Monday, June 11, 2018

Eight other eventual Cup champs who survived an early hole

The Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions. That still feels weird to write.

Seeing those words today comes as a mild surprise based on what we expected at the start of the season, when the Capitals were listed with the sixth-best Cup odds. They’d be a bigger surprise based on the start of the playoffs, when Washington went into the post-season with just the eighth-best odds.

But they would have been downright shocking, bordering on the unbelievable, if you’d read them on April 15.

That was the night that Matt Calvert’s overtime goal was allowed to stand after an offside review, giving the Blue Jackets the win and a 2–0 series lead in their first-round matchup with Washington. The Caps had blown a two-goal lead on home ice for the second straight game, and found themselves heading to Columbus in a massive hole. There were plenty of reasons to think they wouldn’t make it back home for a Game 5. In the history of the NHL playoffs, no team had ever lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series in overtime and come back to win. As Calvert himself put it: “Two games in overtime — that can really crush a team.”

It can. But this time it didn’t. The Caps blew yet another third-period lead in Game 3, and the two teams headed to sudden death once again. This time, it felt like there was far more than one game hanging in the balance. As a wise man put it at the time:

You know the rest. The Capitals did get the next goal, on a lucky bounce that was credited to Lars Eller. They won the next three to finish off Columbus, slayed the dragon against the Penguins, edged out the Lightning in seven and then handed the Golden Knights their first four-game losing streak in franchise history.

Not bad for a team that was one goal away from a franchise-altering disaster. And yet, this situation isn’t all that rare. Looking back at modern NHL history, we can find several examples of Stanley Cup champions who had to overcome the same sort of near-death experience that this year’s Capitals did. So today, let’s look back at eight other teams from the last 25 years who seemed to be all but done, only to get up off the mat and then go all the way.

1993 Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens’ 1993 run is remembered for plenty of things. There was the unbelievable streak of 10 straight overtime wins, Patrick Roy’s wink, Marty McSorley’s stick, Eric Desjardins’s hat trick and Denis Savard’s joy. It remains the last Cup for both the franchise and the country, and it didn’t even come with all that much suspense — over the last three rounds, the Canadiens never needed more than five games to win a series.

But that first round nearly spelled a quick end to the Habs’ hopes, as they drew a tough Nordiques team that was returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Quebec held home-ice advantage thanks to a 104-point season, and they looked like the better team early on. Scott Young’s overtime winner gave the Nordiques Game 1, and they followed that by cruising to a 4–1 win in Game 2.

Here’s where things get crazy. Heading back to Montreal facing a 2–0 deficit, there was talk about whether the Canadiens might try to spark the team with a goaltending switch. That’s right — there were people back then who actually thought it might be a good idea to bench a struggling Roy in favour of Andre “Red Light” Racicot. Maybe not many, but they all had the phone numbers of their local call-in radio shows.

There’s no evidence that Montreal coach Jacques Demers ever actually considered making the switch, and rightly so. But he didn’t shrug off the losses either, delivering emotional post-game sermons to media that included phrases like “We can’t do this to our fans” and “Right now, I’m mad” and “I am very, very, very disappointed.”

Much like this year’s Capitals, the Canadiens found themselves back in overtime in Game 3, knowing that giving up the next goal would almost certainly mean the end of their season. Instead, Vincent Damphousse snuck one by a furious Ron Hextall. We didn’t know it at the time, but Montreal’s unprecedented overtime magic had begun.

Montreal would go 15-2 the rest of the post-season, and Roy would win the Conn Smythe. To this day, nobody who wanted him benched for Racicot has ever admitted it.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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