Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ranking the NHL's greatest Cinderella stories

On paper, the Stanley Cup Final looks like a classic battle between a team of unexpected underdogs and the powerhouse defending champs. The Pittsburgh Penguins are gunning for their second straight title, while the Nashville Predators have made the final despite finishing just 16th overall during the regular season. So far, the Predators’ playoff run is shaping up like a classic Cinderella story.

The NHL has seen more than a few such stories over the years, although (spoiler alert) they almost never end well. So today, let’s rank history’s best Cinderella stories.

We’ll go back to the advent of the 16-team playoff era in 1980, and we’ll define a Cinderella as a team that finished outside the top 10 in the regular-season standings but still made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. (We’ll also slip in one other team that fell outside that category but are widely considered a Cinderella team anyway.)

Underdog status: Just how unlikely a finalist were they? None of these teams were expected to make a deep run, but some were more surprising than others.

Road to the final: Did they have a relatively easy trip through the playoffs, or did they have to fight and scrape through every round? The harder the journey, the higher the ranking.

Final chapter: Once they got to the final, how close did they come to winning it all?

Enduring image: Years after the run is over, what (if anything) still sticks with hockey fans?

Then we'll add it all up and crown an all-time Cinderella team. But we'll work our way down, which means we start in the pre-cap days.

13. 2001-02 Hurricanes

Underdog status: 7/10. The Hurricanes had finished 16th overall. But based on winning the lowly Southeast Division, they went into the playoffs as the East's third seed.

Road to the final: 6/10. They knocked off the Devils, Canadiens and Maple Leafs, each in six games. The Carolina/Montreal matchup took place in round two and featured the two playoff teams with the worst record, in case you thought the NHL playoff format being screwy was some sort of new development.

Final chapter: 5/10. Everybody assumed the Hurricanes had no chance against a Red Wings team packed with Hall of Famers. Everyone was right.

Enduring image: 1/10. None. Seriously, other than maybe Igor Larionov's overtime goal, nobody remembers anything about this series.

Final score: 19/40. This one doesn't hold up well, at least partly because the Hurricanes came back and won the Cup just four years later.

12. 2015-16 Sharks

Underdog status: 6/10. The Sharks finished 11th overall and were the West's sixth seed. And maybe more importantly, they came in dragging all of the baggage of years of playoff failure.

Road to the final: 6/10. They started strong, knocking out their arch-rivals and killing off at least a few playoff demons by dispatching the Kings in five games. They actually had home ice in the second round against the Predators, who they beat in seven, before eliminating the Blues in six.

Final chapter: 5/10. The Sharks played the Penguins tough but never really seemed like they'd win. They dropped the first two games in Pittsburgh and trailed 3-1 after four games before ultimately bowing out in six.

Enduring image: 3/10. Joe Thornton's playoff beard, which he's apparently just decided to keep.

Final score: 20/40. Maybe the Sharks are just too recent, or maybe the modern age of parity has made Cinderella stories tougher to appreciate. But the Sharks feel more like a good team that fell short than a memorable underdog.

11. 2013-14 Rangers

Underdog status: 2/10. Wait, were the Rangers a Cinderella team? That seems wrong; this team was in the middle of a stretch that saw New York make it to the conference final in three out of four seasons. But this year's team finished 12th overall, so they meet our cutoff even though they opened on home ice.

Road to the final: 9/10. It's hard to take a longer path to the final than the Rangers did. They knocked off the Flyers and Penguins in seventh games, then needed six games (and a controversial Carey Price injury) to knock off the Canadiens.

Final chapter: 4/10. The Rangers fell to the Kings in just five games. But it was closer than it sounds, with three of their losses coming in overtime.

Enduring image: 8/10. A devastated Henrik Lundqvist, slumped on the ice after Alec Martinez's Cup-winning goal.

Final score: 23/40. The Rangers had most of the elements of a classic Cinderella story, even if they never really felt like one.

10. 1981-82 Canucks

Underdog status: 7/10. They finished under .500, racking up just 77 points on the season. That was still good for 11th overall, and fourth in the Campbell Conference, because back then everyone didn't get points for losing.

Road to the final: 3/10. Amazingly, the Canucks made it all the way to the final without ever playing a single .500 team. They knocked off the Flames, Kings and Hawks, losing just two games in the process. The Cup final would prove slightly more challenging.

Final chapter: 4/10. The Canucks drew the Islanders, who'd already won two straight Cups. It didn't take them long to make it three, as they swept Vancouver aside in four straight.

Enduring image: 9/10. Roger Nielson waving the white towel at the officials in the Chicago series:

The moment has since been immortalized by a statue outside of Rogers Arena.

Final score: 23/40. Realistically, they never had a chance, but they were still fun along the way.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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