Hockeymetrics: The Importance of Getting in Playoff Position Before the New Year

If recent history is any indication, Adam Burish, Karlis Skrastins, and Steve Ott have the Stars well positioned to end their two year playoff drought (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

For this edition of Hockeymetrics, I took advantage of the research capabilities afforded to me by a website I stumbled across last week called ShrpSports.

With the NHL schedule being 82 games, its hard to believe that being in playoff position at the halfway point seems to be of utmost importance. Yet, that's exactly what recent history tells us in the post lockout era.

Last season, the Detroit Red Wings were on the outside looking in as the calendar flipped to 2010. In fact, the Dallas Stars had a 1 point lead on them at the time.

Their malaise continued through to the Olympic Break. Unfortunately for Dallas, that's when they picked things up and left other clubs in their dust. And Dallas? Well, we all can painfully remember that March swoon that sent the Stars to their second consecutive season without post season hockey.

Still, the Red Wings were the only Western Conference club not in playoff position on January 1st to make the playoffs last season, supplanting Calgary who were in the 6th seed when 2010 began only to miss the playoffs by five points.

And if you go back to the 2008-09 season, six teams that were in playoff spots as of January 1, 2009, went on to make the playoffs. Colorado was one of those teams in playoff position sitting in 8th by a point before injuries to their top players, including Joe Sakic, took their toll. By season's end, the Avalanche were in dead last by 10 points.

On the flip side, St. Louis was in last place in the West as the calendar flipped over to 2009 with a mark of 14-20-3. They rolled to a mark of 27-11-7 en route to the 5th seed before getting swept by Vancouver. Columbus was the second team that season to rally to a playoff spot, their first in history. But like their Central Division rivals, the Blue Jackets were also swept in the first round by the 2nd seeded Detroit Red Wings.

And as we look at previous seasons, we pretty much see that trend continues.

In 2007-08, 7 of the 8 teams that were in playoff spots on January 1 went on to make the playoffs with Nashville rallying to make it and Vancouver stumbling to fall out of the playoff picture.

In 2006-07, Anaheim, Nashville, Detroit, San Jose, Dallas, Minnesota, Calgary, and Vancouver were your top 8 in the West on January 1, 2007. All eight of those teams went on to make the playoffs that season.

And in the first season after the lockout, 6 of the 8 teams in playoff position on January 1, 2006 made the playoffs with Los Angeles and Vancouver failing to hold onto their spots and San Jose and Anaheim being the beneficiaries.

So in the last five seasons, only six Western Conference teams that were out of the playoffs on New Year's Day have been able to rally in the unofficial second half of the season. 34 have been able to maintain their hold on a playoff spot.

And the good news for the Stars is they are six points up on 9th place Anaheim and Nashville. And they're battling Detroit for the top spot in the West right now with a meeting at home on Wednesday on the horizon after a quick visit to Nashville on Tuesday night.

But just how important is it to be in the top spot in the West when the calendar flips over to a new year? Well, if your goal is stay there at the end of the season, it's very important.

The team that held the top seed in the West kept it in 7 of the last last 10 seasons going back to the 1999-00 season. The exceptions occurred in 1999-00, 2002-03, and 2006-07.

In 2000, the Red Wings held the top spot with 55 points and had a 7 point lead over St. Louis. In the unofficial second half of the season, the Blues reeled off 29 wins to overtake the Wings by six points by season's end.

Of course, this was the last season the Stars defended a Stanley Cup Championship. And by New Year's Eve that season, they were floundering with a 18-14-5-1 mark, good for only 42 points and 5th in the West that year. Recall that by the start of November, they were actually in last place in the Pacific Division.

And then Brett Hull hauled off and scored his 500th career goal just before the ball dropped in Times Square. Then for good measure, he added his 501st as the game winner against Anaheim that night to help propel the Stars into 2000, where they would win 23 games, win the Pacific Division, and grab that ever important second seed that came in real handy against Colorado in the Western Conference Finals.

In 2002-03, the Red Wings held down the top spot by two points over Dallas, 52-50, as the calendar flipped to 2003. Detroit continued it's torrid run to the end of the season and actually finished with the most wins of any team in the NHL that year with 48. But Dallas, which finished with an NHL low 17 regulation losses, nipped Detroit at the wire by a point to claim the top seed in the West.

And in 2006-07, the Anaheim Ducks appeared to be running away with the top spot in the West, holding a 7 point lead over Nashville and 9 point lead over Detroit on New Year's Day.  But Anaheim floundered in the second half only winning 20 games from this point on and actually allowed Dallas and San Jose to jump back into the race for the division. They also allowed the Red Wings to overtake them for the top seed.

Granted, they had the last laugh, beating the Red Wings, 4-2, in the WCF to go on to the Stanley Cup Finals where they beat Ottawa in five games to claim their first Cup.

And as I mentioned at the top, this only seems to matter if your goal is grabbing the top seed before the playoffs start. Neither the 1999-00 Blues, the 2002-03 Stars, or the 2006-07 Red Wings even made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. In fact, the Blues got bounced in the first round in seven games by the San Jose Sharks while the Stars were eliminated in six games in the second round by Anaheim in 2003.

Still, after two years of missing the playoffs, Stars fans would gladly accept this challenge, and maybe even the trend, if it guarantees ending a two year playoff drought.

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