Regular-Season Success Means Nothing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Just Ask the Bruins.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Back in early February, during the tail end of a five-game road trip, longtime Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand chatted at length with the Toronto Maple Leafs media. He chirped Mitch Marner, praised the Leafs roster, and said all the right things about his own team and their prospects for Stanley Cup contention. “Yeah, we have a good team,” Marchand said, “and we’re on top of the league. But it doesn’t mean anything come playoff time. It’s just like the eighth-place team come playoffs. We’re starting from scratch.”

As the season continued and the Bruins kept winning, though, it felt like Boston was working with only the finest ingredients. The team won more games than any NHL team before—65 wins out of a possible 82—making a simple Presidents’ Trophy almost feel like not enough of a prize. Their plus-128 goal differential was nearly double that of the next-closest team, the Dallas Stars. Their worst losing stretch was three games in a row, which happened only once. (The streak ended with that Toronto game.)

Winger David Pastrnak scored 61 goals (previous best: 48) including this one and this one and, jeez Louise, this one and tied for third in the NHL in points, behind only the highest of octane Oilers twins.

Pasta was one of eight Boston players to equal or set career bests for goals in a season, including Linus Ullmark, the team’s no. 1 goalie whose rather spunky score in February came in the midst of a merry 10-game win streak.

The Bruins won 15 of their final 16 regular-season games and rolled into the playoffs facing a Florida Panthers team that had finished 43 points behind them in the standings. According to BetMGM, nearly half of all Stanley Cup bets placed with them picked the Presidents’ Trophy awardees to win the whole tournament. And Boston rolled early, winning Game 4 in Florida just over a week ago to grab a 3-1 series lead and the opportunity to cap off a gentleman’s sweep back in Boston.

Instead, the Panthers clawed back, coming up 4-3 in overtime in Game 5. They piled on goal after goal after goal in a 7-5 home victory in Game 6, leading to a shakeup in the Bruins’ net. And they tied Game 7 on the road with a minute to play before stunning the Bruins in another TD Garden overtime upset. And with that, Boston went from being the winningest team in hockey history to seeing its chances of winning it all go back down to scratch. The Bruins also became just the latest team to say the same.

In 2019, the suave Tampa Bay Lightning tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings’ 62-win record before being straight-up swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Those Red Wings didn’t win the Cup that year, either, though they managed to win two series before being eliminated.) The Bruins also joined a less exclusive, but still excruciating, club: teams that have won the Presidents’ Trophy and then lost in the playoffs’ opening round. (Boston is now the seventh team since 2000 to have done so.) Not since a decade ago, when the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup in a lockout-shortened season, has a franchise managed to calmly finish tops in the regular season and in the playoffs too.

“We’re shocked and disappointed,” veteran Patrice Bergeron, who was playing the series with a herniated disk, told reporters Sunday night. “It’s very emotional,” added Pastrnak. “You never know. You can’t stop time.” Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery called the loss “stupefying.” In hockey fan parlance, we like to declare this sort of thing a curse.

The Presidents’ Trophy was first minted at the start of the 1985-86 campaign, and in the years before the NHL lockout that disappeared the 2004-05 season, earning the league’s best record put teams in pretty great shape. Of the 19 pre-lockout teams who won the regular-season hardware, eight either went on to win the Cup or lost in the final, and only two fell in the first round.

In the 18 seasons since, though, that’s nearly been reversed. Six Presidents’ Trophy winners have failed to advance past the first round (and another seven, including Boston in the weird 2020 bubble season, were eliminated in the second). Only two teams have won the Cup, while a third lost in the championship. (The Vancouver Canucks have the ignominious honor of winning back-to-back regular-season titles before losing in both Game 7 of a Cup final one year, to the Bruins, and in the first round the next.)

Whatever the reason—increased post-lockout parity? Revised divisions and playoff formats? The existence of Sergei Bobrovsky, who has now been in goal for two underdog teams that have upset the regular-season champs?—winning the Presidents’ Trophy feels a little bit like being up two goals in the third period, the so-called “most dangerous lead in hockey.” Increasingly, it feels more like an anchor than an accolade.

But maybe it is just best viewed as part of the natural life cycle of an NHL contender. One issue I remember the Tampa Bay Lightning having in 2019 is that they were almost too quick to point out that the regular season means nothing, much like what Marchand said earlier this season in Toronto. This is a sign of veteran experience, and it’s the kind of discipline you’d expect in a Cup-bound team. But at the same time, such workmanlike there’s a lot of hockey left to play vibes aren’t always an asset during the raucous opening rounds of the playoffs. Often the team that comes in playing as though there probably isn’t a lot of hockey left for them is the one that winds up climbing the ladder of chaos. It’s not just the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners who have become self-aware. It’s also their opponents, who have caught on to the idea that being the best can also be a bit of a bag-skate.

As ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski pointed out on Sunday, Florida Panthers center Carter Verhaeghe, who scored the Game 7 overtime winner, made a telling remark following the game: “They had a crazy regular season,” Verhaeghe said. “But the playoffs are completely different. I mean, we had a crazy regular season last year and it really didn’t amount to anything.” Last season, it was those same Florida Panthers who finished first in the NHL standings and then fell in the playoffs’ second round.

They lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had etched their place in Presidents’ Trophy infamy in 2019. The Lightning did manage to quickly reverse their fortunes, winning back-to-back Cups in 2020 and 2021 and getting back to the Cup final a third straight time last season. But there, they lost to the Colorado Avalanche—one year after the Avs had a disappointing post–Presidents’ Trophy playoff appearance of their own.

Each year, fortune freezes and thaws. The Seattle Kraken managed to win a playoff series for the first time in their limited franchise’s history on Sunday. Both the Lightning and the Avalanche are out of the playoffs following this weekend’s games. And now so are the Bruins, whose loss could mean the end of an era, depending on what Bergeron and David Krejci decide to do next. It was less than a week ago that the Bruins were riding high, and less than a week ago that Marchand had the game on his stick.

In Game 5, with the score tied 3-3 and the Bruins needing just one win to move on, Marchand was sprung on a breakaway. Bobrovsky came up with the surprise save, Florida went on to win in overtime, and the Bruins, for only the second time this season, went on to lose three games in a row. “We live to fight another day,” said the Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk following the game, “another few weeks.” Marchand said the miss will “stick with me forever.”

It took the Bruins months of hard work, discipline, focus, and making-your-own-luck to win that Presidents’ Trophy. To lose in the playoffs, however, all it took was an instant.

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