It’s not that a Vegas Golden Knights-Washington Capitals Stanley Cup final wasn’t supposed to happen, because that has nothing to do with it. But as the puck gets set to drop on Game 1 Monday night, the reality is that when pre-season, mid-season and even post-season picks were made, not even Nostradamus would have been able to see this Stanley Cup final coming.
The Golden Knights, for everything they’ve proven all season long, were considered long shots despite winning the Pacific Division, the fairytale expansion club for whom the clock would strike midnight before they could get as far as even the conference final. Meanwhile, if history had taught us anything, the prevailing belief was that even if the Capitals made it through the opening round of the post-season, a date with the Pittsburgh Penguins would signal the end of Alex Ovechkin and Co. Yet, here we are with the clock ticking down to the opening faceoff of the final with four wins separating either team from their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen some unexpected entrants into the Stanley Cup final, mind you. In the post-expansion era, there have been a number of clubs who have fought their way through to the last post-season series, but here are five of the least expected finals of the past 50 years:
LOS ANGELES KINGS vs. NEW JERSEY DEVILS — 2012 STANLEY CUP FINAL
Knowing what we know now about what the then-Western Conference eight-seed Kings would accomplish in the seasons to come — appearances in three-straight conference finals and another Stanley Cup victory — Los Angeles’ entrance into the Stanley Cup final in 2012 and their eventual six-game victory, which earned the organization its first ever Stanley Cup, isn’t all that surprising. At the time, though, the advanced statistical revolution hadn’t taken hold and, even if those numbers did support the Kings, they still could have been considered and were largely seen as underdogs when they drew the Vancouver Canucks in the first round and St. Louis Blues in the second.
The Devils, meanwhile, weren’t exactly in the same position, but it’s tough to say anyone really considered New Jersey a Stanley Cup contender entering the playoffs. They had missed the post-season the year prior, had the oldest roster in the NHL, were backstopped by a Martin Brodeur who was in the twilight of his career and were in their first season under coach Peter DeBoer, who was the Devils’ fourth bench boss in four seasons. New Jersey survived a first-round scare against the Florida Panthers and went on a roll that sent them to the final, though. But all the issues that saw the Devils considered an outside-shot to make the final came to roost in the years that followed as New Jersey then went on a five-season playoff drought that only came to an end this past season.
CAROLINA HURRICANES vs. EDMONTON OILERS — 2006 STANLEY CUP FINAL
In the first post-lockout campaign, regular season results couldn’t have differed more for the Hurricanes and Oilers. Carolina was one of the East’s top teams, finishing one point shy of the conference crown, while Edmonton snuck into the post-season by the skin of their teeth. Entering the playoffs, though, few would have suggested the Hurricanes or the Oilers were bound to do all that much.
You see, regardless of the Hurricanes regular season finish, Carolina needed to get through an Eastern gauntlet that included the 2003 Stanley Cup champion Devils or a Buffalo Sabres group that had a great mix of offensive firepower and defensive prowess. The Oilers, meanwhile, were an eight-seed up against the top-seed Detroit Red Wings, who had lost 16 games all season, in the first round.
But the upstart Hurricanes, who had missed the post-season in each of the past two seasons, found their groove early once Cam Ward took over in goal, while the Oilers, on the strength of remarkable play by defenseman Chris Pronger, worked their way through the Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim en route to their first final appearance in 16 years. The Cinderella run came to an end in Game 7 of the final for the Oilers, however, as the Hurricanes captured the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup.
COLORADO AVALANCHE vs. FLORIDA PANTHERS — 1996 STANLEY CUP FINAL
There’s no apples-to-apples comparison for the Stanley Cup final we’re about to watch kick off Monday night in Vegas, in large part because no expansion team since the creation of the all-expansion division in 1967-68 has been able to earn a final berth in their inaugural season. The Florida Panthers were closest to achieving such a feat, however, as they needed just three campaigns to battle their way to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Meanwhile, the Avalanche were, in their own way, in their NHL infancy. Yes, they’d built a deep roster and were chock full of talent from their days at the Quebec Nordiques, but a move to Colorado technically made the Avalanche the NHL’s “newest” team. And in their very first season in Denver, the franchise accomplished something they hadn’t been able to in their previous 16 campaigns in Quebec: earn a berth into the Stanley Cup final.
Despite both being newcomers to the final, the series itself was absolutely one-sided and Colorado mopped the floor with Florida. The aggregate score was 15-4 across a four-game sweep, and the Panthers had a lead for all of 24 minutes in the series.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. MINNESOTA NORTH STARS — 1991 STANLEY CUP FINAL
In 1990, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished the campaign one point outside of the post-season despite Mario Lemieux finishing fourth in league scoring with 123 points. That same season, the Minnesota North Stars, who had 76 points and a sub-.500 record, barely snuck into the dance. So, heading into the 1991 campaign, neither would have been viewed as Stanley Cup contenders, and chances are no one viewed either team as a real Stanley Cup threat when they made the playoffs in 1991, either. Minnesota had again barely snuck into the playoffs with a 27-39-14 record, and while Pittsburgh was much better, finishing third in the Wales Conference with a 41-33-6 record, they were seen as more of an upstart group than anything.
But in the post-season, the North Stars were led to stunning wins over the Chicago Blackhawks, Blues and Oilers on the strength of high-scoring duo Brian Bellows and Dave Gagner. Meanwhile, the Penguins bowled over opponents as Lemieux, Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens finished first through third in playoff scoring, respectively. Incredibly, though 20 points and 14 wins separated the two teams in the regular season, the Stanley Cup final was close until the final two outings. Pittsburgh and Minnesota traded wins through the first four games, but the Penguins 6-4 Game 5 victory opened the door for an 8-0 drubbing of the North Stars in Game 6.
MONTREAL CANADIENS vs. CALGARY FLAMES — 1986 STANLEY CUP FINAL
The prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite entering the 1986 playoffs was a Canadian team. The thing is, though, it wasn’t either of the Canadian teams that actually made their way into the Stanley Cup showdown. On the heels of winning consecutive Stanley Cups and a berth in the final for three years running, the expectation was the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers were destined to keep the good times rolling in Edmonton come the 1986 post-season. Instead, it was the Campbell Conference second seed Calgary Flames, who finished 30 points behind the top-seeded Oilers in the regular season, who represented Western Canada following back-to-back seven-game defeats of the Oilers and Blues.
As for the Canadiens, they weren’t exactly an underdog, but the best bet Canada had in the Wales Conference actually appeared to be Quebec’s other club, the Nordiques. They had finished 12 games above .500 and five points clear of the Canadiens in the standings. As luck would have it, though, Quebec was upset in the opening round by the Hartford Whalers, who were then beat by the Canadiens in the second round. Finally, Montreal earned their way past the New York Rangers to head to the 1986 final.
That series, and the entire post-season for that matter, would end up introducing the hockey world to one of its all-time greats, too, as a 20-year-old kid named Patrick Roy backstopped Montreal to a five-game Stanley Cup victory and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in the process.
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