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The Greatest First Round Upsets in NHL History

Posted on April 12, 2011 by A.J. Foss

Marcel Dionne and the Los Angeles Kings pulled off an amazing upset of the Wayne Gretzky led Oilers in the 1982 playoffs.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin tomorrow and casual sports fans should know the NHL’s postseason is perhaps the most unpredictable in professional sports.

Since the National Hockey League went to the conference format in 1994, eight #1 seeds have been eliminated in the first round.

With that in mind, here is a list of the 10 greatest first round upsets in NHL history.

The moments on this list go back to as far as 1980, ever since the Stanley Cup Playoffs began to accept 16 teams.

10. 2009 Sharks-Ducks

The President’s Trophy is awarded to the team with the best regular season record in the NHL, but has almost became a kiss of death as only seven teams have gone to win the Stanley Cup after winning the President’s trophy and five winners have been knocked out in the first round since the NHL began awarding the trophy in 1986.

The 2009 San Jose Sharks became the fourth of the five President’s trophy winners to be eliminated in the first round after losing to the Anaheim Ducks in a six-game series, following a season where the Sharks complied 117 points compared to the Ducks’ 91.

9. 1981 Oilers-Canadians
Wayne Gretzky won his first playoff series with a stunning upset of the Montreal Canadians.

In the 1981 playoffs, the 16 playoff teams were seeded 1 through 16, regardless of conference or division, so the Oilers were seeded #14 after a 74-point season and faced the #3 seed Montreal Canadians, who had complied 103 points in the regular season.

Gretzky set the tone with five assists in the Oilers’ 6-3 victory in Game 1, leading to a sweep of the Canadians in three games in the best-of-five series.

8.  1998 Senators-Devils
Between their Stanley Cup championships in 1995 and 2000, the New Jersey Devils had a series of frustrating postseason failures.

Their biggest failure came in 1998 when they lost to the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators in six games, after earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a 107 point regular season.

The next year, the Devils would once again be the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, but once again would be eliminated in the first round, this time to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Steve Penney allowed just two goals in a three-game sweep of the Boston Bruins in the 1984 playoffs.

7. 1984 Canadians-Bruins
In a move reminiscent of their 1971 Stanley Cup run, the Montreal Canadians started a goaltender that had played a handful of games in the regular season.

Steve Penney was named the starting goaltender for the playoffs despite starting four games and losing all four.

But much like Ken Dryden in 1971, Penney led the Canadians to a series win over the Bruins, as he held Boston to just two goals in the Canadians’ three-game sweep of the Bruins.

6. 2000 Sharks-Blues
It seemed the stars were lining up for the St. Louis Blues to win their first Stanley Cup in their 33-year history as they won the President’s trophy with 114 points behind eventual MVP Chris Pronger.

However, the Blues fell behind to the San Jose Sharks three games to one, but were able to win Games 5 and 6, to force a Game 7 in St. Louis.

But the Blues could not complete the comeback as they lost Game 7 to the Sharks 3-1, thanks to an Owen Nolan goal from 65 feet out late in the second period.

The Blues became the second President’s trophy winner to be eliminated in the first round.

5. 2006 Oilers-Red Wings

The Red Wings won the President’s Trophy with 124 points, while the Edmonton Oilers did not clinch their playoff berth until the next-to-last game of the regular season to earn the eighth seed in the Western Conference with 95 points.

But the Oilers stunned the Red Wings in six games, propelling Edmonton to an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals

4. 1994 Sharks-Red Wings
Even though the point differential was smaller in this series then in the 2006 Oilers series, the 1994 Red Wings’ loss to the San Joes Sharks was more shocking because their opponent had been so bad since they entered the league in 1991.

The Sharks won a total of 28 games in their first two seasons, but won 33 games in their third season and complied more points in the 1994 season then in their previous two seasons to enter the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference where they faced off with the Detroit Red Wings, who had complied 100 points in the regular season.

San Jose shocked the Red Wings in seven games to become the first #8 seed to win a playoff series since the NHL went to the conference format.

3. 1991 North Stars-Blackhawks

The 1991 Minnesota North Stars shocked the Blackhawks in the opening round then advanced to the NHL finals against the Penguins.

The Minnesota North Stars finished 12 games under .500 and complied only 68 points during the regular season put together a run for the ages in the 1991 playoffs.

The North Stars knocked off the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that finished 38 points of Minnesota, in six games of the Norris Division Semifinals in the second largest goal differential in NHL playoff series victory.

Minnesota followed up this huge upset with an upset of the St. Louis Blues, who finished one point behind the Blackhawks, then defeated the defending Stanley Cup Champion Edmonton Oilers in the Conference Finals before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals.

2. 2010 Canadians-Capitals

It appeared that the Capitals were going to make short work of the Montreal Canadians after Washington jumped out to a 3-1 series lead.

But after being pulled in Game 3, Canadians goaltender Jaroslav Halak put Montreal on his back and single-handily lead them back from the 3-1 deficit and pull off the huge upset.

Halak stopped 141 of the Capitals’ 144 shots in the final three games as the Canadians knocked off the President’s trophy winners to in the fifth greatest point differential that a team overcame to win a playoff series (Capitals-121 points, Canadiens-88 points).

1. 1982 Oilers-Kings
In 1982, the Edmonton Oilers were poised to take the next step in becoming the dominant team in the NHL after a record-breaking season by Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky set records for most goals and most points in a season as he scored 92 goals, 50 of them in the first 39 games, and dished out 120 assists, for a record 212 points to lead the Oilers to more than 400 goals in the season, as Edmonton finished with 111 points and the Smythe Division title.

The Oilers were expected to make quick work of the Los Angeles Kings, who had finished with 63 points and seventeen games under .500, to finish fourth in the Smythe Division.

After dropping Game 1 in Edmonton by the score of 10-8, the Oilers appeared to take control of the series after winning Game 2 and jumping out to a 5-0 lead after two periods of Game 3.

But the Kings pulled off the greatest comeback in NHL history as they scored five goals in the third period, including the tying goal with five seconds left in regulation to force overtime, where Daryl Evans scored the game-winning goal two minutes and 35 seconds into the period in a game that became known as the “Miracle on Manchester” since the game was played at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California on Manchester Boulevard.

The Oilers won Game 4 to force the series back to Edmonton, but the Kings would win the decisive game 7-4 to complete the shocking upset.

The 48 point differential is the largest point differential that a team has overcome to win a playoff series.

Because of the point differential, the miraculous Game 3 comeback, and what Greztky and the Oilers accomplished in the years after this series, the 1982 Los Angeles Kings upset of the Edmonton Oilers is the greatest first round upset in NHL history.


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