Published November 20, 2014
What does it take to win the Stanley Cup? Weeks of hard work, dedication, maybe a few teeth sacrificed to the cause -- and, as often as not, a little bit of luck. The best team on paper isn't always the one that ends up drinking champagne from the Cup.
The NHL has had its share of surprise champions over the years. Here are seven teams that surprised a lot of people -- perhaps even themselves -- by ending up as champions:
1928: New York Rangers
The Rangers entered the NHL as an expansion team in 1926, and under the guidance of Lester Patrick finished first in the American Division in their inaugural season. They weren't as good in their second season, dropping to second in the division, but swept Pittsburgh and division-winning Boston to make their first Stanley Cup Final against the powerful Montreal Maroons -- the 1926 Cup winners had ousted the Canadiens in the other semifinal.
As was the case for the Rangers until the 1960s, the annual visit from the circus occupied Madison Square Garden -- in this case, giving the favored Maroons home ice for entire best-of-5 series. It looked like they would win easily after skating off with a 2-0 win in the opener. Things turned even bleaker for the Rangers midway through the second game when goalie Lorne Chabot was cut over the eye by a backhander from Nels Stewart. With no backup goaltender available, the 44-year-old Patrick put on the pads, went into the net in a scoreless game -- and made 18 saves to get the victory when the Rangers won 2-1 in overtime on a goal by Frank Boucher. The Rangers hoisted Patrick to their shoulders and carried him off the ice after the win.
"Lester didn't have many tough shots to stop," forward Murray Murdoch recalled a half-century later. "As soon as the Maroons got to the blue line, we knocked 'em down."
The NHL allowed the Rangers to use Joe Miller, a goaltender who had played for the rival Americans, for the rest of the series, but the Maroons moved within one win of the Cup when they blanked the Blueshirts 2-0 in Game 3. However, Miller turned the table in Game 4, shutting out the Maroons 1-0, and Boucher scored twice to give the Rangers a 2-1 win in Game 5. They became only the second U.S.-based team (after the 1917 Seattle Metropolitans) to win the Cup -- and the first to use a 44-year-old goalie while doing it.
1938: Chicago Black Hawks
Six of the NHL's eight teams made the playoffs in 1938, and Hawks were the final qualifier from the American Division despite a 14-25-9 record, good for 37 points, two more than last-place Detroit (the Bruins and Rangers were 1-2 in the League with 67 and 60 points, respectively). The Hawks, with a roster that featured eight American-born players, looked like they were headed for a quick exit when they dropped their playoff opener 6-4 at Montreal, but came back with a 4-0 win at home in Game 2 and stunned the Forum crowd by winning the deciding third game 3-2 in overtime.
The second-round scenario against the New York Americans was the same -- lose the first game on the road, win via shutout (1-0 in two overtimes) in Game 2 and capture Game 3 on the road (3-2 at Madison Square Garden) to win the series.
That sent the Hawks into the Stanley Cup Final against the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canadian Division champions who had ousted Boston in the semis. Even worse, goaltender Mike Karakas broke his toe in the clincher against the Americans and couldn't play. Chicago signed journeyman goalie Alfie Moore, who was superb as the Hawks shocked the Leafs 3-1 in the opener at Maple Leaf Gardens.
However, League President Frank Calder ruled before Game 2 that Moore was ineligible (though he allowed the victory to stand). With minor-leaguer Paul Goodman in goal, the Hawks were pummeled 5-1, sending the series to Chicago all even.
Karakas returned for Game 3 wearing a steel-capped boot to protect his toe and excelled as the Hawks won 2-1 in Game 3. Doc Romnes, wearing a football helmet to protect a broken nose, scored the winning goal at 15:55 of the third period, triggering an eruption from a record crowd of 18,497. The Hawks wrapped up the franchise's second Stanley Cup with a 4-1 win in Game 4.
The Hawks are perhaps the biggest long shot ever to win the Cup. The eight Americans were the most on a Cup-winning team until 1995, and rookie coach Bill Stewart became the first American-born bench boss to lead his team to the Cup. Ironically, Stewart was fired the next season.
1942: Toronto Maple Leafs
Few things are more certain in sports than a team winning a playoff series after taking a 3-0 lead. That's why things didn’t look promising for the Toronto Maple Leafs after they blew a 2-0 lead in a 5-2 loss at the Olympia put them down 3-0 to the Detroit Red Wings in the 1942 Final.
With nothing to lose, coach Hap Day shook up his lineup for Game 4, benching first-line winger Gordie Drillon and Bucko McDonald and inserting rookies Don Metz and Ernie Dickens -- Metz took Drillon's place on the Leafs' top line, playing on a trio along with his brother Nick and No. 1 center Syl Apps, who had been held without a point in the three games.
The Wings were less than 15 minutes away from the Cup after Carl Liscombe put them ahead 3-2. But Apps tied the game at 6:15 and Don Metz added the winner minutes later for a 4-3 come-from-behind victory.
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1942 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Games played: 4 | PIM: 0
By now, the Wings were in full retreat. Goaltender Turk Broda was the hero in Game 6 as the Leafs won 3-0 at the Olympia (Don Metz had the game-winner), sending the series for a seventh game back at Maple Leaf Gardens.
With a record crowd of 16,218 packing the Gardens to the seams, Detroit’s Syd Howe opened the scoring late in the second period. Heading into the third, the Red Wings led 1-0. But Sweeney Schriner tied the game early in the period and Pete Langelle put Toronto ahead at 9:48. Schriner added a second goal, and pandemonium broke out on the ice and in the stands as the clock ticked off the final seconds of Toronto's 3-1 win.
The comeback from a 3-0 deficit has never been duplicated in the Stanley Cup Final; it's been done only twice in any playoff series -- by the New York Islanders in the 1975 quarterfinals and by Philadelphia in this year's Eastern Conference Semifinals.
1949: Toronto Maple Leafs
In the 25 seasons of the "Original Six," the Stanley Cup was won by the fourth-place team (the last playoff qualifier) exactly once -- 61 years ago.
The 1948-49 Toronto Maple Leafs entered the season as two-time defending Stanley Cup champs, having finished first in the previous season and then losing just once on the way to Cup No. 2. But the '48-49 Leafs had suffered some serious losses -- most notably the retirement of star center Syl Apps. Toronto went from first in 1947-48 to fourth in 1948-49, making the playoffs only because the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers struggled badly throughout the season.
But being a champion can count for something when the pressure is on. Despite finishing with a sub-.500 record, the Leafs had little trouble polishing off the second-place Bruins, winning in five games and taking all three contests played at Boston. Meanwhile, first-place Detroit had to go the full seven games before sending Montreal home for the summer.
Still, the weary Wings did have the NHL's best three-man unit -- the "Production Line" of Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe. The trio scored 66 goals during the regular season and had 12 of Detroit's 17 tallies against the Canadiens.
But the Leafs had shut down the Production Line in the 1948 Final, and they did it again.
The opening game at the Olympia went into overtime before Joe Klukay whipped a pass from Roy Timgren past Harry Lumley at 17:31 of overtime for a 3-2 victory. Sid Smith scored all three Toronto goals in Game 2, a 3-1 win. Back in Toronto, Turk Broda's goaltending and goals by Bill Ezinicki, Ted Kennedy and Gus Mortson in a five-minute span gave the Leafs another 3-1 win and a 3-0 lead in the series.
The Production Line finally got on the board when Lindsay opened the scoring in Game 4. But that was the last puck to get by Broda. Goals by Timgren, Cal Gardiner and Max Bentley gave Toronto its third 3-1 win and made the Leafs the first team to win three consecutive Cups.
The 1948-49 Leafs are the last team to capture the championship after finishing the regular season under .500.
1980: New York Islanders
It’s easy now to remember the Islanders' four-in-a-row dynasty and think that they were dominant in all of their Cup-winning seasons. But that was certainly not the case the first time.
Had the 1978-79 Islanders won the Cup, no one would have blinked. Those Islanders ended Montreal's reign as regular-season champs and were given a great chance to do the same to the Habs' three-year run as Cup winners -- only to lose to the archrival Rangers in the semifinals, clearing the way for the Canadiens' fourth consecutive Cup.
hoto credit: Steve Babineau/NHLI
The Isles polished off Los Angeles in the opening round, but weren't expected to do much against a big, tough Boston team that had finished with 105 points. However, the Islanders stood up to the Bruins and beat them in five games.
Next came Buffalo, the Adams Division champs with 110 points. The Islanders won the first two games at Memorial Auditorium and wound up capturing the series in six, sending them to their first Stanley Cup Final.
Their opponent was the division rival Philadelphia Flyers, the regular-season champs with 116 points who had set an NHL record by going unbeaten in 35 games. But the Islanders stunned the sellout crowd at the Spectrum in Game 1 by winning 4-3 in overtime on Denis Potvin's power-play goal.
Philadelphia won Game 2, but the Islanders' special teams carved up the Flyers in Games 3 and 4 on Long Island, putting the Isles within a victory of their first Stanley Cup.
The Flyers won 6-3 at home in Game 5, but looked to be done when the Islanders took a 4-2 lead into the locker room after two periods of Game 6. Instead, Philadelphia rallied to tie the score and only Billy Smith's heroics in goal enabled the Isles to get the game into overtime.
Both teams had chances in the extra period before Lorne Henning's takeaway in the neutral zone set up a 2-on-1 break. John Tonelli's pass found Bob Nystrom for a backhand chip past Pete Peeters at 7:11 of OT for a 5-4 win that turned out to be the start of a dynasty.
The Isles were the first team to win the Cup by beating three 100-point teams -- and still the only one to beat the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the regular season.
1986: Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal dynasties of the 1950s and 1970s were long gone by the mid-80s. The Canadiens had actually finished below .500 in 1983-84 and weren't regarded as serious Cup contenders when the 1986 playoffs began.
But the rookie-laden Canadiens quickly showed what they were made of. Led by first-year goaltender Patrick Roy and feisty forward Claude Lemieux, they knocked off Boston and Hartford to win the Adams Division title, then beat the Rangers in six games to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1979.
Their opponents were the Calgary Flames, who had ended Edmonton's two-year reign as champs in the second round and outlasted St. Louis to win the Campbell Conference and make the Final for the first time in franchise history.
The Flames rolled to a 5-2 victory in Game 1 and jumped to a 2-0 lead in Game 2, only to see Gaston Gingras and David Maley score for the Habs to send the game into overtime. Many of the fans at the Saddledome hadn't even settled into their seats after the third intermission when Brian Skrudland beat Mike Vernon just nine seconds into OT for the win -- still the fastest overtime goal in NHL history
Back at the Forum, the Canadiens used three goals in a 93-second span to take the series lead with a 5-3 victory. Roy and Lemieux teamed up to win Game 4, with Lemieux scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win and Roy becoming the first rookie since Harry Lumley in 1945 to post a shutout in the Final.
Game 5 in Calgary saw the Canadiens jump to a 4-1 lead, then hang on down the stretch for a 4-3 win that marked the franchise's 23rd Stanley Cup, at the time the most by any team in any sport. Roy joined former Montreal netminder Ken Dryden as the only rookies ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
1991: Pittsburgh Penguins
None of the 1967 expansion teams had struggled as badly in their first 20-plus seasons as the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens entered the 1990-91 season having won all of three playoff rounds since entering the NHL. They had missed the playoffs the previous season and had made the postseason just once since 1982.
But with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr leading the offense and Tom Barrasso in goal, the Penguins won their first division title, capturing the Patrick Division. However, they managed just 88 points, seventh in the overall standings, and weren't expected to seriously challenge for the Cup.
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1991 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Games played: 24 | PIM: 6
But the "Penguins as Cinderella" theme was undercut by their opponents in the championship round. The Minnesota North Stars, who finished with only 68 points, won three consecutive upsets to make the Final for the first time since 1981.
The Stars' magic looked like it might carry them all the way to the Cup. They won Game 1 at Pittsburgh, lost Game 2, then took the series lead with a 3-1 home victory in Game 3 -- benefitting from the absence of Lemieux, who had to sit out with back spasms.
But Lemieux returned for Game 4, and Pens coach Bob Johnson pushed the tempo early. The Penguins responded with three quick goals and went on to a series-tying 5-3 win. Pittsburgh scored the first four goals of Game 5 and held on for a 6-4 victory, then routed the North Stars 8-0 to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
At seventh in the overall standings, the Pens were the lowest finisher to win a Stanley Cup. They struggled again for most of 1991-92, ending up third in the division and tied for sixth overall, but won the Cup again. Ironically, 1992-93 was by far their best season -- they set an NHL record with a 17-game winning streak on the way to a League-high 119 points -- only to lose to the Islanders in the second round.