The unpredictability of the NHL playoffs is what makes it so great. How many people predicted the Columbus Blue Jackets would defeat the Tampa Bay Lighting? Very few, and I suspect none had them winning in four games over the 62-win Lightning.
The Blue Jackets trailed 3-0 after the first period of game one, but in the next 11 periods, they outscored the Bolts 19-5 and completely dominated them. It was amazing to watch.
We have seen #1 seeds lose before, but since 1980, when the NHL went to 16 teams in the playoffs, we have never seen both #1 seeds in each conference lose in the first round.
It could happen this year as the Calgary Flames are now trailing Colorado three games to one.
I could put in a petty chirp about how you can always rely on the Flames to choke when it matters most, but I won’t. Instead, I’m paying close attention to witnessing something NHL fans have never seen before.
I took a trip down memory lane looking back at first round matchups since 1980. The playoff formats have changed in varying degrees, but there has always been a top team in each conference.
In 1979, 12 of the 17 teams in the league made the playoffs. The four division winners each had a bye in round one, while the remaining eight teams were seeded 1 through 8. The amazing part about that season was the Chicago Blackhawks won the Smythe division with only 73 points. They finished the season 29-36-15. Vancouver (63), St.Louis (48) and Colorado (42) were the other teams in this weak division. The Blackhawks finished with the 11th most points in the NHL, but because they won their division they got a first round bye. People complaining about the playoff seeding today, need to exhale slowly and relax.
Today’s format is just fine. The west matchups would have been the exact same if it was #1 v. #8 anyway, and Boston playing Toronto, who had one more point than Carolina (7th seed), is far from the travesty that some out east tried to make it. But I digress.
In 1980 the NHL expanded to 21 teams and 16 made the playoffs. For two seasons they had a 1 v. 16 format.
TOP SEEDS UPSET…
Here is a list of top seeds who lost, and how they did the following season.
In 1981, the Montreal Canadiens (103 points) were the top seed in the Prince of Wales conference. They were third overall in the NHL and played the Edmonton Oilers (74 points). The Oilers swept the Habs 3-0. Prior to the series, Habs goalie Richard Sevigny said Guy Lafleur would have Wayne Gretzky in his back pocket. The Oilers outscored the Habs 15-6 in the series and Gretzky had 11 points in three games. The Habs won their division and finished third overall (109 points) in 1982, but were upset again in the first round by Quebec (82 points).
In 1982 they switched to four divisions and played 1 v. 4 in each division. The Oilers finished first in the Clarence Campbell Conference and the Smythe Division with 111 points. The Los Angeles Kings had 63 points, but they upset the talented Oilers three games to two. (The first round was best of five until 1987). In game three the Kings trailed 5-0 after 40 minutes, but they scored five goals in the third and won it in overtime. A 48-point spread between the Oilers and Kings is the largest first round upset, points-wise, in NHL history. The Oilers lost the Cup Final in 1983.
In 1986 the Philadelphia Flyers finished with 110 points, second most in the NHL, but they were defeated by the New York Rangers (78 points), 3-2 in the first round. This was the final year of best of five series in the first round. The Rangers only had one player with more than 60 points that season, Mike Ridley (65), but they got balanced scoring and unheralded Bob Brooke scored eight points (he had 44 in regular season) in the five games series to upset the Flyers. The Flyers went to the Cup Final in 1987, losing in seven games.
SEVEN GAME SERIES…
In 1990, the Calgary Flames led the Clarence Campbell conference with 99 points, and second overall in the NHL. They finished first in goals scored with 348, but they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games. The Kings had 75 points, but they were second in goals scored in the regular season with 338. The Kings won game six in double OT, but maybe the most memorable game of that series was game four when LA spanked the Flames 12-4. Gretzky, Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom each had five points. The Flames led the NHL in goals again in 1991, finished second in the Smythe division, but lost in the first round, 4-3, to the Oilers.
In 1991 the Chicago Blackhawks won the Presidents Trophy with 106 points. The Minnesota North Stars (68 points) upset them in the first round 4-2, and actually went all the way to the Cup final before losing in six games to Pittsburgh. The Blackhawks led the league in goals against with only 211, but they were outscored 12-2 over the final three games of the series, losing all three. The Blackhawks went to the Cup final in 1992, but lost to Pittsburgh.
The 1993 Chicago Blackhawks led the Clarence Campbell Conference with 106 points and were first in goals against again, but they lost 4-0 to the St.Louis Blues (85 points). The Hawks were shutout twice and outscored 13-6. The Hawks finished sixth the next season and lost in the first round.
In 1994 the NHL went to the 1 v. 8 format, but division winners were guaranteed to finish 1-2 in each conference. The Detroit Red Wings won the west with 100 points and faced eighth place San Jose (82 points). The Sharks, led by Latvian sensation Arturs Irbe, upset the Wings in seven games. Igor Larionov had 10 points for the Sharks. The next season, lockout shortened 1995, the Wings won the Presidents Trophy, but lost in the Cup Final 4-0 to New Jersey.
The 1995 Quebec Nordiques won the Eastern Conference with 65 points (48 game season), but they lost 4-2 to the New York Rangers (47 points) in round one. The Avalanche goalies struggled. They each made three appearances and Stephane Fiset had a .861sv%, while Jocelyn Thibault had a .898. The Nordiques moved to Colorado in the off-season, acquired Patrick Roy during the year and won the Cup in 1996.
In 1998 the New Jersey Devils led the East and finished second overall in the NHL with 107 points. They faced the 83-point Ottawa Senators in the first round and lost in six games. It was a defensive series with the Senators outscoring the Devils 13-12, and only one game had more than four combined goals. It was not pretty hockey. Jacques Lemaire was fired in the off-season and Robby Ftorek took over.
In 1999 the Devils won the east, finished second in the NHL with 105 points, but again lost in the first round. This time the Penguins (90 points) defeated them in seven games. The Penguins won game six in OT and then won 4-2 in game seven. Martin Straka had 6-5-11 to lead the Penguins, while Martin Brodeur had an ugly .856sv% in the series. The next season the Devils fired Ftorek with eight games left in the season, hired Larry Robinson and the Devils won the Stanley Cup.
In 2000 the Blues won the Presidents trophy with 114 points, but they lost to the San Jose Sharks (87 points) in seven games in round one. There weren’t a lot of shots in the series as the Blues averaged 26 and the Sharks 23. It was the prime defensively boring era of hockey, but Owen Nolan did score six goals and eight points in the series to lead the Sharks to the upset. The Blues finished fourth in the west the following season and defeated the fifth place Sharks in the first round. They lost in the third round to Colorado.
The 2002 Boston Bruins won the East and finished second overall in the NHL with 101 points, but they were upset in six games by the eighth seed Montreal Canadiens (87 points). The Bruins lost games five and six by identical 2-1 scores despite dominating the games. They outshot the Habs 44-13 in game five and 35-16 in game six, but Jose Theodore stopped 77 of 79 shots. Boston finished seventh in the East the next season and lost 4-1 in round one to New Jersey.
The 2006 Detroit Red Wings led the NHL with 124 points, but lost to the Oilers (95 points) in six games in round one. Chris Pronger and Shawn Horcoff led the Oilers with seven points, while Fernando Pisani had five goals in the series. The Oilers lost the final to Carolina, and finished 25th in the NHL in 2007. The Red Wings led the Western Conference with 113 points the following season and lost in the West Final to Anaheim, then they won the Cup in 2008.
The 2009 San Jose Sharks won the Presidents Trophy with 117 points, but lost in six games to Anaheim (91 points). The Ducks won the first two games on the road (2-0, 3-2) with Jonas Hiller stopping 77 of 79 shots, while the Ducks only fired 17 and 26 shots at Evgeni Nabokov. The Sharks only scored 10 goals in the series as Hiller was outstanding. The Sharks led the West in 2010 and lost in the third round to Chicago.
In 2010 the Washington Capitals won the Presidents Trophy with 121 points, but lost in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens (88 points). This was a very strange series. The Habs won game one in OT, with Jaroslav Halak stopping 45 of 47 shots. The Capitals won the next three games scoring six, five and six goals. They chased Halak in game three, after he allowed three goals on 13 shots. Carey Price allowed three more, but he got the start in game four, but lost 6-3. The Canadiens were down 3-1, but they won three straight as Halak stood on his head. The Capitals fired 38, 54 and 42 shots in games 5-7, but only scored one goal each game. Meanwhile, the Canadiens had 28, 21 and 16 shots, but scored 2, 3 and 2 goals to win the series. In the four Habs wins, Halak stopped 176 of 181 shots. Unreal. The Capitals won the East in 2011 with 107 points, but lost in the second round to Tampa Bay.
The Vancouver Canucks won the Presidents Trophy in 2012 with 111 points. They’d lost the Cup Final in 2011 and were planning a long playoff run. It didn’t happen. They lost in five games to the eighth seed Los Angeles Kings (95 points) in five games. Vancouver only scored eight goals in the series, three in their lone game four victory. LA went on to win the Cup, dominating every series. The Canucks finished third in the west in 2013, but were swept in four games by San Jose and have been in the playoffs once since. It was the tail end of a strong five-year run by the Canucks.
In 2017 the Chicago Blackhawks led the West with 109 points, but were swept out of the first round by Nashville (94 points). The Blackhawks were shutout at home in games one and two, lost game 3-2 in game three in OT and then 4-1 in game four. They scored a pathetic three goals in four games. The Predators made it to the Cup Final, but lost in six to Pittsburgh. The Blackhawks haven’t been to the playoffs since, and 2017 was the final year of a dominant nine-year stretch for the Blackhawks that saw them win three Stanley Cups and another appearance in the Western Conference Final.
Of these 17 top seeds to lose in the first round, only the Chicago Blackhawks missed the playoffs the next season.
Four teams made it to the Cup Final the following season, but didn’t hoist the Cup.
Three teams made it to the Conference Finals.
One team made it to the second round.
Six lost in the first round the following year.
Two teams won the Cup. The Avalanche/Nordiques won in 1996, while the Devils won in 2000, after two previous seasons of being upset in the first round.
The top-five point differentials for upsets thus far:
1982 Oilers +48 over the Kings.
1991 BlackHawks +38 over the North Stars.
2010 Capitals +33 over the Canadiens.
1986 Flyers +32 over the Rangers.
2018 Lightning +30 over the Blue Jackets
It is interesting to note who well those #8 seeds did after knocking off the #1 seed.
The 2012 Kings won the Cup.
The 2017 Predators, 2006 Oilers and 1991 North Stars went to the Cup Finals.
The 2010 Habs and 1986 Rangers went to the Conference Final, while four other teams lost in game seven in the second round.
How far will Columbus go? Or Colorado if they finish off the Flames?
The Columbus Blue Jackets (98 points) shocked the President Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning (128 points) by sweeping them in four games. The Lightning led 3-0 after the first period in game one, but the Blue Jackets scored four goals to win that game, and then dominated the rest of the series. For the final 11 periods, Columbus outscored the Bolts 19-5. Tampa was the highest scoring team in the NHL this year averaging 3.89 goals/game, but they couldn’t beat Sergei Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets defence. Injuries to Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman played a role, as did the one-game suspension to Art Ross winner Nikita Kucherov, but Columbus dominated the series.
Now the Calgary Flames are on the verge of joining the Lighting in loserville. The Flames trail Colorado 3-1, and were completely overwhelmed by the Avs attack the past two games. The Avalanche outshot Calgary 56-29 and 52-37 in games three and four.
The Blue Jackets and Avalanche haven’t needed out-of-this-world goaltending to pull off the upset, or in Colorado’s case, be in a position to upset the top seed. Instead, they have out-skilled and out-worked the higher ranked team. It has been impressive.
Despite the loss, the Lighting still have many great pieces. I don’t see them changing their core. I think they need to add a few forwards with a bit more size. Not size that can’t play, but skilled size. The Lighting don’t have one forward over 6’1, and Columbus’ bigger defence was able to contain them. I expect they will tweak their defence as well, as four of their bluelines are UFAS and three of them are 32+ years of age. There is no need for them to panic, and I doubt they will. I’d expect them near the top of the NHL next regular season.
Calgary also has some good pieces, but they haven’t been able to match Colorado’s pace. Calgary hasn’t attacked like we saw in the regular season and when your best offensive player, Johnny Gaudreau, struggles it is hard to win. Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Point didn’t produce like they were expected for Tampa and they are out. Unless Gaudreau gets going, it will likely be the same fate for the Flames.
If that occurs, it would be the first time in NHL history (at least since they went to 16 playoff teams) that the #1 seed in each conference lost in the first round.
There is nothing more unpredictable and exciting in pro sports than the first round of the NHL playoffs.
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