Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Ranking the 25 most painful first-round losses of the cap era

We’re deep into what’s officially the first round of the 2020 playoffs, and you know what that means: It’s time to bring on the sadness.

Well, sure, there’s happiness too, if your team wins. I’m told that’s pretty fun, and as a Leafs fan, I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it. But only one team is going to ride that happiness all the way to a championship. Everyone else gets to be sad. And every year, those first-round losers get to reserve the first eight spots at the sadness table.

Of course, not all first-round losses are created equal. Sometimes, your team isn’t expected to win, they don’t come all that close, nothing especially memorable happens, and the whole thing is over quickly. Maybe you’re just happy to have been there at all. You lose, life moves on, and that’s it.

But sometimes, a first-round loss leaves a mark. Those are the ones that we remember. So today, let’s count down a ranking of the 25 saddest first-round exits of the cap era.

One important ground rule: We’re allowing a dose of hindsight to come into play here. Sometimes, the initial sting of a first-round loss fades when you see how the rest of the postseason plays out, or after a few years of history have piled up. Often, it goes the other way, and it just keeps getting worse. We’ll take that into account here.

(And yes, it goes without saying that all the times that your favorite team lost were clearly the worst and most painful losses ever. If they’re not all listed here, that’s a mistake by the editors, because I had them on my list. I’m with you, your team’s pain is special and unique.)

We’ll start at 25 and work our way down, twisting the knife as we go. Remember, these are first-round losses from the cap era. Let’s get ready to be sad.

25. Flames vs. Ducks, 2006

Here’s a weird stat: Heading into the 2006 playoffs, the Flames hadn’t lost a playoff round against a team in their conference in 10 years. That wasn’t as impressive as it sounded, since they’d missed the playoffs altogether in seven of those years and a lockout had eaten up another. But the other year was 2004, when they’d gone all the way to Game 7 of the Final before losing to the Lightning in controversial fashion.

Two years later, with a new salary cap system in place, it was time to pick up where they’d left off. Instead, they ran into Ilya Bryzgalov and managed just one goal in the final two games while blowing a 3-2 series lead. We didn’t know it at the time, but they wouldn’t win another round until 2015.

24. Blackhawks vs. Canucks, 2011

I can’t rank this one all that high, since the Hawks had one Cup in the bank and two more on the way, and the Canucks were the favorites. Still, sometimes pain is all about the missed opportunity, and we were so close to an all-time collapse. The Hawks’ came within Game 7 overtime of coming all the way back from down 3-0 — and in the process, inflicting the sort of psychological damage on a rival that they may never recover from. And to make matters worse, look who gets to overtime winner.

23. Red Wings vs. Lightning, 2015

The 2014-15 Red Wings remain the franchise’s last 100-point team, but went into their series against the Lightning as underdogs. They gave them all they could handle, taking the series lead three times only to have the Lightning respond with a win each time. That included a controversial Game 6 loss on home ice that saw Niklas Kronwall hammer Nikita Kucherov with a monster hit. He didn’t receive a penalty on the play, but the league took the ultra-rare step of suspending a star for a Game 7. Needless to say, Red Wings fans were not happy.

The deciding game was a tight one, and the Wings held a big edge in shots, but couldn’t beat Ben Bishop in a 2-0 loss that would end up being the last for Mike Babcock in Detroit. The fact that they haven’t won a round since, and don’t look like they will anytime soon, only adds to the pain.

22. Penguins vs. Flyers, 2012

It’s never fun to lose to a rival. It’s significantly less fun when you give up 20 goals in the first three games. The Penguins did fight back, literally at times, including a wild 10-3 win in Game 4, and a 3-2 win in Game 5 had us thinking comeback. But the Flyers nipped that in the bud with a 5-1 win to ice one of the craziest series any of us can remember.

21. Canadiens vs. Hurricanes, 2006

Most fans might remember this series as the one that birthed the legend of Cam Ward, and started the Hurricanes down the path to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Montreal fans might tell you it was the Saku Koivu series, one that saw the Habs take a 2-0 series lead before their beloved captain was high-sticked in the eye by Justin Williams in Game 3.

Montreal blew a late lead and lost that game in overtime, went on to lose the series in six, then watched the Hurricanes win it all while Williams became a hero. Lingering bitterness over a playoff high-sticking incident? Not sure I can relate, but we’ll allow it.

20. Thrashers vs. Rangers, 2007

The bad news is that the Thrashers lost. The worse news is that they lost in four straight games. The even worse news is that it was the most successful playoff run in franchise history. The worst news of all is that it stayed that way, and always will.

Other than that, went great.

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