This past Tuesday saw perhaps the most-stunning upset in NHL playoff history. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who won 62 games in the 2018-19 regular season, were swept decisively by the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets, who outscored them 19-8 in the process.
Regular season success provides no guarantee for the postseason; as factors such as solid goaltending and special teams can power an underdog past the favorite in a seven-game series. Since the award was introduced in 1986, seven President’s Trophy winners have lost in the first round. Tampa Bay, however, becomes the first recipient to be swept in their opening series. Here are the top five most shocking first round playoff upsets, since the expansion era began in 1967.
1982: Kings defeat Oilers 3-2
The youthful Oilers were widely considered the second best team in the league, behind the two time defending champion New York Islanders. Edmonton was led by forwards Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and of course, Wayne Gretzky, who recorded 92 goals and 120 assists. The Oilers finished the 1981-82 season with 111 points, 48 more than their first-round opponent. However, the Kings stunned Edmonton in the best-of-five series, including “The Miracle on Manchester,” where the Kings overcame a 5-0 defect in the third period to win Game Three. Edmonton would go on to have their own dynasty a few years later, but this loss surely stung for Oilers fans at the time.
2010: Canadiens defeat Capitals 4-3
Add this upset to the list of Bruce Boudreau-led teams’ embarrassing playoff performances. Alexander Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom each recorded at least 100 points, All-Star defenseman Mike Green had 76, and former Hart and Vezina trophy winner Jose Theodore posted a 30-7-7 record. The Capitals coasted to the Presidents Trophy with 121 points, facing an inexperienced Montreal Canadiens squad, which barely snuck into the playoffs with 88 points. Nonetheless, Montreal overcame a 3-1 series deficit to stun the Capitals. Current Bruins backup Jaroslav Halak was crucial in the Canadiens’ victory, stopping 41 of 42 shots in game 7.
2006: Oilers defeat Red Wings 4-2
Not exactly the sendoff for Steve Yzerman that Red Wings fans envisioned. Detroit dominated the 2005-06 regular season, recording 124 points; 11 more than the East’s top seeded Ottawa Senators, and 29 more than the Oilers. Many of the Red Wings’ core players from their 2002 Stanley Cup team were on the roster, along with young talent such as Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen and Mikael Samuelsson. Edmonton won the series in six, behind the strong play of recently-acquired defenseman Chris Pronger. The 8th-seeded Oilers eventually advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to Carolina in seven games.
1991: North Stars defeat Blackhawks 4-2
Expectations and excitement were certainly high in Chicago entering the 1991 postseason. The superb goaltending of rookie Ed Belfour, who went on to win the Calder, Vezina and Jennings Trophies, powered the Blackhawks to a 106-point, President’s Trophy-winning finish. Steve Larmer, Jeremy Roenick, and Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios led the team in points. Dreams of the franchise’s first Cup in 30 years were in the air. Minnesota proved to be too much, bouncing back from a 2-1 deficit to win the series 4-2.
2003: Mighty Ducks defeat Red Wings 4-0
Although the Red Wings were the number two seed, and seventh seeds upset second seeds with some frequency, this Detroit squad recorded 110 points, and were defending Stanley Cup champions. The roster contained eight future Hall of Famers, including elite scorers Brett Hull and Sergei Fedorov, and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. Despite a nagging knee injury which limited captain Steve Yzerman’s play, experts considered Detroit to be a favorite to defend their title. Instead, Anaheim won four one-goal games, including two overtime decisions, to sweep the Red Wings. Led by the play of forwards Paul Kariya and Petr Sykora, and outstanding goaltending from Jean-Sébastien Giguère, the Mighty Ducks advanced to the Finals, where they lost to the more-experienced New Jersey Devils. ■
Joe Banish is a die-hard Red Wings fan who lives in the pro hockey vacuum of the Pacific Northwest. He also likes beating goalies high glove side, playing basketball, and cheering on his alma mater, Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @BanishJoe.