There’s a very good reason the clichés come flying out whenever you ask a hockey player about playoff seeding. They know their history.
The Flyers have a chance to get the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed with a win Saturday over Tampa Bay. They have shot up from the fourth seed in this unique tournament. After impressive wins over Boston and Washington, now it’s time to go for that top seed, right?
“I think it’s just important to play the right way,” Sean Couturier said, “and keep building on this momentum we’re gaining right now.”
In the 14 playoffs since 2006, you know how many of the Eastern Conference’s top seeds made it to the Stanley Cup Finals?
In the West, it’s three.
Coach Alain Vigneault said earlier this week that he’d like to get defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and maybe Mark Friedman into a game. Counting the July 28 exhibition, Ghost has played in three NHL games since Jan. 8. Friedman has played in two since Jan. 16.
The urgency to get the top seed is mitigated by the opportunity to get some others into the lineup. It’s why Connor Bunnaman replaced James van Riemsdyk on Thursday. Joel Farabee stepped in for injured winger Michael Raffl.
“If you do expect your team to have a long playoff push, obviously things have to fall into place,” Vigneault said Thursday night. “But you do need some depth, and tonight I was very happy with getting Joel in, and getting Bunny in. I thought both of those young men played well.”
They did. Bunnaman drew a penalty (and was whistled for a questionable one), and Farabee had a couple of scoring chances and was active on the forecheck.
Saturday also offers a chance to get another look at the power-play, which is 0-for-9 and where Gostisbehere would be most useful. Not to impugn the top six defensemen and their contributions in allowing just four goals in three games.
Vigneault regularly includes the exhibition game against Pittsburgh in his evaluations of his team. It could be a slight clue on how he feels about the round-robin games that actually count.
Tampa Bay has similar decisions to make. Team captain Steven Stamkos (lower-body injury) hasn’t played a game in Toronto, and coach Jon Cooper said he wanted to get backup goalie Curtis McElhinney into a game. Is he going to bench Andrei Vasilevskiy?
The NHL has given out the President’s Trophy to the best team during the regular season since 1985-86. Vigneault won it twice while he was in Vancouver. In 2010-11, the Canucks reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The following year, they were knocked out in the first round.
Seven of the last eight teams to win the Eastern Conference didn’t even win their division, which includes Vigneault’s 2013-14 Rangers. It’s six of eight in the West, including defending champion St. Louis, which finished third in the Central Division last season. The Blues beat Boston, which placed second to Tampa Bay last season in the Atlantic.
The Lightning were easily the best team in the regular season last year. Then they were swept by Columbus in the first round. Calgary, the top team in the West, also was knocked out in the first round.
“Yeah, we want to win,” Couturier said. “We want to finish with the highest possible seed. But I think as long as we’re at our best once the real playoffs start, that’s the biggest thing, I think.”
How the overall No. 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference have fared in the postseason.
2018-19: Tampa Bay, lost first round
2017-18: Tampa Bay, lost conference finals
2016-17: Washington, lost second round
2015-16: Washington, lost second round
2014-15: N.Y. Rangers, lost conference finals
2013-14: Boston, lost second round
2012-13: Pittsburgh, lost conference finals
2011-12: N.Y. Rangers, lost conference finals
2010-11: Washington, lost second round
2009-10: Washington, lost first round
2008-09: Boston, lost second round
2007-08: Montreal, lost second round
2006-07: Buffalo, lost conference finals
2005-06: Ottawa, lost second round
2004-05: Season canceled
2003-04: Tampa Bay, Won Stanley Cup