
The Bruins did not panic, but the same couldn't be said for the Leafs, as their two-goal lead evaporated in a 31-second span in the final 1:22 of the third period. Toronto was a rattled team from the moment Milan Lucic scored to make the score 4-3 with a little over a minute remaining in regulation.
"It’s huge," said Milan Lucic when asked about the importance of playoff experience after his team's dramatic Game 7 comeback.
"Everyone talks about experience and how it plays big in the playoffs and especially here tonight and even in Game 4 when we were down 2-0 I think our experience is what kind of put us over the edge in being able to come back and ultimately win the game..."
While previous playoff experience helps teams overcome series deficits and lopsided scores in do-or-die games, going through a losing experience can also be a valuable part of a team's growth and maturation.
"Any type of playoff experience is going to help you," said Leafs defenseman Cody Franson minutes after his team's season-ending loss.
How important is playoff experience in the pursuit of the Stanley Cup?
"Unfortunately this is the experience we’re going to carry with us for the rest of the summer, but we had a lot of guys come in and play hard minutes for us. We gave ourselves a good chance to win that series, we just made mistakes at the very end of it."
Toronto's lack of postseason experience played a part in its heartbreaking loss, but the team's impressive performance against a favored and superior Boston squad will make the Leafs a better, more comfortable and mentally stronger team for the future.
Another example of playoff experience playing a major role in the outcome of a series was seen in the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders' first-round matchup earlier this month. A young Islanders team with 16 players making their postseason debuts, including Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares, gave the Penguins more than they could handle through four games in a 2-2 series tie.
But after a shutout victory in Game 5 at home, Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup-winning poise helped them eliminate the Islanders in overtime of Game 6 when defenseman Brooks Orpik, who played a key role in the Penguins' championship team in 2009, scored the series-winning goal.
In the second round, New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella sat a few of his veterans for Games 4 and 5 of his team's series against the Bruins. Via NHL.com's Dan Rosen:
By putting in Haley & Newbury for Richards & Asham, Tortorella sacrifices 165 games of playoff experience from his forward group for one.— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) May 23, 2013
New York was eliminated in Game 5, and the team's lack of calm resulted in Boston earning seven power plays in the final two games of the series (Bruins scored on three of those opportunities). Richards, a former Conn Smythe Award winner with a team-leading 93 games of playoff experience, would have positively impacted the Rangers in Game 5 despite his ongoing offensive struggles in previous games. Instead, he watched his team score zero goals in the final two periods of its season from the press box as a healthy scratch.
From a regular-season perspective, so many of the most highly coveted players at the trade deadline are veterans who are able to teach the inexperienced players what it takes to lift the greatest trophy in sports.
Mark Recchi is a name often brought up in such discussions.
After winning titles with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990-91 and then again as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06, the veteran winger was acquired by the Bruins in 2008-09 to add some much-needed playoff experience to a team that lacked former champions.
Recchi played a huge part in the Bruins' championship run in 2011 as a top-six forward, a great leader, and a mentor to some of the squad's younger players such as star center Patrice Bergeron.
At this year's trade deadline, both Eastern Conference finalists (Bruins and Penguins) made moves to add playoff experiences to their rosters.
Pittsburgh acquired Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow, Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, San Jose Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray, and Carolina Hurricanes forward Jussi Jokinen. These moves added 216 games of postseason experience to a roster that already included several players with Stanley Cup rings.
Boston acquired two-time champion Jaromir Jagr from the Stars and veteran blueliner Wade Redden from the St. Louis Blues, which provided the Bruins with an additional 281 games of playoff experience.
When you look at the amount of postseason experience that these two teams have, it's not a surprise that Boston and Pittsburgh are the final two clubs standing in the East. It's impossible to quantify the impact that playoff experience has on teams at this time of the year, but it's certainly a valuable part.
No team since the 1988-89 Calgary Flames has won a championship with a roster that had zero players with previous Stanley Cup-winning experience.
Former champions generally set a great example for the younger players to follow, and they also serve as a calming presence for the inexperienced players who would normally panic in high-pressure situations late in games.
Teams that lack a good amount of playoff experience will always be at a disadvantage when the pressure and intensity in the pursuit of the Stanley Cup increases to levels far beyond what is found in the regular season.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained first hand.