Everyone loves a great underdog story. Many fans with no rooting interest in a particular game will likely pull for the underdog. Our favourite term for a team that overachieves and shocks everybody is a Cinderella story. In hockey it happens every so often, primarily because the goaltender is the ultimate equalizer, perhaps the most impactful of any sport. A hot pitcher is one in baseball, but goaltenders play every game, so they have a greater impact.
Unlike fairy tales, Cinderella stories in sports don’t always have the happy ending. When the clock strikes midnight, the story ends there. The ride there is always magical and it’s hard to find a dull Cinderella story. They’re always compelling, as the disbelief riding over sports fans is always a strong emotion. Why do you think we always say the regular season doesn’t matter come playoff time? That’s because we see time and time again that for whatever reason, a team can come out of nowhere and silence the experts.
Here are the top 10 Cinderella stories in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not all have happy endings, but they’re all memorable. This is ranked according to how far the team went and how lowly they were regarded going into the playoffs.
10) Philadelphia Flyers, 2010
The Philadelphia Flyers didn’t shy away from drama in 2010. It took a shootout victory over the New York Rangers in the 82nd game of the season to determine whether they’d make the playoffs.
They had talent, with Daniel Briere, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and the team had acquired Chris Pronger in a trade the previous summer.
After rolling over the second seed Devils in the opening round, the Flyers went down 3-0 in their second-round series against Boston. The Flyers became just the third team in history to overcome such a deficit. They forced a game 7, only to fall behind 3-0 in the decisive game. They mirrored their series comeback by coming back to win that game and series 4-3.
They knocked off a fellow Cinderella team in the Montreal Canadiens, doing what the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins couldn’t do, solving Jaroslav Halak.
They gave the Chicago Blackhawks a valiant fight in the final, but unsteady goaltending finally caught up to Philly. In overtime of game 6, Patrick Kane scored the phantom overtime goal that extinguished Philly’s magic. It was nonetheless a remarkable run. Not sure to be in the playoffs on the last day, to the final.
9) Buffalo Sabres, 1999
The Buffalo Sabres entered the 1999 playoffs posing no serious threat to anyone. They were a seventh seed and were beginning their run in the playoffs facing the Northeast division winners, the Ottawa Senators. The Sens had finished 12 points ahead of the Sabres, but Buffalo had something the Sens didn’t have; Dominik Hasek.
The Dominator earned his name, leading his team to an upset and making it look easy in a four-game sweep.
Next up was a Boston Bruins team coming off a first-round upset themselves over the Carolina Hurricanes. The teams were separated by one point in the regular season, but Buffalo put the Bruins away in six games.
In the Eastern Conference Finals was a Toronto Maple Leafs team, led by Mats Sundin, Steve Thomas and Curtis Joseph. The Sabres knocked off a third division rival, besting the Maple Leafs in five games.
The Dallas Stars were heavy favourites over the Sabres, as they were coming out of a far tougher Western Conference as the Presidents Trophy winners. Buffalo kept plucking away, splitting the first four games and forcing overtime in game 6, one goal away from forcing a game 7 in Dallas. However, a controversial goal where Brett Hull was in the crease, was missed by officials and the Stars ended the city of Buffalo’s hopes of witnessing their first major sports championship.
8) Minnesota North Stars, 1981
The state of hockey nearly took home its first championship in 1981. Having been in the league since 1967, the Minnesota North Stars had never quite come close to hoisting the Stanley Cup.
They were the ninth seed of 16 teams in 1981 and drew the Boston Bruins in the first round. Going in they had never beaten the Bruins in Boston, regular season or playoffs. The North Stars shocked the Bruins, winning each of their first two games in the Boston Garden. They swept the Bruins, winning 6-3 at the Met Center in Game 3.
They weren’t done, defeating the Buffalo Sabres in five games and the Calgary Flames in the semi-finals. They were led by rookie Dino Ciccarelli, who scored 14 goals en route to the North Stars’ finals appearance.
The powerhouse New York Islanders proved to be too much for the North Stars. They were in the midst of their dynasty and Minnesota couldn’t sleigh the giant. Minnesota finished with 87 points in the regular season and surpassed any expectations anybody possibly could’ve had.
7) Anaheim Mighty Ducks, 2003
Jean-Sebastien Giguere carried the Mighty Ducks to their first Stanley Cup final. He became just the fifth player in Stanley Cup Playoff history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy despite playing on the losing team. He finished with a 15-6 record overall, a 1.62 GAA and .945 save percentage, giving voters no alternative in their choice.
The Ducks swept the defending champion Detroit Red Wings in the opening round. They followed that up by taking out the first-place Dallas Stars in six games and outdid another Cinderella story, sweeping the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Final.
Anaheim electrified the hockey world, going a perfect 7-0 in overtime games. They forced seven games against the much more experienced New Jersey Devils, but simply couldn’t find offence in their four games in New Jersey. They were shutout in three of the series’ four games on the east coast.
The Ducks would win the cup four years later, as favourites going in, but this is still the more memorable run for hockey fans.
6) Calgary Flames, 2004
Entering the 2004 playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference, nobody batted an eye at the blue-collar Calgary Flames. They began their run against a team who had historically always had their number in the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks seemed to be full of miracles, winning in overtime of game 6 and tying game 7 with five seconds left. This time, it was the Flames who were full of miracles. Martin Gelinas scored in overtime of game 7, giving the Flames a date with the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings.
Their run was supposed to end there, but Miikka Kiprusoff stymied the Presidents Trophy winners with back-to-back 1-0 shutouts in games 5 and 6. Martin Gelinas again was the hero in game 6, scoring the series-winning goal in overtime.
Next up was Kiprusoff’s old team, the San Jose Sharks in the conference final. Calgary again got it done on home ice and again it was Gelinas scoring the series winner, in what was a 3-1 win in Game 6.
The Flames came within one win of completing their run, going up 3-2 over Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup final. However, an apparent missed Martin Gelinas goal by officials in game 6 was not reviewed and the Flames never recovered. The Lightning scored in double overtime of game 6 and won game 7 back in Tampa.
5) Edmonton Oilers, 2006
No eighth seed in the modern format of the Stanley Cup Playoffs had ever made it to the Stanley Cup final, but the Edmonton Oilers were riding a magic carpet in the spring of 2006.
They squeaked into the playoffs with 95 points and were expected to quickly bow out to the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings, who had finished with 124 points, a record of 58-16-8. A 29-point difference proved to be of no significance. The Oilers plucked away and headed into game 6 with a chance to finish Detroit at home.
They overcame a 2-0 deficit with a pair of goals by Fernando Pisani. After falling behind 3-2, Ales Hemsky scored the tying and winning goals, completing the upset with a 4-3 win. Nobody counted out the Oilers after beating the Red Wings.
However, the Oilers quickly fell behind the 8-ball in the next round, dropping two games in San Jose. However the Oilers stormed back to win four straight and knocked off the Sharks.
The Oilers then took down the Mighty Ducks in five games to advance to their first final in 16 years.
Things unravelled for the Oilers in game 1 against Carolina, blowing a 3-0 lead and losing Dwayne Roloson to injury, who had carried Edmonton to the final. After falling behind 3-1 in the series, the Oilers forced game 7 in Raleigh, but the Hurricanes depth and talent made the difference, and the Oilers surprising run fell one game short.
4) Vancouver Canucks, 1994
The Vancouver Canucks were the team that just wouldn’t go away in 1994. Finishing the regular season with 85 points, their rivals, the Calgary Flames were supposed to dispatch them in round 1.
They appeared to be on their way, taking a 3-1 series lead over Vancouver, but the Canucks pulled off the most dramatic series comeback in history, winning three straight games in overtime. Pavel Bure completed the upset with a double-overtime goal in game 7.
Vancouver made their next series look easy, beating the Dallas Stars in five games.
Their clutch play continued in the Western Conference final, with forward Greg Adams scoring in double overtime of game 5 to advance to the final to play the New York Rangers.
The Presidents Trophy winners had their hands full, losing game 1 in overtime. After taking a 3-1 series lead, the Canucks won games 5 and 6 decisively, with 6-3 and 4-1 wins. The Rangers took a two-goal lead in game 7, but Trevor Linden cut the score to 3-2. The Rangers held off the Canucks’ last barrage and the Rangers erased a 54-year drought, while Vancouver’s miracle was cut short.
3) Vancouver Canucks, 1982
The 1981-82 Vancouver Canucks made the 1994 Canucks look like a dynasty-calibre team.
These Canucks were very bad; at least by the standards of playoff teams. They made it to the dance with a sub-.500 record, finishing 30-33-17 with 77 points. That was 34 points fewer than the division winners, the Edmonton Oilers.
Luckily for them, that was still second in their division, and they actually had home-ice advantage for their opening series against the Calgary Flames. They swept the Flames and got a huge break, as the Los Angeles Kings did the dirty work, taking out one of the cup favourites, the Oilers.
The Canucks were advantageous, beating the Kings in five games. From there, they faced yet another overachieving team, the Chicago Blackhawks who had upset Minnesota and St. Louis. Vancouver beat Chicago in five games as well.
Their luck ran out in the final, as they, like many, couldn’t match the New York Islanders. They were competitive, but clearly in over their heads and were swept in the final. Luck was definitely on the Canucks’ side through most of their run, as they avoided power houses until the final.
2) Minnesota North Stars, 1991
You might as well have called this team the Minnesota Miracles. How on earth, did this 1991 team, finishing with a record of 27-39-14, even sneak into the playoffs? Their 68 points were 38 fewer than the Norris division’s first seed, the Chicago Blackhawks. Their team was led by the likes of Dave Gagner, Brian Bellows, Mark Tinordi, Neal Broten, Brian Propp and a young kid named Mike Modano.
The first round was downright shocking. Minnesota went toe-to-toe with Chicago and after falling behind 2-1 in the series, goaltender Jon Casey shut the door, allowing just two goals in the next three games. The North Stars advanced with a 3-1 win in game 6.
They seemingly did the St. Louis Blues a huge favour by knocking off Chicago, but the Blues soon fell victim to the fearless North Stars. The Met Center rocked their Stars to three victories at home, as Minnesota took down the Blues in six games.
In the Campbell Conference Finals, all that stood in the way of Minnesota was the defending cup champion Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers’ dynasty would end here, as Minnesota rolled to a five-game series win.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ attack of Mario Lemieux and company solved the stingy North Stars. While the North Stars had taken out bigger favourites, the Penguins were just getting ready to peak.
The lasting image of this final is Lemieux beating Shawn Chambers, Neil Wilkinson and Jon Casey in perhaps the best goal in the history of the final.
Minnesota was up 2-1 in the series, but the Penguins’ firepower was too much to handle. Pittsburgh scored 19 goals in the final three games, cementing their cup win with a 8-0 victory in the decisive game 6. The North Stars’ miracle run came crashing down, but the ride there remains remarkable and the most improbable run in history.
1) Los Angeles Kings, 2012
Of course, the happy ending is saved for Hollywood. Not only did the Los Angeles Kings become the first eighth seed to win the Stanley Cup, they stormed through the playoffs to do it. They made it look easy.
With the team Los Angeles has now, it’s hard to think they were huge underdogs a couple of years ago. Their 2011-12 season included firing coach Terry Murray and replacing him with Daryl Sutter.
They gave their team a huge makeover the previous offseason, trading for Mike Richards and Collin Fraser (in separate deals). In the season, they made a big deadline move, trading Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter. They squeaked into the playoffs with GM Dean Lombardi’s job hanging by a thread.
All they did was upset the Presidents Trophy winners, and defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks in five games. Jonathan Quick out-duelled Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. Jarret Stoll’s overtime winner in game five sent the Kings to the conference semi-finals for the first time since 2001.
If their first series win was impressive, this one was downright dominant. The Kings swept the St. Louis Blues with Jonathan Quick again making the difference, allowing just six goals in the four-game series.
All of a sudden, the Kings had gone from Cinderella to cup favourites. They really turned into that beautiful princess as the playoffs went along and the spell never broke.
The Kings took down the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference final, thanks to an overtime winner by Dustin Penner in game five. They made it to their first Stanley Cup final since 1993, but unlike 1993, this time luck was on their side.
Featuring a fantastic goaltending duel between Quick and Martin Brodeur, the Kings took the first two games in New Jersey with a pair of 2-1 overtime victories. They took game 3 decisively, but the 16th and final win proved to be the hardest.
The Devils wouldn’t go away, winning games four and five with nail-biting victories. The Kings then exploded in game 6.
They came alive and routed the Devils 6-1 to give the franchise their first Stanley Cup and complete the most impressive run by an underdog team in the history of the NHL. Their record of 16-4 is not what you’d associate with an eighth seed but they pulled it off.
The fact that they completed their Cinderella run and changed everyone’s perception of them in the process lands them the top spot on this list.
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