NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: 10 Biggest First-Round Upsets in Postseason History

Gianluca NesciContributor IIIApril 11, 2012

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: 10 Biggest First-Round Upsets in Postseason History

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    With the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs set to get underway tonight, fans will be treated to some very intriguing matchups on the ice. Regardless of the series, there will be some very exciting hockey on display this spring, and there will be something for everyone.

    Bad blood is already boiling over in some cases, while other series are shaping up to be incredible goaltending battles or exciting offensive matchups.

    There are many different things to like about the NHL postseason. The rivalries that develop over the course of a series, the incredible overtime games and the playoff atmosphere that consumes a team's city are just a few examples.

    But the most thrilling aspect of all may be the potential for an upset. After all, everybody loves a good Cinderella story, and the NHL has treated fans to a fair number of them over the years.

    But which upset was the most surprising?

    To find out, let’s take a look at some of the teams that overcame great odds to do the unthinkable, and achieve victory.

    The list certainly doesn’t reflect too kindly on No.1 seeds. So, Vancouver and New York, consider yourselves warned.

    Here are the 10 biggest opening-round upsets in NHL history.


    Is there a different series that should be on the list? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think is the biggest opening round upset in NHL history.

    You can continue the conversation on Twitter @GianlucaNesci

10. 2000: St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

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    The St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks have seen this situation before.

    The two teams will begin their opening round battle this week, over a decade removed from one of the biggest playoff upsets in NHL history.

    Blues fans will be hoping that the result is much different than the one they witnessed back in the 1999-2000 season. That year, St. Louis went into the playoffs on the back of their only President's Trophy in franchise history, and boasted solid goaltending in the form of Roman Turek. (I know, it sounds weird to say that.)

    With 114 points during the regular season, the Blues employed a tight defensive system in order to be successful. Aided in large part by eventual Norris and Hart Trophy winner Chris Pronger, the team finished the year with the fewest goals allowed in the league.

    Hopes were high that St. Louis could win its first Stanley Cup in the 33-year history of the franchise.

    The San Jose Sharks spoiled the party.

    After taking a commanding 3-1 series lead, the Sharks—who finished the regular season with 87 points—let things get to Game 7 before they sent the Blues packing with a 3-1 victory.

    In doing so, the Sharks became only the second team at the time to defeat the President's Trophy winner in the first round.

9. 1994: Detroit Red Wings vs. San Jose Sharks

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    The 1994 edition of the Detroit Red Wings entered the Stanley Cup playoffs in familiar territory, finishing the regular season atop the Western Conference. Led by superstar Russian sniper Sergei Fedorov and his 120 points, the perennial powerhouse scored more goals than any other team in the NHL.

    Their opponents in the first round entered the series with significantly less fanfare. The upstart Sharks, an expansion franchise in only its third year of existence at the time, had won a total of just 28 games in its first two seasons in the league.

    Despite recording more points in the 1994 season than in the previous two combined, the Sharks weren’t expected to be much of a challenge for the Wings.

    What happened next was one of the great moments in franchise history.

    The Sharks would go on to win a back-and-forth series, courtesy of a 3-2 victory in Game 7. As a result, Detroit became the first No. 1 seed to lose an opening round matchup under the NHL’s new conference-based playoff format.

8. 1998: New Jersey Devils vs. Ottawa Sentators

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    This year’s edition of the Ottawa Senators will be looking to pull off a major upset in the playoffs, as the No. 8 seed will take on the heavily favored New York Rangers in the opening round.

    But even if Ottawa knocks off the Broadway Blueshirts, that would pale in comparison to what the 1997-1998 version of the team managed to accomplish.

    That year, the Sens recorded one of the more memorable victories in postseason history, beating a New Jersey Devils team that finished 24 points ahead of them in the standings. The series win was the first since the revival of the franchise, which returned to the league in 1992 after a 58-year absence.

    The feat is even more impressive considering the pedigree of the Devils, who still boasted many of the players that helped the team win the Stanley Cup only three years earlier. Players like Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Bobby Holik and Martin Brodeur all partook in the surprising loss after hoisting hockey’s holy grail in 1995.

    The Senators won the series thanks to solid goaltending from Damian Rhodes, who out-dueled his more decorated counterpart. Offensively, enigmatic star Alexei Yashin and youngster Daniel Alfredsson led the way, as the Sens recorded one of the great upsets in playoff history.

7. 2009: San Jose Sharks vs. Anaheim Ducks

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    San Jose will go into the 2012 postseason trying to shake its title as perennial playoff underachievers.

    That distinction has been attached to the team ever since the acquisition of star centerman Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins in November of 2005. With Thornton in the lineup, the Sharks have consistently been one of the best regular-season teams in the NHL. But they have continually failed to impress in the playoffs—and it’s not all on Thornton’s shoulders.

    The Sharks’ reputation as playoff chokers wasn't given any favors in 2009, when they managed to win the President’s Trophy with an impressive 117-point campaign, only to see everything go horribly wrong in the opening round.

    Since the awarding of the trophy in 1986, five winners have the dubious “honor” of being the only teams to lose in the opening round of the playoffs. In 2009, the Anaheim Ducks made the Sharks one of those teams.

    On the back of Jonas Hiller's incredible goaltending, the Ducks took the series, 4-2, winning the sixth and deciding contest by a score of 4-1. Hiller posted two shutouts in a matchup of California rivals, while giving up only 10 goals over the entire series.

    Maybe San Jose will fare better this year without the pressure of a high seed.

6. 1991: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota North Stars

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    One of the more heated rivalries in NHL history is also the scene for one of the league’s biggest playoff upsets.

    After the realignment of the Norris Division following the 1980-1981 season, the Minnesota North Stars and Chicago Blackhawks met in the playoffs a handful of times.

    Each team had its share of success, but none of those meetings compared to the memorable playoff encounter between the two in the 1990-1991 season.

    That year, the North Stars finished the regular season 12 games under the .500 mark, amassing only 68 points. They just managed to grab the fourth and final playoff spot in the division.

    But that didn’t stop them from making an incredible run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, where they would eventually fall to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    That road began with a matchup against none other than the rival Blackhawks, who finished the season 38 points ahead of Minnesota.

    After falling behind 2-1 in the series, the North Stars managed to shut down both Steve Larmer and Jeremy Roenick, holding the explosive duo to just one goal en route to a 4-2 series win.

    The surprising victory showed just how important it is to stay disciplined in the playoffs, regardless of the emotion surrounding a series. In their four losses, the Blackhawks amassed 187 penalty minutes compared to Minnesota's total of 99 in those games.

    Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, take note.

5. 2006: Detroit Red Wings vs. Edmonton Oilers

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    When you make the playoffs for 21 consecutive seasons, you’re bound to have at least a few disappointing performances during that stretch.

    That seems to be the case with the Red Wings, who make a second appearance on this list thanks to another improbable defeat.

    Heading into the 2006 postseason as President's Trophy winners, Detroit was supposed to dominate an Oilers team that squeaked into the playoffs during the final week of the campaign.

    With Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Brendan Shanahan and Niklas Lidstrom all producing at least 80 points during the regular season, Detroit’s high-powered offense should have been too much to handle.

    But together, star defenseman Chris Pronger and veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson shut down the free-scoring Wings in a compelling series that saw two games reach double overtime.

    Offensively, it was an unheralded Oiler who stole the show. Third-line winger Fernando Pisani scored five goals in the series, including two in the sixth and deciding game, a 4-3 Edmonton win.

4. 2003: Detroit Red Wings vs. Anaheim Mighty Ducks

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    The Detroit Red Wings have become synonymous with playoff hockey. For over two decades, the Wings’ participation in the postseason has been as consistent as the sun rising each and every morning.

    More than that, the historic franchise has become known for not only being in the big show but also for making some noise when they get there.

    But in 2003, somebody forgot to tell the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who were making just a third playoff appearance in franchise history. In two previous attempts, in 1997 and 1999, those same Red Wings swept the California-based team in both occasions.

    Led by goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Ducks not only won the opening-round series, they also returned the favor and sent the defending Stanley Cup champions home in four straight games.

    Revenge sure is sweet, isn’t it?

    Giguere stood on his head in the series, turning aside 165 of the 171 shots he faced.

    With the loss, Detroit became only the second defending champion in league history to be swept in a four-game series.

3. 1981: Montreal Canadiens vs. Edmonton Oilers

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    With most great teams in professional sports, long-term success starts with one defining moment.

    The Edmonton Oilers were no different.

    Wayne Gretzky and company were far from a dynasty in the 1980-1981 season, when they finished the regular season six games under the .500 mark. However, because there were only 21 teams in the NHL at the time—and 16 of them qualified for the playoffs— the Oilers’ 74 points still allowed them to squeak into 14th place.

    The low seed meant they would take on the Montreal Canadiens, who finished third overall with 103 points during the regular season. The Bleu, Blanc et Rouge boasted the likes of Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson—both of whom are in the NHL Hall of Fame.

    But that didn’t seem to bother the upstart Oilers.

    Led by Gretzky—who recorded five assists in Game 1 of the series—Edmonton would go on to shock the Habs, winning three straight games and sweeping the best-of-five series.

    We’ll hear more from number 99 shortly.

2. 2010: Washington Capitals vs. Montreal Canadiens

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    Led by dynamic superstar Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals went into the 2010 postseason as the President's Trophy winners with 121 regular season points.

    The Canadiens on the other hand, went into the playoffs with 88 points, the lowest total of the 16 teams who qualified for the NHL’s second season.

    All logic said that the Capitals, an offensive-minded squad with three players in the top 13 in league scoring, would make short work of the Habs. Everything seemed to be going according to the script early on, as Washington jumped out to a commanding 3-1 series lead, and travelled home to D.C. with a chance to send the Habs packing.

    That’s when Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak decided to steal the show. The Slovakian put the Canadiens on his back, single-handedly leading them to three straight wins and an improbable series victory.

    In the final three games of the series, Halak stopped 141 of the 144 shots that Ovechkin and company threw his way. In doing so, he left the Capitals with the dubious distinction as the first No. 1 seed to blow a 3-1 series lead in the opening round.

1. 1982: Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings

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    In 1981-1982, fans witnessed the most incredible individual season in NHL history, courtesy of Wayne Gretzky.

    The Great One set single-season records for both goals (92) and points (212)—two totals that will never be beaten. Fifty of those tallies came in the first 39 games of the year, making Gretzky the fastest player to ever hit the half-century mark in one season.

    He led the Oilers to a 111-point campaign, which was good enough for the Smythe Division crown. Edmonton also scored 417 goals that season, which was an NHL record at the time.

    To say the Oilers were an offensive juggernaut would be a massive understatement.

    As such, they were widely expected to make very quick work of their first-round opponent, the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings finished the year 17 games under .500, recording 63 points en route to a fourth-place finish in the Smythe Division.

    Not only did this series end up being the greatest first-round upset in league history, but it also contained the best comeback the NHL has ever seen.

    With the best-of-five series tied at one game apiece, the Oilers looked set to take a stranglehold on things when they held a 5-0 lead going into the third period of Game 3.

    But what began as a seemingly insurmountable margin turned into the now infamous "Miracle on Manchester." The Kings scored five goals in the third period to tie the game, before rookie winger Daryl Evans netted the game-winner less than three minutes into the extra frame.

    Evans says he still treasures the memory of that game

    "It's something that I'll always be able to cherish. I think I've learned to appreciate it more in the years as it's passed," Evans told Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times. "There were so many things, aside from being down the five goals in the game and coming back and winning it. It was also against a team that we'd played during the season and 48 points separated the two teams. It just brings out that much more how unbelievable it was."

    The Kings would eventually win the fifth and deciding game to complete the incredible upset.

    To this day, the 48-point differential between the two teams is the largest that has been overcome in an NHL playoff series.

    It’s often said that before you learn how to win and become a champion, you need to go through a few setbacks and learn how to lose. The Edmonton Oilers certainly took that to heart, as they proceeded to build a dynasty, winning five of the next eight Stanley Cup titles.

    That fact makes the Los Angeles Kings’ victory all the more impressive. Without a doubt, they are responsible for the greatest first-round upset in NHL playoff history.