The President’s Trophy is handed out every NHL season to the franchise with the highest total points at the completion of the regular season. The assumption can be made that the regular season champion’s success would continue long into the playoffs, considering that team is guaranteed the number one seeding throughout and begin the playoffs playing against the lowest ranked team. Over the past nineteen National Hockey League seasons, this assumption has proven to not be a sure thing.
On five occasions over the past nineteen years, the President’s Trophy winner has been upset in the opening series at the hands of that eighth place team. Four of the five have occurred in the past ten seasons.
In 1990-91, the Chicago Black Hawks were number one in the NHL with 106 points, a single point more than their division rival, the St. Louis Blues. Possibly it was this heated rivalry with the Blues that tired out Chicago or perhaps it was just that they ran up against a suddenly hot red Minnesota North Stars squad. They succumbed to Minnesota four games to two. Minnesota, despite only 27 wins during the regular season, went on to the Stanley Cup finals before losing out to Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
The phenomenon would happen next in 1999-00. The St. Louis Blues won the President’s Trophy with 113 points. Next down the line were their division rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, with 108. St. Louis lost to the San Jose Sharks in seven games. San Jose was exhausted from the long series with the Blues and was beat out by Dallas in five games in the following round.
2005-06 saw the Detroit Red Wings have one of the greatest seasons in National Hockey League history. Their 124 points on 58 wins was eleven points better than the next team in the overall standings, the Ottawa Senators. The Red Wings were taken down by a feisty Edmonton Oilers team in six games. Edmonton went on to the Stanley Cup finals and took the Carolina Hurricanes to seven games before finally bowing out.
For the past two seasons, the President’s Trophy winner has lost in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Two seasons ago, it was the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks had 117 points in the regular season, one point more than the Boston Bruins. Boston wouldn’t go much further, falling in the next round. The Sharks were knocked out in six games by the Anaheim Ducks. Like the Bruins, the Ducks would also bow out in the second round.
This past season, the Washington Capitals cruised through the regular season with 121 points. Second place went to the past year’s President’s Trophy winner, the San Jose Sharks, with 112 points. Washington was ousted by the Montreal Canadiens in seven games. Montreal continued on to the Conference finals before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers four games to one.
Why does this happen so often? There are several possible reasons. It can be exhausting work to keep winning at the pace needed to lead the league and fatigue can set it at just the wrong time when every other team in the league is trying to knock you down. Injuries can take their toll after a gruelling season. Playoff hockey is simply different hockey. A hot goalie or hot scorer can spell doom.