Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Most Surprising First-Round Exits in NHL History

Sharks v Kings

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a celebration of the best ice hockey played in the world. This time of the year brings historic performances, big stories, beautiful sports moments, and, quite regularly, huge surprises. Hockey fans love so-called Cinderella stories when the underdog beats one of the favorites and proceeds to fight in the next round. It's one of the reasons why the NHL is so entertaining and popular. 

Let's travel back in time and search for the most surprising first-round exits in NHL's history. And if you are wondering, if it even is possible to come back after three losses and win the whole series, the answer is yes. Nothing is impossible in the NHL playoffs.

Florida Panthers vs. Boston Bruins (2023)

The Florida Panthers were not even supposed to be in the 2023 NHL playoffs. They managed to get into the postseason in the very last game of the season and faced the Boston Bruins, a record-breaking team with 65 wins in the regular season. The Bruins led this series 3-1, but it wasn't enough. The Cats with a stunning performance by forward Matthew Tkachuk and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky won three games in a row, eliminated Boston, and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. 

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (2019)

Many fans don't understand, to this day, how this series was even possible. The Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning, then one of the best teams in the modern NHL. Coach John Tortorella led his Blue Jackets to four straight wins against the big favorites. Nationwide Arena in Columbus saw a huge shock, one of the most memorable upsets in the NHL playoffs. The biggest hero of this series? The goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Ottawa Senators vs. New Jersey Devils (1998)

The New Jersey Devils were the favorites in this series; they won the Eastern Conference with 108 points. The Senators were in their sixth year in the NHL and occupied the No. 8 spot after regular season. The Canadian team, with the help of stars such as Daniel Alfredsson and Alexei Yashin, beat the Devils in six games and showed huge character in the series. 

Washington Capitals vs. Montreal Canadiens (2010)

The Capitals from 2010 were one of the best offensive teams in the modern NHL, and they won the Presidents' Trophy. In this case, that wasn't enough. Alexander Ovechkin and his teammates hit the wall. Well, it was not a wall exactly, it was Jaroslav Halak. The Slovak goalie became the hero of this series, and the Habs managed to overcome a 3-1 series lead. 

Edmonton Oilers vs. Montreal Canadiens (1981) 

In 1981, every NHL playoff team was ranked from No. 1 to No. 16. The system was different than today. The Edmonton Oilers, from spot No. 14, competed against the Montreal Canadiens, seeded No. 3. The Habs were favorites, but the Oilers, led by the one and only Wayne Gretzky, swept their opponents in three games. 

New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers (1983)

Miracle on Ice? At least, somehow, because Herb Brooks was the coach of the New York Rangers. The Philadelphia Flyers were the big favorites; they got 23 points more than the Flyers in the regular season. But play-off hockey hits different. The Rangers beat their opponents in all three games and outscored them 18 to 9. 

San Jose Sharks vs. Detroit Red Wings (1994)

When the expansion team, which is learning how to compete in the NHL, beats one of the best and most legendary organizations, it resonates. In 1994, the San Jose Sharks beat the Detroit Red Wings. The hero of this series was a young goalie from Latvia, Arturs Irbe. The Red Wings were eliminated in seven games.

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim vs. Detroit Red Wings (2003)

This one of the most impressive sweeps in the NHL history. The Detroit Red Wings were the favorites, they  entered the series as the No. 2 seed and they were lead by the legendary captain Steve Yzerman. The Red Wings didn't find a way to beat rookie goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguere.

Los Angeles Kings vs. Vancouver Canucks (2012)

The Los Angeles Kings just love the big playoff stories, as we already reported in this Rezztek® blog. In 2012, the Kings were the No. 8 seed and had to fight all the way, just to make the playoffs. The Vancouver Canucks were the Presidents' Trophy winners with the league's best record in the regular season. You probably know how it ended, the Kings with Quick, Kopitar and Brown eliminated the Canucks, made a historic play-off run and winning their first Stanley Cup. 

Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks (2017)

The Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups in the 2010s and still had the core of their successful team in 2017. They also won the Western Conference with 109 points. The Predators were the second wild card, and not many fans believed in them. Nashville had nothing to lose, and they played like it, especially Pekka Rinne and Roman Josi led their team to unexpected heights. The Preds swept the favorites from Chicago. Their story ended in the Stanley Cup Finals with a loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks (2014)

This battle of California became eternal. The San Jose Sharks won their first three games in the series against the Los Angeles Kings. They were one win away from advancing, but they never managed to get through. The Kings won Game 4, Game 5, Game 6, and Game 7. They not only beat their rivals, but they won their second Stanley Cup in three years. This time it was not just about Kopitar, Brown and Quick, but also Marián Gáborík who had 14 goals, 8 assists and a plus-minus of +6 in 26 games in this 2014 playoffs run.

National Hockey League is of the most unpredictable competitions in the world of sports. It is no coincidence that winning of the Stanley Cup is considered to be the most difficult achievement in professional sport in North America. Surprises, comebacks and upsets are usual, every team in the playoffs has at least a small chance to win the whole thing. One question is remaining - who will shock the hockey world in 2024

Most Surprising First-Round Exits in NHL History

Season NHL Series Hero of the Series
2023-2024 Florida Panthers vs. Boston Bruins Matthew Tkachuk
2018-2019 Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Sergei Bobrovsky
2013-2014 San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings Marián Gáborík
2009-2010 Montreal Canadiens vs. Washington Capitals Jaroslav Halák
1997-1998 Ottawa Senators vs. New Jersey Devils Daniel Alfredsson
1980-1981 Edmonton Oilers vs. Montreal Canadiens Wayne Gretzky
1993-1994 San Jose Sharks vs. Detroit Red Wings Arturs Irbe
2002-2003 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim vs. Detroit Red Wings Jean-Sébastien Giguere
 Photo Source: Sportsnet


Jakub Vaverka

Jakub Vaverka

I create content for social media for a living and I live hockey. Going to NHL games and writing blogs about my most favorite game is a dream come true.

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