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Cup Semifinals not lacking in surprises

by John Kreiser

Ray Emery, Patrick Eaves and the Ottawa
Senators pulled off a huge upset in last year's Eastern Conference Finals by defeating the
Presidents' Trophy winning Sabres, 4-1.
Upsets are part of the lore and legend of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Semifinal round has not lacked for some big-time surprises. Here are 10 memorial surprises.

2007: Ottawa beat Buffalo, 4-1 -- This one was revenge for the previous season, when the Senators finished first in the East only to lose to the Sabres in the Eastern semifinals. The Sabres were coming off their first Presidents’ Trophy after finishing eight points ahead of the Sens in the Northeast Division.

Ottawa stunned the Sabres by winning the first two games in Buffalo, including a 4-3 victory in Game 2 on Joe Corvo’s goal at 4:58 of the second overtime. A 1-0 victory in Game 3 all but sealed the Sabres’ fate, and though Buffalo won Game 4 at Ottawa, the Senators advanced to their first Stanley Cup Final with a 3-2 victory at Buffalo on Daniel Alfredsson’s goal at 9:32 of overtime.

The victory put the Senators into the Final for the first time since they rejoined the NHL in 1992, but they lost to Anaheim in five games.

1999: Buffalo beat Toronto, 4-1 -- After beating Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Leafs and their fans could almost taste their first trip to the Final since their last Cup victory in 1967. They hadn’t reckoned on the seventh-seeded Sabres spoiling the party.

But despite the absence of injured goaltender Dominik Hasek, Buffalo skated out of the Air Canada Centre with a 5-4 victory in Game 1, and the Leafs never recovered, even though they tied the series with a 6-2 victory in Game 2. With Hasek back in the net, the Sabres won the next two games, 4-2 and 5-2, then closed out the series with another 4-2 win in Toronto.

The result was the Sabres’ first trip to the Final in 25 years, although they came up short in its quest for the franchise’s first Cup when Dallas won in six games. The Leafs have gone more than 40 years without making the championship round.

1996: Colorado beat Detroit, 4-2 -- The 1995-96 Red Wings lost just 13 games and set an NHL record with 132 regular-season points. But they had to work harder than expected to beat Winnipeg in six games in the first round, then needed overtime in Game 7 before eliminating St. Louis.

Colorado, in its first season after moving from Quebec, had won the Pacific Division, but finished 27 points behind the Wings. That didn’t deter them from winning the first two games in Detroit, 3-2 in overtime and 3-0 behind a 35-save performance by Patrick Roy, who had been acquired by Montreal during the season.

The Wings won Game 3 at Denver, outlasting Colorado 6-4, but the Avalanche won Game 4, a 4-2 victory keyed by Uwe Krupp’s power-play goal in the third period. Detroit extended the series with a 5-2 win at home, but the Avs closed out the Wings in Denver, winning 4-1 behind two goals by Joe Sakic — and despite the ejection of Claude Lemieux, who was tossed for a hit from behind on Kris Draper.

The Avs went on to sweep Florida for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. The Wings had to wait another year before avenging the loss on the way to a sweep of Philadelphia that ended a 42-year Cup drought.

1995: New Jersey beat Philadelphia, 4-2 -- The Devils struggled for much of the season, perhaps showing some hangover from their heartbreaking semifinal loss to the Rangers the year before. They finished fifth in the East and second in the Atlantic Division to Philadelphia in the lockout-shortened season.

Much like this year’s team, the 1995 Flyers had come out of nowhere (10th in the East and five straight non-playoff seasons) to make the NHL’s Final Four. They were the top remaining seed in the East — Quebec was bounced by the Rangers in the opening round — and had lost just once in winning the first two rounds.

That didn’t impress the Devils, who had beaten Boston and Pittsburgh in five games apiece and won the first two games in Philadelphia. The Flyers responded by winning twice in New Jersey to even the series, but the Devils took command when Claude Lemieux beat Ron Hextall with 44.2 seconds left in regulation for a 3-2 win in Game 5.

New Jersey closed out the series with a 4-2 win in Game 6 — the only home-team victory in the series — and swept Detroit to win its first Stanley Cup.
1991: Minnesota beat Edmonton, 4-2 -- The Edmonton Oilers were the defending NHL champions and had won five Stanley Cups in seven years, though they had dropped to a .500 record in 1990-91. That was still a lot better than the North Stars, who finished 12 points below .500 and were a year removed from barely avoiding relocation.

But each team won its division playoffs, and the Oilers opened the series at Northlands Coliseum confident that a sixth Cup was within reach — especially since the Oilers had gone 15-0-3 against the Stars in Edmonton since Oct. 24, 1980.

That streak ended in the opener, when Dave Gagner’s tie-breaking goal and 27 saves by Jon Casey keyed a 3-1 win. The Oilers rebounded with a 7-2 win, but Brian Bellows’ two goals fueled a 7-3 win before a boisterous sellout crowd at Met Center — a rarity in a building that had been half-empty for much of the season.

The North Stars rolled to a 5-1 win in Game 4, then finished off the Oilers with a 3-2 win at Edmonton in Game 5. Bobby Smith got the game-winner with 15:01 remaining to put the North Stars in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 10 years — and make Minnesota the first team since the 1982 Vancouver Canucks to make the Final with a losing record (it hasn’t been done since).

Minnesota won Games 1 and 3 in the Final before losing in six games to Pittsburgh. By next fall, the Oilers’ dynasty was coming apart, with Mark Messier headed to the New York Rangers. The Stars had to endure a move to Dallas before the franchise’s first title in 1999.

1980: New York Islanders beat Buffalo, 4-2 --The Islanders, the regular-season champions in 1978-79, struggled for most of the following season following their playoff loss to the Rangers. They ended up with 91 points, finishing sixth overall — and ended up that high only because they got hot after the late-season acquisition of Butch Goring.

The Sabres won the Adams Division and finished second overall with 110 points. They did it with the NHL’s stingiest defense — Buffalo allowed 201 goals, 33 less than runner-up Boston.

But the Islanders ousted Los Angeles and upset Boston, sending them into the semifinals on a roll. The hot streak continued as they won the first two games in Buffalo, including a 2-1, double-overtime victory in Game 2 on a goal by Bob Nystrom (a harbinger of things to come).

Back on Long Island, the Isles rolled to a 7-4 win that put them within a game of their first trip to the Final. But the Sabres wouldn’t go quietly — they stayed alive with a 7-4 win and blanked the Islanders 2-0 at home in Game 5.

When Buffalo scored the first two goals in Game 6, the Nassau Coliseum crowd got a little antsy. But the Islanders reeled off five unanswered goals and advanced with a 5-2 win.

The Islanders then upset top-seeded Philadelphia to win their first of four Stanley Cups.

1979: New York Rangers beat New York Islanders, 4-2 -- The Islanders were laughingstocks when they joined the NHL in 1972. Seven years later, no one was laughing — the Isles ended Montreal’s reign as regular-season champs, and were favored to do the same in the Playoffs.

The year before Bob Nystrom and the New York Islanders began their four-year Stanley Cup dynasty, they were knocked off by the
crosstown-rival Rangers, 4-2, in the 1978-79
Eastern Conference Finals at MSG.
They mauled Chicago in the quarterfinals, earning a matchup with their big-city rivals, the Rangers, in the semis. New coach Fred Shero had revitalized the Blueshirts — seeking their first Cup since 1940 — but the Islanders were expected to win comfortably.

It didn’t happen. The teams alternated wins through the first four games, with the Islanders needing overtime for both their victories. Rangers goaltender John Davidson was playing the series of his life, and kids like Don Maloney were meshing with vets like Phil Esposito to give the Blueshirts a balanced attack.

The Rangers stunned the Isles with a 4-3 win at the Nassau Coliseum in Game 5, then ousted them with a 2-1 win back at Madison Square Garden. Ron Greschner scored the game-winner in the second period, and the Rangers totally shut down the high-powered Isles in the third.

That sent the Rangers to the Final for the first time since 1972, and they shocked the Canadiens 4-1 in the opener at Montreal. But the Canadiens won the next four games for their fourth consecutive title. The Rangers would have to wait until 1994 to end their Cup drought.

1967: Toronto beat Chicago, 4-2 --
The 1967 Leafs were getting old. Twelve members of the team was over 30, and both goaltenders — 43-year-old Johnny Bower and 38-year-old Terry Sawchuk — were well beyond that. The Leafs had won three consecutive Cups from 1962-64, but had struggled to finish third in the last Original Six race and allowed more goals than they scored. No Toronto player managed more than Dave Keon’s 53 points, and Ron Ellis was tops with 22 goals.

Toronto finished 19 points in back of first-place Chicago, which had five of the NHL’s top nine scorers, including Art Ross winner Stan Mikita and 52-goal man Bobby Hull.

The Hawks whipped the Leafs 5-2 in the opener, only to have Toronto win the next two games, both by 3-1 scores. The Hawks evened the series with a 4-3 win at Maple Leaf Gardens, but Sawchuk’s goaltending and a goal by Pete Stemkowski led Toronto to a 4-2 win at Chicago Stadium in Game 5. Back at the Gardens, the Leafs sent the Prince of Wales Trophy winners home for the summer with a 3-1 win. Brian Conacher’s second-period goal broke a 1-1 tie

The Leafs followed the same script in the Final against Montreal, losing the opener, winning the next two games, dropping Game 4 and winning two more for their fourth title in six years.
1961: Chicago beat Montreal, 4-2 -- By 1961, Montreal fans must have thought their team was incapable of losing at playoff time. The Canadiens had won five consecutive Cups and were primed for a sixth after finishing first for the fourth straight season.

The Habs finished 17 points ahead of third-place Chicago, and the Blackhawks weren’t expected to derail Montreal’s plans for a sixth consecutive title. But after an easy 6-2 win in the series opener at the Forum, the Habs lost the next two games, including a 2-1 triple-overtime decision in Game 3 that left Montreal coach Toe Blake berating referee Dalton McArthur.

The Canadiens evened the series with a 5-2 win, but didn’t score another goal in the series. Glenn Hall blanked Montreal 3-0 at the Forum, then repeated the feat in Game 6 before a deafening crowd at Chicago Stadium — ending a playoff losing streak to the Canadiens that dated to 1944.

Fourth-place Detroit upended Toronto in five games in the other bracket, leaving the bottom two playoff qualifiers to meet for the Cup. Chicago won its three home games, then topped the Wings 5-1 at the Olympia for its last Stanley Cup.

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