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Crowning the Challenge Cup Champions

Looking back at the regular season through an interesting historical lens.

2019 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic - Calgary Flames v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/NHLI via Getty Images

The Stanley Cup is a fascinating trophy for a variety of reasons. It is older than the league that gives it out, there are many stories of it getting lost or thrown in pools, and you can drink beer out of it.

One part of its history that has always fascinated me is that it started as a challenge cup. Since there wasn’t just one league another champion from another league could challenge the reigning champion and there were often multiple champions in a single calendar year.

With NHL games currently being suspended due to coronavirus, I had way too much time on my hands so I re-imagined the regular season using that as a template. It’s not a perfect comparison since NHL teams are in the same league and thus would not be able to challenge for the Challenge Cup in the same season. I’m also allowing wins via shootout, which may bother hockey purists who are concerned about the integrity of this hypothetical thought experiment.

For this, I looked at the regular season, with the St. Louis Blues starting as the Champion. The Blues lost their first game of the season to the Washington Capitals, making the Capitals the new Challenge Cup Champion. The Capitals remained Challenge Champion until they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes, and on and on for the rest of the season.

The Challenge Cup Winners

Date New Champion Winning Score Win Streak Ending
Date New Champion Winning Score Win Streak Ending
10/2 Washington Capitals 3-2 OT 0
10/5 Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 OT 1
10/12 Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 3
10/18 Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 OT 1
10/20 Washington Capitals 5-3 0
10/24 Edmonton Oilers 4-3 OT 1
10/27 Florida Panthers 6-2 0
10/28 Vancouver Canucks 7-2 0
11/1 Anaheim Ducks 2-1 OT 1
11/3 Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 OT 0
11/5 San Jose Sharks 4-2 0
11/19 Edmonton Oilers 5-2 5
11/21 Los Angeles Kings 5-1 0
11/23 Arizona Coyotes 3-2 0
11/24 Edmonton Oilers 4-3 SO 0
11/27 Colorado Avalanche 4-1 0
12/9 Calgary Flames 5-4 OT 5
12/14 Carolina Hurricanes 4-0 2
12/21 Florida Panthers 4-2 2
12/23 Tampa Bay Lightning 6-1 0
1/12 New Jersey Devils 3-1 9
1/14 Toronto Maple Leafs 7-4 0
1/16 Calgary Flames 2-1 SO 0
1/18 Ottawa Senators 5-2 0
1/27 New Jersey Devils 4-3 SO 0
1/30 Nashville Predators 6-5 SO 0
2/1 Vegas Golden Knights 3-0 0
2/4 Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 0
2/20 Vegas Golden Knights 5-3 7
3/1 Los Angeles Kings 4-1 4

There are a few interesting details with this thought experiment. The biggest being that the St. Louis Blues lost to the previous year’s champion the Washington Capitals in their first game and didn’t win back the Challenge Cup at any point during the season.

The Arizona Coyotes did win the Challenge Cup at one point during the season, defeating their division rivals the Los Angeles Kings late in November. They weren’t able to defend the Challenge Cup for long though and lost to the Edmonton Oilers the very next day in a shootout.

Eighteen of the NHL’s thirty-one teams win under this format. The Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vegas Golden Knights, and Washington Capitals all won the Challenge Cup twice and the Edmonton Oilers won three times.

While the Oilers won the most, the Lightning were the clear winners at defending the Challenge Cup. Their wins came early into fairly long win streaks, and while most teams weren’t able to defend the Challenge Cup for one game, they had two impressive streaks of seven and nine games.

Also under this method, many of the worst teams in the league ended up winning the Cup. The New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, and all of the California teams are at the bottom of their respective divisions and yet most of them were multiple Challenge Cup Champions.

If there are any more regulars season games this season then Kings will be able to defend the Challenge Cup and their four-game win streak.