The Road to the Stanley Cup

The Stanley Cup is the NHL's top trophy, and it's got the history to prove it. The Cup is the oldest competitive athletic trophy in all of North America. Originally named for the rather eccentric Lord Stanley, who took a liking to hockey and acted on the advice of his children when they told him he should make a trophy for it, the Cup has gone on to be coveted by every major NHL team on the roster.

In an interview with the folks over at NHL lines site Betway, New York Islanders legends Bobby Nystrom and Clark Gillies sat down to discuss what makes a team a Stanley Cup winner. According to Nystrom and Gillies, a friendly attitude, near misses for success, and consistency were all winning factors for the Islanders, and we think the Tampa Bay Lightning displayed those characteristics last year, too. So, what do these teams have that others don't? What, in short, does an NHL team need to win the trophy?

Strong goaltending

It should come as no surprise that a winning NHL team needs to have an impenetrable goaltending line. The best NHL goalies right now are masters of their nets; they know exactly where the puck is traveling and where they need to be in order to meet it. Even with a weak defensive line in front of them, great goalies can effortlessly stop shots in their tracks, and without a strong goalie, an NHL team will flounder significantly.

Team spirit

Whenever an NHL team takes home the Stanley Cup, the management always cites team spirit and team-building as imperative to success. There's a good reason for that; last year's Lightning squad played as if they were a single unit, fluidly moving, passing, and flawlessly intuiting when to take that shot. Off the ice, too, team dynamics are essential; if the players don't like each other, you can't expect them to work together.

A No. 1 defensive player

Many NHL teams play far too offensively, especially when they're edging towards victory and want to close the deal. The key is to keep a good defense up, even when it looks like the game is yours. Keeping defensemen back towards the net and never letting the opponent even see the goal is what separates a Stanley Cup-winning side from an also-ran, and every NHL team — even major players like the Lightning or the Avalanche — would do well to remember that.

Good mental health

The importance of strong mental health both on and off the ice is only just starting to be understood, but it can't be overstated. Last year's Tampa Bay Lightning team emphasized mental health and made sure that all of its players were in tip-top shape, not just physically, but mentally, too. A Stanley Cup-winning team can't ignore the mental fortitude of its players, so it's important for the team to talk it out and make sure all issues are on the table.

A conservative attacking element

Sometimes, it's good for an NHL team's attacking element to go all-out and just try to slam the puck home. However, a great attacker will know when to back off and play further towards the middle of the rink. Plays have been lost because attackers have been too cavalier, so a modicum of restraint and a conservative approach can work wonders, especially in a game as high-stakes as the Stanley Cup final.

Knowledge of the opposing team

Underestimate your opponent at your peril. NHL teams often come under fire for perceived arrogance, and if a team goes into the final thinking their win is already assured, that's when their weaknesses will be exploited and they'll end up losing. A great Stanley Cup-winning side always stays humble and knows there's never a guaranteed victory in hockey.

Versatility

A chameleonic approach to strategy has served many past Stanley Cup winners well. Versatility is one of the biggest compliments you can pay a hockey player, so it's important for your forward lines to have different strengths and to be able to play across the rink to a certain degree. Competition at this level is fierce, so being able to adapt to any situation is a must.

Less focus on power play

The advantages of power play should be obvious. One team is handicapped in terms of numbers, leaving the other to hypothetically run rampant around the rink. However, back in 2011 and 2012, the Stanley Cup winners' power play efficiency range was only around 11% to 12%, showing that it's not all about power play. Instead, it's about regular play and how you capitalize on that.

Fan support

An NHL team is, of course, nothing without its fans, as is the case for every major sporting discipline. With strong fan support and a good narrative behind a team, the support it receives could be enough to push it to play at the level needed to win the Stanley Cup. Of course, that's no substitute for practicing and knowing your enemy, but having that dedicated base behind you is important, as well.

A little luck

Finally, an NHL team needs just a little luck if it's going to win the Stanley Cup. Teams have lost despite being more skilled than their opponents, and it's sometimes down to just one play that could have gone slightly differently or one pre-game event that scuppers the favorite's chances. Luck can be a team's downfall or its crowning moment, so every NHL coach should try to cover all bases.

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