Monday, May 6, 2019

What was the most unexpected final four in NHL playoff history?

It’s​ been the year​ of​ the​ wildcard​ in​ the​ NHL playoffs.​ The Hurricanes are​ already through to​ the​ conference final, having​​ knocked off the Metro’s top two seeds along the way. The Dallas Stars have a chance to head to the Western final if they can win tomorrow night’s Game 7. And the Blue Jackets and Avalanche are still alive in their quests to win divisions they aren’t even in.

It’s all added up to a postseason that’s been, to borrow a technical hockey term that the insiders use, “weird-ass.” And if all four wildcard teams make it through to the conference finals, it would be safe to call this year the most unpredictable postseason we’ve ever seen. It wouldn’t even be all that close.

But even if a few of the favorites survive, this season will still have a solid claim to the “most unpredictable” crown. Today, let’s take a look back through the history books and try to figure out which other seasons are in the running.

There are a few ways you could do this, including just trying to remember which years felt the most surprising. But that’s tricky because hockey fans are good at fooling ourselves into thinking we knew more than we did. Instead, let’s stick with something objective.

I went back through all the postseasons since the league went to a full sixteen-team format in 1979-80 and looked at where each of the final four teams finished in their conference standings. If they had the best record, they get one point. The second best is two, down through to the team with the eighth-best record among playoff teams in the conference. Add those four scores up and you’ve got a pretty decent idea of just how unlikely that season’s conference finalists were.

The highest possible score would be 30, from two sevens and two eights. If all this year’s wildcards make it through, that would give this season an unpredictability score of 29. (The Stars were a wildcard but actually had the sixth-best record in the West, ahead of Vegas.) It won’t surprise you to know that that would be the highest score ever by a wide margin. But what if the three remaining favorites all make it through? That drops us down to a seven (Carolina), five (St. Louis) and a pair of twos (Boston and San Jose), for a total of 16. Still not bad.

Not bad, but not the best. I could find ten seasons that could beat that total, which seems like a good place to draw the line. Let’s revisit some of those other seasons that left us scratching our heads and trashing our brackets, as we work our way up to the highest score.


The final four: Calgary (1), Chicago (8), Montreal (1), Philadelphia (7), giving us a total of 17 points.

The path there: This was a weird year, with two top seeds that finished miles ahead of the pack and that everyone expected to see in the conference final and then two longshots who both made unexpected runs. The Flyers’ push wasn’t all that shocking; they’d been a decent team during the season and only had to navigate a lukewarm Patrick Division and they’d been to the Cup final in 1985 and 1987. But the Hawks had finished with just 66 points before knocking off the Wings and Blues to win the typically terrible Norris.

Fair warning: For reasons I’m not quite clear on, the Hawks show up in these seasons a lot.

The epilogue: Do you believe in miracles? No? Good, because the Flames and Canadiens both advanced, giving us a rare Cup final between the league’s two top teams. The Flames won that one in six.


The final four: San Jose (1), Chicago (2), Philadelphia (7) and Montreal (8), for a total of 18 points.

The path there: This might have been one of the first seasons that popped into your mind when you saw the premise for this piece. And rightly so, since it’s the only season (until maybe this year) when one conference saw its two worst playoff teams by regular season record meet in the conference final. The Flyers and Habs were both big underdogs who wrote stunning playoff stories, Montreal on the strength of Jaroslav Halak’s red-hot goaltending and Philadelphia by coming back from down 3-0 to stun the Bruins.

Unfortunately for our rankings, while all that was going on the West played out exactly as expected, with the top two teams rolling through the early rounds. Therefore, this season won’t rank as high on our list as it probably deserves to.

The epilogue: Halak’s magic dried up and the Flyers won the battle of the underdogs. But they couldn’t finish the story against the Hawks, who swept the Sharks and then ended their 49-year Cup drought with Patrick Kane’s overtime winner. It was a fittingly weird end to an unpredictable postseason.


The final four: Pittsburgh (4), Boston (6), Chicago (3) and Edmonton (6), for a total of 19 points.

The path there: This one looks more surprising on paper than it felt at the time. The Bruins/Penguins conference final was a rematch of the year before, so not exactly a shocker there. The Oilers had won five of the last eight Cups, so even in the post-Gretzky era, it wasn’t that stunning to see them advance. And the Hawks were a decent enough team.

Still, the 1992 postseason marked the first time in the 16-team era that neither conference sent a top-two team to the final four. And even in the pre-loser point days, it was at least a little bit odd to see that none of the four finalists even cracked 90 points.

The epilogue: This may have been the worst final four of all time. Both conference finals ended in sweeps, and then the final did too, with Mario Lemieux and the Penguins knocking off the Hawks to win their second straight Cup.


The final four: Vancouver (4), Chicago (7), the Islanders (1) and Quebec (7), a total of 19 points.

The path there: It was the Kings who did the heavy lifting here, knocking out the powerhouse Oilers in the first round thanks to the Miracle on Manchester. That opened a path for the 77-point Canucks, who lost just once while knocking out the Flames and Kings. The Nordiques knocked off the heavily favored Habs and then survived the Bruins, while the top-seeded Islanders handled their business. Meanwhile, the 72-point Hawks only had to escape the Norris, which they did by knocking off the North Stars and Blues.

The epilogue: This was the mid-dynasty Islanders of Al Arbour, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier, so when they arrived in the conference finals to find all these scrappy underdogs waiting for them, they probably weren’t too worried. They shouldn’t have been; they didn’t lose a game the rest of the way while rolling to their third straight Cup.


The final four: Anaheim (6), Edmonton (8), Carolina (2) and Buffalo (3), giving us another 19-point total.

The path there: This is another memorable postseason that you might expect to have higher on the list. You could make a case that it should be, since the Sabres were technically the four-seed in the East because of the three-division format. But they had the conference’s third-best record, so they earn three points towards our total. And the Hurricanes only contribute two, because while most fans seem to remember their Cup win being a big surprise, they were actually a really good team that year, racking up 112 points.

But the real action was in the West, where the Oilers shocked the 124-point Wings in a first-round in which all four underdogs advanced. If you wanted to call the 2006 West the craziest playoff year that any one conference has ever seen, I wouldn’t argue with you. But the East was relatively straightforward, so they bring down the overall total.

The epilogue: The Oilers dispatched the Ducks fairly quickly, while the Hurricanes barely held off the Sabres. That left us with a Carolina/Edmonton final that gave us one of the worst-timed injuries ever, Gary Bettman’s most awkward Cup handoff and the start of a decade of darkness.

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