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Flyers would defy history by winning Stanley Cup

by John Kreiser
The Philadelphia Flyers finished the regular season with 88 points, 18th in the overall standings but good enough for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They are trying to win the franchise's third Stanley Cup by beating the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that finished 24 points ahead of them during the regular season.

Should they rally from a 2-0 series deficit (they trail 2-1 after Wednesday night's 4-3 overtime win), the Flyers would pull off the second-biggest Finals upset in history -- at least numerically speaking.

And they should know -- they were the victims of the biggest one.

This year's Flyers are the 20th team since 1939 (when the Final went to a best-of-7 format) to face an opponent that was at least 20 points better in the regular season. To say they're bucking history would be putting it mildly: Of the first 19 teams, just one won the Cup -- and it's a memory Flyer fans would rather forget.

The 1980 New York Islanders struggled through the regular season, and only a late surge enabled them to finish with 91 points -- sixth in the NHL and a 25-point decline from the previous season when they were first in the regular season, but lost to the Rangers in the semifinals. They also finished 25 points behind the Flyers, whose League-high 116 points included a record 35-game unbeaten streak that covered nearly half the season.

But by beating the Flyers in six games for their first of four consecutive Cups, the Islanders became the biggest Finals underdog to skate off with a championship. In fact, they are still the only team to win a Cup against a team that finished 20 or more points ahead during the regular season.

Ironically, the Islanders also were involved in the biggest Final mismatch of all time. Two years after upsetting Philadelphia, the Islanders played Vancouver, whose 77 regular-season points were a whopping 41 behind New York's League-leading total of 118. This time, there were no upsets -- the Islanders won in four games.

The only other instances of a disparity of 30 or more points between Finalists go back to the Original Six Era. Montreal swept Chicago in 1944 in a series between teams separated by 34 points in the standings, and the 1951 Toronto Maple Leafs beat Montreal in five games (all in overtime) after finishing 30 points ahead of the fourth-place Habs during the regular season.

The Canucks were also involved in the second-biggest mismatch in the Expansion Era (post-1967). Vancouver managed only 86 points in 1993-94 but came on strong in the playoffs and won the Western Division championship. The Canucks were 27 points behind the Rangers in the overall standings, but gave the regular-season champions all they could handle before losing 3-2 in Game 7.

But close series between teams with big regular-season disparities are the exception rather than the rule. The Isles' sweep of Vancouver in '82 was one of five by the "favored" team, while seven other series were decided in five games. The only other series with a disparity of more than 20 points between the participants to go to the limit games came in 1950, when Detroit finished 21 points ahead of the Rangers but needed seven games (and double overtime in Game 7) to win.

This year's Flyers would be bucking history even if they had finished just one point behind the Blackhawks. Of the 68 previous best-of-7 Finals in which one team had more points than the other, the team with the most points won 57 times. The last time a team won the Final despite finishing behind its opponent in the regular season was 1997, when the Detroit Red Wings swept Philadelphia despite trailing the Flyers 103-94 in points during the season.

The Flyers also are one of two teams to play in the Final against an opponent who finished with the same number of points. They retained the Cup in 1975 by beating Buffalo after both teams finished with 113 points -- the Flyers had the home-ice edge because they had two more victories. Seventeen years later, the Pittsburgh Penguins swept Chicago in a battle of teams that had finished with 87 points during the regular season -- again, the Penguins had more victories.

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