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Hawks try to avoid joining first-round upset victims

by John Kreiser

The Chicago Blackhawks are hoping they avoid the fate that befell the last Hawks team to win the Presidents' Trophy.

The Blackhawks were the NHL's best team in the regular season in 1990-91, but that didn't help them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Chicago wound up joining the list of powerhouse teams whose planned trip to the Stanley Cup Final was derailed before it ever got rolling.

The inability to get past the first round has spoiled a brilliant season for more than one Cup favorite. No matter how great a team's regular season, all those points mean nothing once the playoffs start -- especially against an opponent that often sees a first-round upset as the way to atone for a disappointing season.

Here's a look at some of the biggest first-round upsets in Stanley Cup Playoff history in the expansion era:

1982: Los Angeles vs. Edmonton

More than three decades later, this remains the gold standard of first-round upsets.

Someone forgot to tell the Los Angeles Kings they were supposed to roll over for the most prolific offensive team in NHL history. The Edmonton Oilers piled up goals at a historic rate -- Wayne Gretzky alone accounted for 92, plus 212 points. Edmonton rolled to 111 points, while the fourth-place Kings had just 63, a drop of 36 from 1980-81.

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

But it was Game 3 -- forever known in Los Angeles as the Miracle on Manchester -- that made this series one to for the history books.

The Oilers were at their dynamic best through the first two periods at the Forum on April 10 -- they led 5-0 and were embarrassing the Kings in their own building. But defenseman Jay Wells scored with 17:14 left in the third period, and the Kings got a spark of life. Goals by Doug Smith and Charlie Simmer cut the margin 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 Kings goalie Mario Lessard. Shortly afterward, defenseman Mark Hardy beat Grant Fuhr with a wrist shot. The deficit was one, and the Forum was rocking.

With less than 90 seconds left, Hughes again found himself on a breakaway, but Lessard stopped him for a second time. The Kings then worked the puck into the Oilers' zone, pulled Lessard, and with the clock ticking down, Hardy got the puck in the high slot and fired a shot at Fuhr. The rebound came 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 wasted little time completing the greatest comeback in playoff history. Smith won a draw in the Oilers' zone and rookie Daryl Evans scored 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 with a 3-2 win in Game 4, sending the series back to Edmonton for what their fans was sure would be a series-clinching victory. Instead, the nothing-to-lose Kings jumped to a 2-0 lead and rolled to a 7-4 victory as Evans scored two goals. The 48-point disparity remains by far the largest disparity ever overcome by a series winner.

The Kings were ousted in the second round by Vancouver, and didn't win the Stanley Cup until last spring.

1971: Montreal vs. Boston

In one regard, the Boston Bruins were the Oilers of their day -- a team that scored more than anyone thought possible. But unlike those 1982 Oilers, the Bruins were the defending Stanley Cup champions -- and they had plenty of muscle to go with all that firepower. The Big Bad Bruins had set an NHL record by winning their last 10 playoff games in 1970 on the way to the franchise's first Cup since 1939.

The 1970-71 Bruins were an offensive machine the likes of which the NHL never had seen: 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 while outscoring their opponents by a then-record 192 goals. Under the format in use at the time, that earned them a first-round meeting with the third-place Montreal Canadiens, who were coming off the club's first non-playoff season since 1948 and had finished 24 points behind the Bruins.

Not only were the Canadiens decided underdogs, they were going to be using an untested goaltender -- Ken Dryden, a 23-year-old rookie who had six of NHL experience (winning them all) in the final weeks of the season, would open the postseason as the starter.

Dryden didn't get off to an auspicious beginning, as the Bruins beat the Canadiens 3-1 in the opener and then took a 5-1 lead midway in the second period of Game 2. However, the Canadiens scored six unanswered goals, five in the third period, for a 7-5 victory.

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 3-2 series lead with a 7-3 rout at Boston Garden. However, the Canadiens and their rookie goalie weren't done -- Henri 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 of the first period, but Frank Mahovlich and Rejean Houle scored before the end of the first 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.

Meanwhile, the Bruins couldn't do anything against 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 1:02 into the third, but Dryden stymied the Bruins the rest of the way. At one point, Esposito was so frustrated after being robbed that he swung his stick into the glass. He had 11 shots on goal and couldn't beat Dryden 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.

The Canadiens went on to beat Minnesota and Chicago for the Stanley Cup. The Bruins rebounded to win the Cup the following year, but didn't win again until 2011.

2010: Montreal vs. Washington

The 2009-10 Washington Capitals were (and still are) the best offensive team of the 21st century. They piled up goals at a rate unseen in a decade and a half. Alex Ovechkin reached the 50-goal mark for the fourth time in his five NHL seasons, and linemate Nicklas Backstrom joined him as half of the NHL's 100-point club. They packed arenas around the League while finishing first in the regular-season standings.

No one expected Montreal to give the Caps much of a test in their first-round matchup. The Canadiens were the final qualifier in the Eastern Conference with just 88 points, the fewest of any playoff team since the introduction of the shootout in 2005.

But the Canadiens had a secret weapon: Goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who had played his way past Carey Price into the starting job. He stymied the Caps in the opener, stopping 45 shots before Tomas Plekanec's goal at 13:19 of overtime gave Montreal a 3-2 victory.

The Capitals shook off the Game 1 loss by winning 6-5 in overtime in Game 2 to square the series, then trampling the Canadiens 5-1 and 6-3 in Montreal to take a 3-1 series lead. The wins at Bell Centre had been so easy that Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau spent part of his post-game press conference following Game 4 warning that the series wasn't over yet.

Boudreau knew what he was talking about.

With the full house at the Verizon Center ready to celebrate, Halak -- who was lifted in Game 3 and benched in Game 4 -- stopped 37 of 38 shots as Montreal won 2-1, making a pair of first-period goals stand up.

But that was just a warm-up act. Three days later, Halak stopped 53 of 54 shots as Montreal won 4-1.

"I think we played great and we just didn't score," said a still confident but definitely stunned Ovechkin. "It's only one guy. They just score goals and go back and leave all the pressure for their goalie. He [did] an unbelievable job. What more can you say?"

The Capitals still had one more chance, but once again Halak was too much. He stopped 41 shots, allowing only a late goal by Brooks Laich, to send Washington home for the summer as Montreal won 2-1.

"After we were trailing 3-1 [in the series], I said to myself, 'We've got nothing to lose. Just try to do your best and have fun,'" Halak said of his remarkable turnaround, which saw him stop 131 of 134 shots in the final three games.

If there was any consolation for the Capitals, Halak did the same thing to their biggest rivals in the next round, upsetting Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

1994: San Jose vs. Detroit

The Detroit Red Wings were the best in the West in 1994; in fact, they were the only team in the conference to reach the 100-point mark -- and they were looking to end a Cup drought that dated to 1955.

They certainly weren't expecting a first-round challenge from the San Jose Sharks, a third-year franchise making its first playoff appearance. Though San Jose made the playoffs thanks to an NHL-record 58-point improvement, the Sharks were the only club in the 16-team field that came in with a losing record. The question for most fans in both cities was whether San Jose would even win a game.

The answer came quickly -- the Sharks stunned a sell-out crowd at Joe Louis Arena with a 5-4 victory in the opener. Vlastimil Kroupa, a teenager, scored the game-winner when he beat Bob Essensa under the goalie's 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 win.

However, the Sharks rallied behind goaltender Arturs Irbe, winning the next two games 4-3 and 6-4 at home to take a 3-2 series lead back to Detroit (the series was played with a 2-3-2 format). The Wings calmed their nervous fans by scoring the first five goals in Game 6, routing Irbe on the way to a 7-1 victory.

But one of the good things about young teams is that they're often too young to be scared or intimidated, and that was the case in Game 7. Though the Wings were outplaying his team, Irbe kept the Sharks in the game and the score was tied 3-3 midway through the final period.

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 left in regulation. The Sharks held on for a 4-3 victory to win the first playoff series in franchise history.

"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 the Toronto Maple Leafs, 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.

1991: Minnesota vs. Chicago

Rookie goaltender Ed Belfour was the toast of the Windy City in the spring of 1991 after leading the Chicago Blackhawks 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 young player 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 Campbell Conference titles. That earned them a first-round meeting with the Minnesota North Stars, who managed just 68 points (although they were outscored by only 10 goals).

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.

The North Stars regrouped and evened the series with a 3-1 victory in Game 4, then stunned a full house at Chicago Stadium by scoring five power-play goals on the way to a 6-0 victory and a 3-2 series lead. Back at Met Center, 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 under .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. The Hawks finally ended a 49-year Cup drought in 2010, beating Philadelphia for their first championship since 1961.

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 just that -- the Oilers qualified on the next-to-last night of the season as the eighth seed 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 outshot 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. The tough loss didn't have any effect on the Oilers -- Roloson made 33 saves in Game 2, and Edmonton 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, the Oilers' best player in the first four games, rose to the occasion in Game 5, making 30 saves as the Oilers scored three second-period goals and survived a late Detroit blitz to go home with 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 finished with 211 saves in the six-game series. "The place erupted. It was unbelievable."

Roloson continued his heroics by backstopping the Oilers into the Stanley Cup Final, but was injured in Game 1 and had to watch as Edmonton lost in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes.

2000: San Jose vs. St. Louis

The St. Louis Blues entered the spring of 2000 having never missed the playoffs since entering the NHL in 1967. However, they never had enjoyed a season like 1999-2000, when they won the Presidents' Trophy with 114 points. That was 27 more than the San Jose Sharks, whose 87 points were the fewest among playoff qualifiers in the West and 15th in the 16-team playoff field. San Jose was 0-4-1 against the Blues during the regular season.

St. Louis won the opener 5-3, 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 to the Bay Area, 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, including one when defenseman Marc Bergevin deflected the puck over the goal line 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 -- after all, the Blues had rallied from a 3-1 series deficit in 1999 to beat Phoenix in seven games.

Chris 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 of the first period, and Nolan made it 2-0 with another fluky goal -- a 65-footer than fooled Roman Turek with 10 seconds left in the first.

"It's been a fluky series for goals," Nolan said. "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. "But you can never look past the first round. It's something that we didn't seem to mentally prepare for."

2003: Anaheim vs. Detroit

Detroit came into the 2003 playoffs primed to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. 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 Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks had lost three of their four regular-season meetings with Detroit and had been swept by the Red Wings in their previous two playoff meetings. 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 63 saves.

Giguere had stopped 74 consecutive shots before Jason Woolley beat him early in the second period of Game 2 to put Detroit ahead. The Red 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 Red Wings still had reason to hope -- they had, after all, overcome a 2-0 series deficit to beat the Vancouver Canucks in the first round in 2002. But Giguere had other ideas. He made goals by Samuel Pahlsson and Stanislav Chistov stand up by stopping 36 shots in a 2-1 win in Game 3. Anaheim then finished one of the most stunning sweeps in NHL history with a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 4. Steve Rucchin's winner 6:53 into overtime 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.

Giguere stopped 165 of 171 shots and had a 1.24 goals-against average in the four-game sweep. He continued his brilliance by leading Anaheim to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final before the New Jersey Devils' 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.

1998: Ottawa vs. New Jersey

The Ottawa Senators had made the playoffs for the first time in 1997, but they did it despite finishing with a sub-.500 record. Not until 1997-98, their sixth season in the NHL, did the Senators finish with more wins than losses. But their team-record 83 points were good enough for eighth place in the Eastern Conference, earning the Senators a first-round matchup against the top-seeded New Jersey Devils, who piled up 107 points and still had the core of the team that had won the Stanley Cup three years earlier.

"This is the best team in the Devils' history," goaltender Martin Brodeur said before the series opened. "Everybody remembers you for playoff hockey."

However, Ottawa goaltender Damian Rhodes stopped 28 shots in the opener as the Senators stunned the Devils by winning 2-1 on a goal by Bruce Gardiner 5:58 into overtime.

The Devils rebounded with a 3-1 win in Game 2, but the series moved to Ottawa, where the Senators got another brilliant effort from Rhodes in Game 3. He outplayed Brodeur again, stopping 30 shots before Alexei Yashin scored the winner 2:47 into overtime for another 2-1 victory.

The Senators came out flying in Game 4, with Daniel Alfredsson scoring three times to help Ottawa grab a 4-1 lead. As often happens with young teams, though, holding the lead was tougher than getting it -- New Jersey's Scott Stevens and Doug Gilmour scored to make it a one-goal game, but Rhodes made a game-saving stop on Gilmour in the final minute to preserve the 4-3 victory.

The Devils won Game 5 in New Jersey, beating the Senators 3-1. But with a chance to put the series away before their home crowd, the Senators won 4-1 to earn the first playoff series victory in franchise history.

On paper, it was a shocker. To the Senators, it was not.

"We defied the odds," Ottawa defenseman Lance Pitlick said. "They didn't give us any respect the whole series and we were the better team. They always had excuses for why we beat them, but they don't have any in the end."

To the Devils, however, it was a stunning early end to what they had hoped would be a long playoff run.

"It's devastating,'' New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko said of the early exit. "Probably the most heartbroken I've ever been."

1986: New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Flyers toyed with the New York Rangers in the opening round of the 1985 playoffs, sweeping them on the way to the Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers had improved from 62 points in 1984-85 to 78 in 1985-86, but they still weren't expected to put up much of a fight in the best-of-five series against a Flyers team that had finished first in the Eastern Conference with 110 points.

However, the Rangers did have goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, who earned the Vezina Trophy for his regular-season brilliance. "Beezer" 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 also allowed just two goals in Game 2, but this time, the Flyers made them stand up for a 2-1 victory.

The Rangers, the lowest-scoring team in the Eastern Conference, scored 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 for a 5-2 victory. They had a chance to close the series one night later but couldn't do it as Philadelphia looked every bit like the Beast of the East in a 7-2 victory.

That meant the Rangers 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, and 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 said, "I'd say you were crazy."

The Rangers went on to beat Washington before losing to Montreal in the Wales Conference Finals. The Flyers got even in 1987 when they knocked off the Rangers in the first round on the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

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