The NHL playoffs are just a week away, which means the crystal balls are getting dusted off by armchair GMs and learned prognosticators alike.
With a few games to go, the Nashville Predators lead a tight Presidents Trophy race with 113 points. They are followed by a troika of teams with 110 points, including Boston, Tampa Bay and Winnipeg.
The Presidents Trophy is a nice to have — conferring home ice advantage throughout the post-season marathon — but can also be the Kiss of Death. Just ask the Washington Capitals, especially the 2009-10 version (more on them later).
Since expansion and beyond, there have been quite a few regular season Goliaths sent to undignified defeat by relative Davids. And that is what makes playoff hockey — so much different than its regular season counterpart — so exciting and unpredictable.
Here are 20 embarrassing defeats suffered by NHL front-runners in the first round of the playoffs (in chronological order with seed in brackets).
20. Edmonton Oilers (14) Defeat Montreal Canadiens (3) – 1981
In 1981, the NHL didn’t have the complicated — and sometimes unfair — system it does now. The league had 20 teams, with 16 making the playoffs. And those 16 teams were ranked 1-16, with the no. 1 seed playing no. 16 and down the list. That season, the upstart Edmonton Oilers, led by regular season scoring champ Wayne Gretzky, finished 14th with just 74 points in 80 games. The mighty Habs, just two years removed from a winning the fourth of four straight Stanley Cups, waltzed into the post-season with the third best record in the league and 103 points. On paper, it was a mis-match, as Montreal still had a slew of holdovers from the dynasty years, including Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Steve Shutt. Well, things did not go the way the Canadiens planned at all as the high-flying Oilers swept Montreal in three straight games, by a combined score of 15-6. Gretzky, then all of 20, scored three goal and seven assists in those three games.
19. Los Angeles Kings (8) Beat Edmonton Oilers (1) – 1982
One year after sending the Montreal Canadiens packing in the first round of the playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers found themselves as the no. 1 seed in the newly formed Smythe Division of the Clarence Campbell Conference. They earned 111 points to be Campbell champs, while fellow Smythe rivals, the Los Angeles Kings limped into the playoffs with 63 points (worst among all playoff teams) as the fourth seed in the Smythe. Just like the mighty Canadiens team the Oilers vanquished in 1981, Edmonton was a star-studded squad on the way up. The Kings, on the other hand, had one good line — the Triple Crown — that consisted of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer and that was about it. But, someone forgot to tell the Kings they were the underdogs. They pasted the mighty Oilers 10-8 in the first game, lost 3-2 in OT in game 2, then forced the Oilers to the wall with a 6-5 OT thriller (they came back from 5-0) dubbed “the Miracle On Manchester” in game 3. The Oilers tied it all up with a narrow 3-2 victory in game 4, forcing a game 5 back in Edmonton. The Kings and the Triple Crown line put the pedal to the metal in game 5 to win it, 7-4.
18. Montreal Canadiens (8) Drop Boston Bruins (1) – 1984
In the 1980s, the old Adams Division was a powerful one, what with Montreal, Boston, Quebec, Buffalo and Hartford all vying for supremacy. Heading into the playoffs, Montreal snuck in with the fewest points (75) in the former Prince of Wales Conference, fully 29 points behind the Boston Bruins, who topped the Adams and were tied with the defending champion New York Islanders with 104 points. In a short best-of-five series, this was supposed to be a cakewalk for the Bruins. They had a young Ray Bourque on defence and established gunners in Barry Pederson and Rick Middleton. The Habs, meanwhile, were all faded glory, with many former aging Cup winners such as Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt and Bob Gainey. And then Steve Penney happened. The unheralded netminder, who had all of four games of NHL experience under his belt, allowed just two goals on 76 total shots to lead Montreal to a stunning sweep of the Bruins. He capped his miracle run with a 19-save shutout in a 5-0 game three victory.
17. Toronto Maple Leafs (8) Upend Chicago Blackhawks (3) – 1986
Again in the old divisional format, the sub .500 Leafs, with all of 57 points, faced the Norris Division leading Blackhawks, who had 86 points (which was third best in the Campbell Conference). Toronto won just 25 of 80 games and allowed 386 goals. Their leading scorer was Miroslav Frycer (who?!) and their “best” goalie, Ken Wregget, had a 4.33 goals against average. Chicago, on the other hand, had three 40 goal scorers, including Denis Savard, Al Secord and Troy Murray. This five-game series shouldn’t have been anywhere near close. But, a quartet of young Leafs, including Steve Thomas (22), Gary Leeman (21), Russ Courtnall (20) and Wendel Clark (19), played big parts in a high-scoring three-game sweep. Thomas led all scorers in the series with four goals and seven points, while Leeman had six points, Courtnall five and a teenaged Clark chipped in three goals. Wregget was full value in goal — back in the days of skinny pads — allowing just nine goals on a whopping 108 shots in the series.
16. New York Rangers (8) Down Philadelphia Flyers (1) – 1986
It was a heck of a year, 1986, for upsets in the NHL playoffs. While the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs were sweeping aside Chicago over in the Campbell Conference, the eighth-seeded Rangers had similar designs on the NHL’s second best team, the Philadelphia Flyers. Philly, which had gone to the Stanley Cup finals a year earlier, compiled 110 points in 1985-86, 32 more than the Blueshirts. Tim Kerr (97 points), Brian Propp (58 goals) and veteran defenceman Mark Howe fronted a deep and talented team backstopped by a pretty good netminder in Bob Froese. The Rangers, who were swept by the Flyers in the 1985 playoffs, weren’t nearly as talented up front and would rely on a then young John Vanbiesbrouck to carry them. On paper, at least, it was a mismatch. In a thrilling and rough five-game series, the Rangers seemed to score at will, with youngsters Mike Ridley (seven points) and Bob Brooke (eight points) helping light up the Flyers’ Froese for 15 goals.
15. Los Angeles Kings (8) Stun Calgary Flames (1) – 1990
The Flames rode high into the 1989-90 season, fresh off their first Stanley Cup championship and finished the year with the most points in the old Campbell Conference with 99. They sported no fewer than five future Hall of Famers, including Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnis and Doug Gilmour and were big enough and tough enough to tangle with anyone. Facing them in the first round were the L.A. Kings, who had superstars Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille, but had a losing record and snuck into the post-season with 75 points. However, the Flames, who may have been feeling the effects of the “Stanley Cup Hangover” should have known better than to get into a run-and-gun series with the high-powered Kings. Los Angeles got goals from 13 different players and won the series in six games. They got five goals from Tony Granato and four each to Robitaille, Tomas Sandstrom and veteran Dave Taylor, while Gretzky had the most points on his team with nine. In the penultimate game four, with L.A up 2-1, the Kings scored nine times on 23 shots against Rick Walmsley to win 12-4. The Flames did win game five, but never really recovered.
14. Minnesota North Stars (8) Shock Chicago Blackhawks (1) – 1991
This one goes down as a true David and Goliath nightmare for the Blackhawks, who won the Presidents Trophy during the 1990-91 season and finished a whopping 38 points ahead of the mediocre North Stars. The Hawks, who lost to the Edmonton Oilers in the 1990 Stanley Cup finals, were determined to shake off the nasty taste of that defeat. They had superstars like Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Steve Larmer and superstar goalie Ed Belfour in net and heading into the post-season looked unstoppable. The North Stars finished well below .500 and didn’t have near the scoring or netminding the Hawks could roll out. A harbinger of things to come was an overtime victory by Minnesota in game 1. The Hawks rebounded to take games 2 and 3, scoring 11 goals. However, unheralded North Stars goalie Casey allowed just two goals over the final three games and Brian Bellows had two goals and six assists in that span to pace Minnesota to a huge 4-2 upset.
13. St. Louis Blues (8) Sweep Chicago Blackhawks (1) – 1993
The Blackhawks had an alarming trend in the early 1990s. In 1990, they went to the Stanley Cup finals against Edmonton and followed it up with a shocking first round loss in 1991. They shook off that embarrassing ’91 defeat to go all the way to the 1992 finals, where they lost to Pittsburgh. In 1993, they hit the repeat button, this time against the eighth-seeded St. Louis Blues in the first round. The Blackhawks, who finished with 106 points, still had virtually the same roster that went to the 1991 finals, including Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios and Ed Belfour. Facing them in Blues uniforms were a pair of 50-goal scorers in Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan and a younger Curtis Joseph in net. The Blues finished 21 points back of Chicago and didn’t appear to be a threat. Appearances, though, meant nothing. The Blues knocked off the Hawks in their own noisy barn, 4-3 in game 1 and never looked back. Hull would score five of his team’s 13 goals and add three assists, while Joseph posted back-to-back shutouts in games 2 and 3 (stopping 81 total shots) as St. Louis whitewashed their Norris Division foes.
12. Buffalo Sabres (8) Trip Up Boston Bruins (2) – 1993
While St. Louis was staging an epic upset of Chicago in the old Campbell Conference playoffs, the Buffalo Sabres were having one on archnemesis Boston in the Wales. The Sabres entered the 1993 playoffs with the fewest points in the Wales Conference at 86, while Boston blew in with 109. Making matters seem even more dire, Buffalo had lost to Boston in the first round in three of the previous five post-seasons. The Bruins were a veteran team with plenty of scoring (Adam Oates had 142 points that year) and had been to the Conference finals in the two previous seasons and the Stanley Cup finals in 1990. The Sabres were a little younger and had Pat Lafontaine (148 points) and a young Alex Mogilny (76 goals) in their line-up. Veteran goaltending, though, would win the day, as Buffalo’s Grant Fuhr, who knew a thing or two about winning in the playoffs, picked up wins in three of the four games the Sabres needed to dispose of Boston, including a shutout in game 2. Dominik Hasek, a newbie in Buffalo, posted the other victory as the Sabres absolutely stunned Boston.
11. San Jose Sharks (8) Clip Detroit Red Wings (1) – 1994
The San Jose Sharks, for the first two years of their existence, were a deplorable hockey club. In 164 games over two seasons (1991-92 and 1992-93) they won all of 28 and tied seven, finishing dead last in the old Smythe Division both times. In 1993-94, the improving Sharks finished eighth in the Western Conference with 82 points, a full 18 points behind no. 1 seed Detroit. This was a powerful Red Wings team on the rise that sported Sergei Fedorov, Paul Coffey, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Osgood and Steve Yzerman. The Sharks had a fairly no-name bunch fronted by leading scorer Sergei Makarov, who was an old man at 35 then. The Wings and Sharks traded close victories in a series many expected the Wings to sweep, except the Sharks took a 3-2 lead into game 6 at the Joe. The Wings, behind a two-goal, three-point effort from Dino Ciccarelli, whipped the Sharks 7-1 and put to bed any notion the Sharks would win the series. Only the Sharks had other ideas, winning a thrilling game 7 on a goal from little known journeyman forward Jamie Baker in the dying minutes of the third period.
10. New York Rangers (8) Beat Quebec Nordiques (1) – 1995
In what was the final season of NHL hockey in Quebec City, the Nordiques couldn’t write the proper ending. They topped the Eastern Conference in the lockout shortened 1994-95 campaign with 65 points, 18 ahead of their first round opponent, the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers. The Nords boasted plenty of scoring talent, including youngsters Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Owen Nolan, while the older Rangers were led by warhorses like Mark Messier. Sakic and Forsberg would figure in some championships when the team moved to Colorado, but they couldn’t give the Quebec fans a last playoff run they deserved. They won the first game 5-4 as Sakic scored three times, but then dropped three in a row en route to a soul-crushing 4-2 series loss. A young Alex Kovalev and veteran defenceman Brian Leetch of the Rangers were giant killers, both recording a series leading nine points.
9. Edmonton Oilers (7) Nip Dallas Stars (2) – 1997
Before they could become the Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars in 1999, they had to overcome the adversity of a first round upset two years earlier. The ’97 Stars were a team on the rise, ably led by future Hall of Famers and playoff warriors Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk and Pat Verbeek. They finished second to Presidents Cup champion Colorado with 104 points, while their first round opponent that year, Edmonton, mustered just 81 to sneak in. After many years as top dog, this Oilers team wasn’t near as star-studded, featuring Ryan Smyth, Doug Weight and Curtis Joseph in net. Dallas grabbed game 1 by a 5-3 count, but in game 2, the Oilers’ Joseph stole the show, stopping all 25 shots he faced in a 4-0 win. In game 3, Cujo again shone, making 39 saves as the Oilers won 4-3 in overtime. Dallas fought back again to knot the series at 2-2 in game 4, but Smyth, Joseph and the Oilers provided the dagger in game 5, even though the series would take seven to complete the upset. In a hotly contested match, Cujo turned aside all 43 Dallas shots and Smyth fired the winner in the second overtime period to win it.
8. Ottawa Senators (8) Down New Jersey Devils (1) – 1998
After winning their first Stanley Cup in 1995, the New Jersey Devils announced loudly to the NHL that they had arrived after years of playoff futility. They didn’t follow it up with success, missing the playoffs in 1996. They would come back to play two rounds in 1997 after a 104 point season and in 1997-98 they topped the Eastern Conference with 107 points, setting up a date with eighth place Ottawa in the first round. The Devils were loaded with talent that year, including future Hall of Famers Doug Gilmour, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and of course Martin Brodeur. The Senators, on the other hand, were a few years removed from being a horrible expansion club and had youngsters Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson coming into their own. The Senators would get three goals apiece from this dynamic duo, as well as hot goaltending from Damian Rhodes to stun the Devils in six games.
7. San Jose Sharks (8) Crush St. Louis Blues (1) – 2000
The San Jose Sharks, always a bridesmaid, never a bride, know enough about horrible early exits from the playoffs. But, in one stunning, see-saw seven-game battle, they beat the Presidents Trophy winning St. Louis Blues in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. The Sharks won 35 games in 1999-00, finishing in eighth in the Western Conference with 87 points, 27 behind front-running St. Louis. The Blues didn’t score a lot, but they did have great defence headed by Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger and good goaltending from Roman Turek (1.95 goals against average). The Sharks had a gunner in Owen Nolan (44 goals that year), but a largely no-name defence and averaging netminding with Steve Shields in a starting role. The Blues did score more than usual in the thrilling seven-game set, but the Sharks were up to the task and finally broke the favored St. Louis club in game 7, scoring three times on just 19 shots on Turek and never looking back en route to the stunning series victory.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs (7) Beat Ottawa Senators (2) – 2001
At the turn of the century, the Toronto Maple Leafs disposed of the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the 2000 playoffs, the beginning of a heated “Battle of Ontario” playoff rivalry. A year later, the Senators finished first in the old Northeast Division with 109 points, 19 points ahead of the hated Leafs, who finished seventh and earned another crack at the Sens in the post-season. In the lead up to the re-match, Ottawa owned the Leafs in the regular season, winning all five contests and adding fuel to a growing hockey fire. Unfortunately for the Senators, the Leafs had a rejuvenated Curtis Joseph in goal and fired up captain Mats Sundin leading the charge. Joseph would shut the Sens out in the first two games in Ottawa, while Sundin scored the winner in Game 1 and his robust winger Gary Roberts would pot two in the 3-0 Game 2 victory. The Senators would finally beat Cujo four minutes into Game 3, but it was too little too late as they scored just three goals in the series and lost in four straight.
5. Might Ducks of Anaheim (7) Upset Detroit Red Wings (2) – 2003
The Stanley Cup hangover is a thing and in 2003, the Detroit Red Wings suffered a bad case of it. And the purveyor of the ugly medicine they received in the playoffs was Mighty Ducks goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere. That season, Mighty Ducks rookie head coach Mike Babcock steered the team to a seventh place finish in the Pacific Division, 15 points behind Central Division champion and defending Cup winners Detroit. The mighty Wings boasted scoring galore in the guise of Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Luc Robitaille and Steve Yzerman, future Hall of Famers all. The Ducks countered with a no-name cast featuring Paul Kariya, Adam Oates and Giguere. In that fateful first round, the Ducks scored by committee and got all-world netminding from Giguere in an improbable sweep of the defending champs. Giguere, who would go on to win the Conn Smythe (even though the Ducks lost in the finals) stopped an incredible 63 of 64 shots in a 2-1 triple overtime victory in Game 1 and would allow just six goals all series to stymie the powerhouse Winged Wheels.
4. Edmonton Oilers (8) Defeat Detroit Red Wings (1) – 2006
The season-killing lockout of 2004-05 seemed to have been the tonic for the Edmonton Oilers franchise, who missed the playoffs twice in three seasons previous to the labor stoppage. They posted a 95-point season and squeaked into the playoffs, where they would have the daunting task of facing the President’s Trophy winning Wings, who had a lofty 124 points on 58 wins (their greatest regular season ever). The Wings, however, would suffer the indignity of being taken out by a relative lightweight in the first round for the second time in three post-seasons. This time around, though, they weren’t undone by a goaltender — Edmonton’s Dwayne Roloson did have a hand in it — but by a rare playoff one-hit wonder by the name of Fernando Pisani. The Edmonton native, who had all of one goal in six playoff games before that 2006 series and 18 goals in 80 games during the regular season, lit up Detroit for five goals in the Oilers 4-2 series win. His two markers in Game 6 were pivotal in Edmonton disposing of Detroit. He fired a league high 14 in total as the Oilers went all the way to the finals.
3. Anaheim Ducks (8) Upend San Jose Sharks (1) – 2009
For the last 15 years or so, the San Jose Sharks have been the perennial bridesmaids in the post-season. They have teased their fans with outstanding regular season play, only to fall horribly short in the playoffs. No Big Dance defeat, however, stung worse than the six-game loss to the Anaheim Ducks in 2009. The Sharks, led by Jumbo Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, had their best season ever, winning 53 games and the President’s Trophy with 117 points. Facing them would be the Ducks, who limped into eighth place in the West with 91 points, just two years after winning their first Stanley Cup. The Ducks, again, would get outstanding goaltending to stun a superior foe, this time by Jonas Hiller, who was in just his second season and split duties with 2003 playoff hero Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Hiller posted two shutouts against the high-flying Sharks, including a 35-save effort in Game 1 (2-0) and another 31-save performance in Game 4 (4-0).
2. Montreal Canadiens (8) Shock Washington Capitals (1) – 2010
The Sharks are not alone in knowing playoff sorrow after regular season triumph. Just ask the Washington Capitals, who won two Presidents trophies in seven seasons (they added a third this year) but failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs. In 2009-10, the Caps, who got another 50-goal season from sniper Alex Ovechkin, blew away the competition with their best season ever, winning 54 games and recording 121 points. The Habs were nobody’s favorite going into a first round set with the Capitals, as they accumulated just 88 points and were the eighth seed. To boot, Montreal scored by committee and got adequate goaltending from Jaroslav Halak and a young Carey Price. And it would be Halak, not Price, who would be the stone wall the Caps superb offence could barely penetrate. In a thrilling seven-game series, Halak would stop 94 of 96 shots in Games 6 and 7 (4-1 and 2-1 wins) as Montreal came back from a 3-1 series deficit to send Washington packing.
1. Los Angeles Kings (8) Stun Vancouver Canucks (1) – 2012
There would be no solace in defeat for the Presidents trophy winning Vancouver Canucks in 2012, even though they lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings in the first round. Much was expected of the Canucks that year, as they came within a win of capturing their first championship against Boston in 2011 (after winning the first of back-to-back President’s trophies no less). They had 111 points, which were 16 better than eighth place L.A. The two teams entered the playoffs having split their season series 2-2 and on paper, even though the Canucks finished way ahead, there weren’t many discernible differences. And in the series, goaltending, or lack thereof, and timely scoring would be the difference. The Kings’ Jonathan Quick helped steal the series, stopping 46 of 48 shots in Game 2, where the Kings also got two goals from Dustin Brown to win 4-2. Quick then stopped all 41 shots he faced in Game 3 to put the Kings up 3-0 on the way to the five-game upset.