Tweaks to the playoff seeding system prior to the 1994 regular season awarded division winners with the top three spots in each conference, saving the final five positions for the next highest finishing teams. In the 19 seasons since, a division champion has made it to the Stanley Cup Finals every year but one, winning 15 of 19 times.
Realignment before the 2014 regular season reduced the number of divisions in each conference (from three to two) and introduced a revised playoff structure with teams playing through their division (with possible wildcard exceptions). For the purposes of this post we'll continue to ascribe conference standings to team seeding to test the importance of regular season finish on postseason performance.
The chart below describes Cup Finals since 1987 by seeding and outcome.
|Year||Stanley Cup Final Matchup|
|2013||(1) Chicago over (4) Boston|
|2012||(8) Los Angeles over (6) New Jersey|
|2011||(3) Boston over (1) Vancouver|
|2010||(2) Chicago over (7) Philadelphia|
|2009||(4) Pittsburgh over (2) Detroit|
|2008||(1) Detroit over (2) Pittsburgh|
|2007||(2) Anaheim over (4) Ottawa|
|2006||(2) Carolina over (8) Edmonton|
|2004||(1) Tampa Bay over (6) Calgary|
|2003||(2) New Jersey over (7) Anaheim|
|2002||(1) Detroit over (3) Carolina|
|2001||(1) Colorado over (1) New Jersey|
|2000||(4) New Jersey over (2) Dallas|
|1999||(1) Dallas over (7) Buffalo|
|1998||(2) Detroit over (4) Washington|
|1997||(3) Detroit over (2) Philadelphia|
|1996||(2) Colorado over (4) Florida|
|1995||(5) New Jersey over (1) Detroit|
|1994||(1) New York* over (7) Vancouver|
* New York Rangers
The only non-division winners to hoist the hardware since the new seeding scenario are New Jersey (5th seed in 1995, 4th seed in 2000), Pittsburgh (4th seed in 2009) and Los Angeles (8th seed in 2012). Interestingly, New Jersey and Pittsburgh both fell short as division champions in the Final (NJD 2001, PIT 2008), yet won as wildcards.
The Presidents' Trophy winner made the Final eight times during this span (NYR 1994, DET 1995, DAL 1999, COL 2001, DET 2002, DET 2008, VAN 2011, CHI 2013), claiming the Cup every time but twice (DET 1995, VAN 2011). Amazingly, only once have the top seeded teams in each conference met in the Final (2001). At the other end of the spectrum, Cinderellas seeded 6th or worse have found themselves there eight times (VAN 1994, BUF 1999, ANA 2003, CGY 2004, EDM 2006, PHI 2010), NJD 2012, LAK 2012). Only one has won (LAK 2012).
The 2012 Stanley Cup Final represented the NHL's first all-cinderella matchup during this span with the 8th seeded Kings defeating the 6th seeded Devils, to become the first ever 8th seeded team to win a major North American professional sports championship.
In short, unless you're the Devils, Penguins or unprecedented Kings, your best bet to sip from Lord Stanley's mug in the modern era rests with clinching your division (15 of 19 winners), leading your conference (7 of 19 winners) and taking the Presidents' Trophy (6 of 19 winners). That way, you'll have history on your side.
Cinderella teams tell an inspiring story but statistics show that clubs seeded 6th through 8th rarely qualify for the Final (8 of 38, 21% chance to qualify) and almost never go home a winner (1/38, 3% chance to win).
* See also NHL Playoff First Round Upsets.
* See also Presidents' Winners & Defending Cup Champions.