Among themotivational clichés used by every coach is one that helps lift spirits when aseason begins in a rut: It's not how you start; it's how you finish. So for ateam such as Anaheim, opening 4-5-1 might seem little cause for concern. "Idon't think they're in trouble," says
Detroit coach MikeBabcock.
Yet if past isprologue, the Ducks, who kissed the Cup two years ago, can already kiss theirtitle chances goodbye. Nine of the last 10 Stanley Cup winners had Octoberwinning percentages of .750 or higher, and the 1999-2000 Devils were at .636.Seven of those 10 champs led their conferences at the end of October.
Why is the firstmonth such a harbinger? "Once [the season] gets going, things roll prettyquick, and it's hard to make adjustments," says Anaheim defenseman ScottNiedermayer, a four-time Cup winner. "It's a lot easier to keep somethinggoing than to turn it around."
After anoff-season of scheming and a preseason of tinkering--getting one's Ducks in arow, as it were--most teams start off healthy, with their strengths and flawsexposed for the first time. For Anaheim offense could be an issue, as the teamwas averaging 2.78 goals a game through Sunday; top forwards Chris Kunitz, RyanGetzlaf and Corey Perry had four goals between them, and the power play was27th in the league. Several other clubs with Cup aspirations, including theFlyers (2-3-3), Senators (2-5-1) and Stars (3-4-2), suffered from defensiveshortcomings that may be difficult to overcome.
By contrast,strong starts by the Sabres (6-0-2) and Rangers (8-2-1) in the EasternConference, and by the Wild (5-0-1), Wings (6-1-1) and Sharks (7-2-0) in theWestern, augur a lasting impact beyond the obvious help in the points race."You just know you're defining yourself," says Rangers coach Tom Renneyof playing well early in a season. "Your game is becoming more precise, andyou're becoming some type of contender."
First-monthsuccess can also cover for the inevitable mid- or late-season lapse. After theRed Wings began last season 13-2-1, for example, they could brush off a 4-8-2slide in February. "If that [slump] had happened in October, we would'venever been as good a team because we wouldn't have earned the confidence,"Babcock says.
That helps explainwhy a hot start has been a far better indicator of a team's Cup worthiness thanits regular-season finish. The adage about the team that's best at the endbeing ripe for a Cup run doesn't hold. The average win percentage from Februaryto season's end for those past 10 Cup winners is .629, not close to the .801average in the season's first four weeks (chart, above).
"You don't winthe Stanley Cup in October," Stars forward Sean Avery told reporters lastweek. True, but a good first month can go a long way.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
How the Last 10Cup Winners Started and Finished
ONLY AT SI.COM Michael Farber's On the Fly.
MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS (PERRY)
Anaheim winger Corey Perry, decked by the Leafs' Luke Schenn, had only one goalthrough nine games.