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Down and Out?
Sarah Kwak
November 03, 2008
The numbers show that a weak October haunts teams that have Stanley Cup ambitions--bad news for the Ducks
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November 03, 2008

Down And Out?

The numbers show that a weak October haunts teams that have Stanley Cup ambitions--bad news for the Ducks

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STANLEY CUP CHAMPS WINNING PERCENTAGE
Year Team Oct. Feb.- April
2007–08 Detroit .808 .583
2006–07 Anaheim .875 .633
2005–06 Carolina .773 .567
2003–04 Tampa Bay .929 .726
2002–03 New Jersey .750 .609
2001–02 Detroit .846 .741
2000–01 Colorado .833 .650
1999–00 New Jersey .636 .516
1998–99 Dallas .778 .653
1997–98 Detroit .786 .607

Among the motivational clichés used by every coach is one that helps lift spirits when a season begins in a rut: It's not how you start; it's how you finish. So for a team such as Anaheim, opening 4-5-1 might seem little cause for concern. "I don't think they're in trouble," says

Detroit coach Mike Babcock.

Yet if past is prologue, the Ducks, who kissed the Cup two years ago, can already kiss their title chances goodbye. Nine of the last 10 Stanley Cup winners had October winning percentages of .750 or higher, and the 1999-2000 Devils were at .636. Seven of those 10 champs led their conferences at the end of October.

Why is the first month such a harbinger? "Once [the season] gets going, things roll pretty quick, and it's hard to make adjustments," says Anaheim defenseman Scott Niedermayer, a four-time Cup winner. "It's a lot easier to keep something going than to turn it around."

After an off-season of scheming and a preseason of tinkering--getting one's Ducks in a row, as it were--most teams start off healthy, with their strengths and flaws exposed for the first time. For Anaheim offense could be an issue, as the team was averaging 2.78 goals a game through Sunday; top forwards Chris Kunitz, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry had four goals between them, and the power play was 27th in the league. Several other clubs with Cup aspirations, including the Flyers (2-3-3), Senators (2-5-1) and Stars (3-4-2), suffered from defensive shortcomings that may be difficult to overcome.

By contrast, strong starts by the Sabres (6-0-2) and Rangers (8-2-1) in the Eastern Conference, and by the Wild (5-0-1), Wings (6-1-1) and Sharks (7-2-0) in the Western, augur a lasting impact beyond the obvious help in the points race. "You just know you're defining yourself," says Rangers coach Tom Renney of playing well early in a season. "Your game is becoming more precise, and you're becoming some type of contender."

First-month success can also cover for the inevitable mid- or late-season lapse. After the Red Wings began last season 13-2-1, for example, they could brush off a 4-8-2 slide in February. "If that [slump] had happened in October, we would've never been as good a team because we wouldn't have earned the confidence," Babcock says.

That helps explain why a hot start has been a far better indicator of a team's Cup worthiness than its regular-season finish. The adage about the team that's best at the end being ripe for a Cup run doesn't hold. The average win percentage from February to season's end for those past 10 Cup winners is .629, not close to the .801 average in the season's first four weeks (chart, above).

"You don't win the Stanley Cup in October," Stars forward Sean Avery told reporters last week. True, but a good first month can go a long way.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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