From Jaroslav Halak’s heroics to the Cinderella North Stars, counting down five of the biggest first-round playoff upsets of the 20+ team era.
The Predators face the Ducks Wednesday night in Game 7 of their opening round series, with an opportunity to complete what would stand as the biggest upset of this year’s first round.
These days, of course, big upsets are relative. The Predators are a wildcard team facing a division winner, but they only finished seven points behind the Ducks in the standings. And the opening round’s other upsets were even closer – the Islanders were three points behind the Panthers, while the Sharks were four back of the Kings. Such is life in the age of parity, where the margin between average and elite is narrower than ever before.
So with all due respect to those plucky underdogs from Nashville, let’s take a moment today to look back at the real thing, by counting down five of the biggest first-round upsets of the 20+ team era.
No. 5 – 2000: Sharks over Blues
The only Presidents’ Trophy in Blues history is one that most of their fans would rather forget. To this day, you can ruin a St. Louis fan’s day by mentioning one name: Roman Turek. That would be the Blues’ starting goaltender during that 1999-2000 season, one in which he posted a career year and finished as the Jennings winner and runner-up for the Vezina while leading the Blues to a franchise-record 114 points.
But then the 87-point Sharks showed up, and things went south. San Jose jumped out to a 3-1 series lead before the Blues fought back with a pair of wins to force a seventh game on their home ice. A tense first period saw the Sharks jump out to a 1-0 lead, one that looked set to hold up as we headed to the intermission. And then this happened:
Owen Nolan’s center ice rocket put the Sharks up 2-0 and sucked the oxygen out of the building. It proved to be the winner, as the Sharks held on for a 3-1 win.
The Blues gained a measure of revenge the following season, knocking off the Sharks in a first-round rematch. They’ve split two more post-season meetings since then. We could be two weeks away from another, this time in the conference final. But if it happens, don’t expect Turek to handle any pre-game faceoff duties. He sometimes struggles with center ice.
No. 4 – 2006: Oilers over Red Wings
The first season after the 2005-06 lockout was one of the most unpredictable on record. Scoring was up, superstar rookies were everywhere, and new rules on and off the ice were changing everything. But there was one constant from the pre-cap era: The Red Wings were dominant. They racked up 124 points and went into the playoffs as a heavy favorite to win their fourth Cup in a decade. And then they ran into Edmonton.
The eighth-seeded Oilers weren’t a bad team, putting up 95 points of their own, and the late-season acquisition of goaltender Dwayne Roloson filled the biggest hole in their roster. Still, not many expected them to be much more than a speed bump for the Wings, and a Detroit win in the opener seemed to confirm that. But the Oilers took the next two, then split Games 4 and 5 to push the Wings to the brink.
The series ended in Edmonton in Game 6, with the Red Wings taking a 2-0 lead into the third period before a furious Oilers comeback leading to Ales Hemsky’s winning goal with just over a minute left.
The Oilers’ run continued all the way to the final, where they fell one game short of winning the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings didn’t lose in the first round again until 2012, including another Cup win in 2008.
No. 3 – 1991: North Stars over Blackhawks
Ah, the good old Norris Division. Back in the days when this glorious mess of a division was guaranteed to send four of its five teams to the playoffs, it wasn’t unusual for at least one of those entrants to be absolutely awful. It happened in 1985, when the 62-point North Stars qualified, and in 1988, when the 52-point Maple Leafs made it. And it happened again in 1991, when the North Stars slid in again, this time with a relatively robust 68 points.
That earned them a meeting with the Blackhawks, who’d racked up 106 points on their way to capturing the Presidents’ Trophy. The North Stars stunned the Hawks with a game one upset in overtime, but Chicago came back to take the next two. That’s when Jon Casey slammed the door, with the North Stars taking three straight by a combined score of 12-2 to pull off one of the most stunning upsets of the era.
The North Stars faced the 105-point Blues in the second round, and beat them too, before knocking off the defending champion Oilers in the conference final. One of the all-time greatest underdog runs in playoff history fell just short, as Minnesota dropped the final to the Penguins in a six-game series that gave us this moment.
No. 2 – 2010: Canadiens over Capitals
The most recent entry on our list was shocking not just for the gap between teams – the 121-point Capitals finished 33 points up on the 88-point Canadiens – but for how it all played out. After splitting a pair of overtime games, the series shifted back to Montreal where the Caps took both games, pumping home 11 goals in the process. Neither Carey Price or Jaroslav Halak looked like they could handle Washington’s snipers, with the latter even being called out for shaking in fear by Alex Ovechkin.
The fifth game in Washington felt like a formality. Instead, it was the start of one of the greatest goaltending performances in NHL history, as Halak went on to stop 131 of 134 shots over the final three games. That included 41 saves in Game 7 as the Canadiens earned a 2-1 win to take the series.
Montreal went on to ride Halak’s hot streak to their first conference final appearance since 1993. The Capitals never seemed to recover from those three games, going through a rotating cast of coaches and reinventing themselves multiple times before finally reemerging as contenders this year.
(This wasn’t the first time a red hot Habs goaltender almost single-handedly knocked off a top seed; back in 1984, Steve Penney gave up just two goals while leading a 79-point Montreal squad to an opening round sweep of the 104-point Bruins.)
No. 1 – 1982: Kings over Oilers
There’s really no other choice for the top spot. The other picks all featured major surprises. This one had an outright miracle.
The early-80s Oilers hadn’t evolved into the full-fledged dynasty that they’d soon become, but all the pieces were in place, and the 1981-82 edition racked up a conference-leading 111 points. The Kings… well, the Kings tried hard, and they were fortunate to be in a five-team division with the truly awful Colorado Rockies. That meant that even a 63-point season was enough to let them sneak into the final playoff spot and a first round matchup with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and the rest of the powerhouse Oilers.
After stealing a wild Game 1 by a 10-8 final – no, that’s not a typo, it was the 80s, and defense hadn’t been invented yet – the Kings nearly took a 2-0 series lead before dropping the second game in overtime. That set the stage for Game 3 back in Los Angeles, one that saw the Oilers finally dominate, taking a 5-0 lead into the third period. And then came the Miracle on Manchester.
The Kings’ stunning comeback put Edmonton on the brink. The Oilers stayed alive with a 3-2 win in Game 4, but the Kings completed the upset with a 7-4 win in Game 5.
The Oilers went on to make the final in 1983, followed by five Stanley Cups in seven years. But the Kings’ spot in the history books remains secure – the 48-point gap between the two teams makes this the biggest upset in NHL playoff history, a mark that seems all but unbreakable in the age of parity and three-point games.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.