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First-round upsets not all that unusual

by John Kreiser

Daryl Evans' game-winning goal in game 3 helped the Kings upset the Oilers during the 1982 Smyth Division playoffs.
The hardest step on the road to the Stanley Cup is often the first one.

The inability to get past the first round of the playoffs has been the bump in the road that has sent more than one Cup favorite home for an early summer. A great regular season is no guarantee that a team seemingly primed and ready for a long Cup run will survive the opening round against a team whose regular-season accomplishments are nowhere near as prolific.

Here is a look at 10 of the biggest first-round upsets in playoff history since expansion enlarged the playoffs to more than two rounds:

1982: Los Angeles vs. Edmonton

No one gave the Kings a chance against the Oilers in the opening round of the Smythe Division playoffs. The Oilers had pulverized the division during the regular season, piling up goals at a historic rate -- Wayne Gretzky alone accounted for 92 goals and 212 points -- while racking up 111 points in the standings. The Kings had stumbled their way to fourth place with just 63 points, a drop of 36 from 1980-81.

Perhaps the 48-point disparity in the standings made the Oilers a little too comfortable. The Kings shocked the opening-night crowd at Northlands Coliseum with a 10-8 victory, and nearly won Game 2 before Gretzky’s goal at 6:20 of overtime evened the series.

The Oilers were at their dynamic best through the first two periods of Game 3 at the Forum on April 10 -- they led 5-0 and were embarrassing the Kings in their own building. But Jay Wells scored with 17:14 in the third period, and the Kings got a spark of life. Goals by Doug Smith and Charlie Simmer cut the Oilers’ lead to 5-3 with five minutes left.

Edmonton’s Garry Unger then took a five-minute major for high-sticking Kings defenseman Dave Lewis, who was assessed a minor for roughing. During the 4-on-4, Edmonton’s Pat Hughes had a clean breakaway, only to be stopped by Mario Lessard. Shortly afterward, Kings defenseman Mark Hardy found himself alone in the slot and beat Grant Fuhr with a wrist shot. The margin was one, and the Forum was rocking.
With less than 90 seconds left, Hughes again found himself alone on a shorthanded breakaway, but Lessard stopped his shot and gloved the rebound. The Kings worked the puck into the Oilers’ zone, pulled Lessard, and with the clock ticking down the final seconds, Hardy got the puck in the high slot and fired a shot at Fuhr. The goaltender got a pad on the puck but couldn’t control the rebound. The puck came right to rookie Steve Bozek, whose backhander hit the back of the net with five seconds remaining, forcing overtime as bedlam took over the Forum.
The Kings didn’t need long to complete the greatest comeback in playoff history. Smith won a draw in the Oilers’ zone, and rookie Daryl Evans scored right off the faceoff at 2:35, moving the Kings within one victory of the NHL’s biggest upset.
“I wasn't really picking any opening,” Evans said. “I just was trying to get the shot on net. As it turned out I beat Fuhr up high over his right shoulder -- and before I knew it everyone on the team was piling on top of me at the other end of the ice."
The Oilers rebounded two nights later and won 3-2, sending the series back to Edmonton for what their fans was sure would be a series-clinching victory. Instead, the loosey-gooesy Kings jumped to a 2-0 lead and rolled to a 7-4 victory as Evans scored two goals. The 48-point disparity is still by far the largest disparity ever overcome by a series winner.

The Kings were ousted in the second round by Vancouver, while the Oilers regrouped and made the Stanley Cup Final in 1983 before losing to the New York Islanders. A year later, they beat the Islanders for the first of their five titles in seven years.

1971: Montreal vs. Boston
In one regard, the Bruins were the Oilers of their day -- a team that scored more goals than anyone thought possible. But unlike the Oilers’ kiddie corps, the Bruins were the defending Stanley Cup champions, having terrorized the NHL in 1970 with a combination of skill and muscle that earned them the sobriquet of “Big Bad Bruins.” They set an NHL record by winning their final 10 playoff games on the way to their first Cup since 1939.

If anything, the 1971 Bruins were even better: Phil Esposito set NHL records with 76 goals and 152 points, Bobby Orr piled up an NHL-record 102 assists, and Boston ran away with the Eastern Division title, piling up 121 points. That earned it a first-round meeting with third-place Montreal, which was coming off its first non-playoff season since 1948 and had finished 24 points behind the Bruins.

On the day before the series, Canadiens GM Sam Pollock stunned his team and the entire city when he announced that Ken Dryden, a 23-year-old rookie goaltender who had played only six NHL games (winning them all) in the final weeks of the season, would be the starting goaltender for the playoffs.

Dryden didn’t get off to a good start. The Bruins beat the Canadiens 3-1 in the opener, then took a 5-1 lead midway in the second period of Game 2 -- only to see the Canadiens score six unanswered goals for a 7-5 victory. Henri Richard started the comeback with an unassisted goal at 15:33 of the second period, and Jean Beliveau scored the first two of Montreal’s five goals in the third.

Montreal won Game 3 at the Forum, 3-1, but the Bruins evened the series with a 5-2 win in Montreal and took a three-games-to-two lead with a 7-3 rout at Boston Garden. However, the Canadiens and their rookie goalie weren’t done. Richard scored twice in Montreal’s 8-3 victory in Game 6, sending the series back to Boston for the deciding game.

Ken Hodge put the Bruins ahead at 6:50, but Frank Mahovlich and Rejean Houle scored before the end of the period to put Montreal in front to stay. J.C. Tremblay made it 3-1 late in the second period and Mahovlich scored again 14 seconds into the third period.

Meanwhile, the Bruins couldn’t do anything with Dryden, who stopped 13 shots in the first period and all 16 he faced in the second. Johnny Bucyk finally cut the margin to 4-2 at 1:02 of the third, but Dryden stymied the Bruins the rest of the way. At one point, Esposito was so frustrated after being robbed by the 6-foot-4 rookie that he swung his stick into the glass. Espo had 11 shots on goal and couldn’t beat the former Cornell star once.

“Words cannot even begin to describe the way Dryden played,” Hodge told reporters after Dryden finished with 46 saves as the Canadiens beat the Bruins in a playoff series for the 11th straight time. They went on to beat Minnesota and Chicago for the Stanley Cup. The Bruins rebounded to win the Cup the following year -- but haven’t won since.

Ed Giacomin was in goal for the 1975 Rangers who's postseason was cut short by the then third-year New York Islanders.
1975: New York Islanders vs. New York Rangers

This wasn’t an upset because of the disparity in points -- the established Rangers and upstart Islanders each finished with 88, tying them for second in the Patrick Division. But the stunning effect of the outcome would reverberate through the NHL, and especially in New York, for years to come.

The third-year Islanders had gone from laughingstock in their first season to respectable in their second and a playoff team in their third. But to Rangers fans, they were inconsequential, a minor annoyance that was to be swatted away before their team went about the serious work of making a run at the Cup.
The first two periods in the opener of the best-of-three series justified their optimism. The Rangers were flawless defensively and grabbed a 2-0 lead on second-period goals by Brad Park and Pete Stemkowski. The goal by Stemkowski with 35 seconds left in the period appeared to be the death knell for the young Islanders’ hopes.

But one of the good things about being young is that you often don’t know you’re supposed to be scared. Billy Harris scored a power-play goal at the five-minute mark, Jean Potvin tied it at 11:51 and rookie Clark Gillies broke in alone on Ed Giacomin and put the Islanders ahead at 13:30. Glenn Resch held off the Rangers and suddenly, stunningly, the Islanders had a 3-2 win and a 1-0 lead in the series.
But with the chance to win the series at home, the Islanders came unglued. The Rangers jumped to a 3-0 lead and coasted to an 8-3 victory in a game that saw 50 penalties called by referee Ron Wicks.
The full house at Madison Square Garden had no doubt its heroes would roll over the Islanders in the deciding game. But the Isles bounced back from the Game 2 rout and grabbed a 3-0 lead after 40 minutes on Clark Gillies’ first-period goal and a pair by Denis Potvin in the second.

Rangers coach Emile Francis replaced Gilles Villemure with Giacomin after Potvin’s shorthanded goal at 12:51 of the second period. Giacomin’s first act was to stir things up by triggering an altercation, and the Rangers responded in the third.
Bill Fairbairn started the rally by beating Billy Smith at 4:44, then made it 3-2 when he scored at 13:27. With the Garden in a state of bedlam, Steve Vickers pulled the Rangers even 14 seconds later. For the next few minutes, Smith was the busiest man in New York as wave after wave of Rangers flooded the Islanders’ zone. Like a boxer being saved by the bell, the Islanders got a respite only when the buzzer ending the third period finally sounded. Smith hung his head on the goal and appeared to shake before finally skating off to the locker room.

Whatever Isles’ coach Al Arbour said during the intermission must have worked. With much of the sellout crowd still finding their way back to their seats, Jude Drouin won the faceoff at the start of overtime, fed Dave Lewis, got the puck back in the corner and zipped a pass across the crease  where J.P. Parise tipped it past Giacomin.

Just 11 seconds into overtime, the Rangers’ season was done.

“If you could have written a script for the game, it couldn’t have been any better,” Isles captain Ed Westfall told writers after the game.

Years later, Islanders GM Bill Torrey cited the game as the most important in the history of the franchise.
“No one took us seriously until we won that game,” he said. “It was more important to the franchise than 1980 (when the Islanders won their first Cup with an overtime victory in Game 6).”
The Rangers went the other way, dealing off the core of what had been one of the great teams in franchise history. They missed the playoffs in each of the following two seasons.
1994: San Jose vs. Detroit
The Sharks rallied behind goalie Arturs Irbe and went onto upset the Red Wings during the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Detroit Red Wings were the best in the West in 1994; the only team in the conference to reach the 100-point mark. The Wings were looking to end a championship drought that dated to 1955, and they weren’t expecting a big challenge from their first-round opponent.

The San Jose Sharks were making the first playoff appearance since joining the NHL in 1991. Though they were coming off an NHL-record 58-point improvement, they were still the only club in the 16-team field that came in with a losing record.

None of that seemed to bother the Sharks in the opener, when they stunned the sellout crowd at Joe Louis Arena with a 5-4 victory. Vlastimil Kroupa, a teenager, scored the game-winner when he beat Bob Essensa under the glove with 4:24 left in regulation.

The Wings changed goaltenders in Game 2, and 21-year-old rookie Chris Osgood coasted to a 4-0 victory. Detroit then spoiled the first home playoff game in Sharks history with a 3-2 victory.
But the Sharks rallied behind goaltender Arturs Irbe, winning the next two games, 4-3 and 6-4, to take a 3-2 lead to Detroit. At that time, the series was played with a 2-3-2 format. The Wings calmed their fans by scoring the first five goals in Game 6, routing Irbe on the way to a 7-1 victory.
The hammering didn’t appear to bother Irbe and the Sharks in Game 7. Though the Wings were outplaying his team, Irbe kept the Sharks in the game through the first two-plus periods, and the game entered the final 10 minutes tied at 3-3.

Osgood then made a rookie mistake, trying to fire a pass up the right side. Instead, he put the puck right on the stick of Jamie Baker, who quickly ripped a slap shot into the wide-open net with 6:35 remaining in regulation. Irbe made 11 saves in the final period, and the Sharks skated off with a 4-3 victory before a stunned crowd at Joe Louis Arena.

“If I'd made that play, we'd still be playing,” a tearful Osgood said after the game. “All I can think about is the last 10 minutes of that game."
The Sharks were bounced in the second round by Toronto, losing a seventh game at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Wings rebounded to make the Stanley Cup Final in 1995 and finally ended their championship drought two years later. They repeated in 1998, with Osgood in goal.

1991: Minnesota vs. Chicago
Rookie goaltender Ed Belfour came to Chicago’s training camp in the fall of 1990 hoping to win a job. By the following spring, he was the toast of the Windy City after leading the Hawks to an NHL-best 106-point season with 43 victories and a 2.47 goals-against average. He was so good that the Hawks had no problem trading a promising youngster named Dominik Hasek to the Buffalo Sabres.
The Hawks needed all of those 106 points to edge the St. Louis Blues for the Norris Division and Western Conference titles. That earned them a first-round meeting with the Minnesota North Stars, who managed just 68 points -- although Minnesota was outscored by only 10 goals all season.

The 38-point disparity meant nothing in the series opener, when Brian Propp scored a power-play goal 4:14 into overtime to give Minnesota a 4-3 victory. The Blackhawks regrouped and evened the series with a 5-2 win in Game 2, then appeared to take charge by rallying from a 5-2 deficit for a 6-5 win in Game 3. Minnesota scored five times in the first period, but the Hawks pulled even early in the third period on a goal by Steve Thomas, then went ahead to stay on Jeremy Roenick’s goal with 13:45 remaining in regulation.
But instead of falling apart, the North Stars pulled together and evened the series by outshooting Chicago 34-17 in a 3-1 victory in Game 4. Then, the Stars stunned a full house at Chicago Stadium with a 6-0 victory to take a 3-2 series lead. Minnesota scored five power-play goals, making the Hawks pay for their parade to the penalty box.
Brian Bellows' two goals in game six of the 1991 playoffs propelled Minnesota to a series-ending win over Chicago.
Brian Bellows, who had four assists in Game 5, scored twice and set up another goal as the Stars eliminated Chicago with a 3-1 win in Game 6.
The 38-point disparity is the second-largest overcome by any series winner. But the North Stars weren’t finished. They beat St. Louis and Edmonton to become the first team with a winning percentage less than .430 to make the Stanley Cup Final since the 1938 Blackhawks. Minnesota won Games 1 and 3 against Pittsburgh, but lost the series in six games.
Chicago rebounded to make the Stanley Cup Final in 1992, but was swept by the Penguins after winning 10 straight playoff games.

2006: Edmonton vs. Detroit
Dwayne Roloson was a journeyman goalie acquired by the Edmonton Oilers in hopes that he could get them to the playoffs. He did; the Oilers qualified on the next-to-last night of the season as the eighth team in the Western Conference. But with 95 points, they were 29 behind the Detroit Red Wings, whose 124 points were 11 more than any other team in the League.

The Wings out-shot Edmonton 57-25 in the opener, but it wasn’t until Kirk Maltby’s goal 2:39 into the second overtime that they skated off with a 3-2 victory.
Roloson made 33 saves in Game 2, and the Oilers got goals by Brad Winchester and Fernando Pisani 57 seconds apart late in the second period for a 4-2 victory.
The Oilers came home and got a 44-save performance from Roloson and a goal by Jarret Stoll 8:44 into the second overtime for a 4-3 victory. Detroit rebounded in Game 4, scoring three power-play goals in a 4-2 victory.

But Roloson came to the fore again in Game 5, making 30 saves as the Oilers scored three second-period goals and survived a late Detroit onslaught for a 3-2 win.
Game 6 saw the Red Wings take a 2-0 lead after two periods, only to have Pisani score twice in the first 6:40 of the third period to tie the score. Johan Franzen scored midway through the third period to put Detroit back in front, but Ales Hemsky tied the game with a power-play goal at 16:07, then triggered one of the biggest celebrations Edmonton had seen in years when he beat Manny Legace with 1:06 left in regulation. It was the Oilers’ first playoff-clinching win at home in 14 years.
"I haven't seen anything like that," said Roloson, who was one of the Oilers heroes after making 211 saves in the series. "The place erupted. It was unbelievable.”
Roloson continued his heroics by backstopping the Oilers into the Stanley Cup Final, then was injured in Game 1 and had to watch as Edmonton lost in seven games to Carolina.

Detroit finished first in the West in 2006-07 but was eliminated in the Western Conference final by Anaheim, which went on to win the Cup.

2001: Toronto vs. Ottawa

Ottawa’s days as an NHL doormat were long gone by the spring of 2001. The Senators came into their first-round series seeded second in the East after the best season in their history; a 109-point effort that put them first in the Northeast Division and 19 points ahead of their provincial archrivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Senators were looking to avenge a first-round loss to the Leafs the previous season, a series in which Curtis Joseph had excelled in goal for Toronto. He was every bit as good in the 2001 opener, stopping 36 shots before Mats Sundin’s goal 10:49 into overtime gave Toronto a 1-0 victory.
Joseph was flawless again in Game 2, stopping 37 shots in a 2-0 shutout. Gary Roberts scored both goals to give the Leafs a two-game lead as they headed home.
The Senators appeared to be on the way to a third-straight shutout loss before rallying for two goals in the final 3:09 to force overtime in Game 3. But Cory Cross fired a long rebound past Patrick Lalime 2:06 into overtime to give Toronto a 3-2 victory.
During the 2001 playoffs, Bryan McCabe helped the Leafs cut Ottawa's season short with a four-game sweep.
Ottawa took its first lead of the series when defenseman Chris Phillips scored early in Game 4. But Yanic Perreault scored two goals and Bryan McCabe scored another in a 3-1 victory that sent the Senators home for the summer.
''During the regular season, Curtis Joseph obviously did the job for us but we didn't play that well in front of him,'' Roberts told the media afterward. ''But we've done that for him in the playoffs so far.''
The loss left the Senators trying to figure out what happened.
''We didn't follow our game plan, and once we lost the first game in overtime, we couldn't really find ourselves,'' Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said.
Toronto was bounced by New Jersey in the second round.
The Senators’ frustrations against Toronto continued in 2002, when the Leafs beat them in seven games in the second round, and again in 2004, when Toronto again won a seventh game. Ottawa finally made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 2007 -- not coincidentally, the Leafs’ second straight season without a trip to the playoffs.

2000: San Jose vs. St. Louis

The Blues had never missed the playoffs since entering the NHL in 1967, but they had never enjoyed a season like 1999-2000, when they came out of nowhere to finish first in the NHL standings with 51 wins and 114 points, led by the play of centers Pierre Turgeon and Pavol Demitra, goaltender Roman Turek and the defensive duo of Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis.

The Blues’ point total was 27 more than the Sharks, whose 87 points were the fewest among playoff qualifiers in the West and 15th in the 16-team field. San Jose was 0-4-1 against the Blues during the regular season.

St. Louis was without Demitra due to a concussion, but his absence wasn’t felt in a 5-3 series-opening victory, as third-liner Jochen Hecht scored twice.

But then the puck started taking some funny bounces. The Sharks tied the series with a 4-2 win, aided by a goal scored from behind the Blues net by defenseman Bryan Marchment.
The series moved West, and the Sharks went in front with a 2-1 victory as Owen Nolan scored twice. The funny bounces continued: Four of the Sharks’ goals in the first three games went into the net off a St. Louis player, with one occurring when defenseman Marc Bergevin knocked the puck into the net with his glove while trying to knock it behind the net.

The Sharks’ 3-2 win in Game 4 left them one win away from the upset, but St. Louis wouldn’t go down without a fight -- they had rallied from a 3-1 deficit in 1999 to beat Phoenix in seven games.

Pronger scored twice in Game 5 to lead the Blues to a 5-3 win, and Scott Young’s hat trick spoiled what San Jose fans had hoped would be a clinching party in Game 6 — the Blues scored the game’s first six goals and cruised to a 6-3 win.

The Blues had home ice for Game 7. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. In their only two playoff series victories, the Sharks had pulled first-round upsets against Detroit in 1994 and Calgary in 1995 by winning Game 7 on the road.
Sure enough, the Sharks found a way this time, too. Ronnie Stern gave them a 1-0 lead at 2:51, and Nolan made it 2-0 with another fluky goal, a 65-footer than fooled Turek with 10 seconds left in the opening period.
"It's been a fluky series for goals," Nolan said afterward. "I thought why not just shoot it on net and see what happens? He bobbled it and it went in."
Jeff Friesen scored in the second period, and all the Blues could manage on their 22 shots at Steve Shields was Young’s power-play goal early in the third period.
“Obviously, there was a lot of talk about us going a long way," Young said after the greatest season in Blues’ history ended prematurely. "But you can never look past the first round. It's something that we didn't seem to mentally prepare for."
The Sharks lasted only five games against Dallas in the second round. The Blues dropped off in the regular season in 2000-01, but did make it to the conference championship before losing to Colorado.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere set a playoff-record with 63 saves during the Ducks 2003 playoff run.
2003: Anaheim vs. Detroit
Detroit was primed for a repeat as Stanley Cup champion in 2003. The Wings had rolled to the Central Division title with 110 points, their fourth consecutive 100-point season, and were playing an Anaheim team that hadn’t made the playoffs in four years.
The seventh-seeded Mighty Ducks had lost three of their four regular-season meetings with Detroit and had been swept by the Wings in their previous two playoff appearances. But Anaheim made sure there would not be a third sweep by winning the opener 3-2 when Paul Kariya scored 3:18 into the third overtime. The Wings got first-period goals by Brendan Shanahan and Adam Oates, but couldn’t get another puck past Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who made a playoff-record 63 saves.
Giguere had stopped 74 consecutive shots before Jason Woolley’s goal early in the second period of Game 2 put Detroit ahead. The Wings led 2-1 after two periods and appeared to be on the way to a series-tying victory before the Ducks scored a pair of late goals to win 3-2. Jason Krog tied the game with 6:26 remaining, and Steve Thomas stunned the sellout crowd in Hockeytown when he ripped a slap shot past Curtis Joseph with 4:14 left in regulation.
The Wings still had reason to hope; they had overcome a 2-0 deficit to beat Vancouver in the first round in 2002. But they hadn’t been facing Giguere, who made goals by Samuel Pahlsson and Stanislav Chistov stand up my making 36 saves in a 2-1 win in Game 3.
Anaheim completed one of the most stunning sweeps in NHL history with a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 4. Steve Rucchin’s winner at 6:53 of OT completed the first series sweep of a defending Stanley Cup champion since 1952.
"If you would have asked me at the beginning of the series about a sweep, I would have said, 'No,'" Giguere said after stopping 32 shots in the clincher.

In his first NHL playoff series, Giguere stopped 165 of 171 shots and had a 1.24 GAA in the four-game sweep. He continued his brilliance by leading the Mighty Ducks all the way to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final before New Jersey’s 3-0 victory denied them what would have been one of the most improbable championships ever. Though his team didn’t win, Giguere was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
1986: New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia
Philadelphia had decimated the Rangers in the opening round of the 1985 playoffs, sweeping the Blueshirts on the way to the Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers had improved from 62 points in 1984-85 to 78, but they still weren’t expected to put up much of a fight against a Flyers team that had finished first in the Eastern Conference with 110 points.
But the Rangers did have goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, whose play was the only reason the Rangers had edged Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot in the Patrick Division. Vanbiesbrouck, who would later be awarded the Vezina Trophy for his regular-season play, was brilliant in the opener, making 31 saves in a 6-2 victory that broke the Rangers’ 11-game losing streak at the Spectrum. New York stood up to the Flyers’ intimidation efforts and made Philadelphia pay by getting two power-play goals from Mike Ridley.
Vanbiesbrouck allowed just two goals in Game 2 — but this time, the Flyers tightened up and held on for a 2-1 victory.
The Rangers, the lowest-scoring team in the Eastern Conference, were able to score just once in the first two periods of Game 3 at Madison Square Garden -- but then erupted for four goals in the final 20 minutes, including three in 38 seconds -- for a 5-2 victory. One night later, they had a chance to close out the Flyers but couldn’t do it. Philadelphia looked every bit like the Beast of the East in a series-tying 7-2 victory.
That meant they would have to win another game at the Spectrum, one of the most feared arenas in the NHL. And they did it.
Pierre Larouche, Willie Huber, and Mark Osborne scored to give the Rangers a 3-1 lead after two periods. Vanbiesbrouck, who finished with 34 saves, allowed a goal midway through the final period but kept the Flyers from tying the game until Kelly Miller and Don Maloney hit the empty net in the final minute.
It was hard to say who was more stunned by the outcome -- the Flyers fans or the Rangers themselves.
''If you told me last week, we'd be here now,'' defenseman James Patrick told writers in the jubilant locker room, ''I'd say you were crazy.'
The Rangers went on to beat Washington before losing to Montreal in the Eastern Conference finals. The Flyers got even in 1987 when they knocked off the Rangers in the first round on the way to another trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
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