Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Which team had the most miserable season one year before a Cup win?

With three weeks left in the playoffs and three teams still standing, we still don’t know who’s going to win the Stanley Cup this year. Depending on who you talk to, we’re not even all that close to knowing who the favorite is.

But here’s one thing that’s likely to be true about this year’s winner: They’re going to have recovered from a pretty miserable ending to their 2018-19 season.

Every ending to a season that doesn’t involve a lap around the ice with the Stanley Cup is going to be miserable in its own way. But some are more miserable than others, and some of those are so awful that you might expect a team to have a hard time recovering. There’s such a thing as a loss that’s so devastating that it ripples past the current moment and wipes out a chunk of the future.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. But maybe not, because if it’s true, some of the teams from this year’s conference final shouldn’t have been here.

Take the Lightning. Their 2018-19 edition rolled through one of the best regular seasons of the modern era, then suffered one of the most shocking and humiliating first-round sweeps in NHL history. The Stars season ended when they blew a 3-2 series lead on a controversial non-call, then dropped a double-OT Game 7 classic against the eventual champs when their captain just missed a chance on a half-empty net. And the Golden Knights were in full control of a Game 7 against a hated rival until a controversial call, a penalty kill disaster and an overtime dagger that capped off one of the most unlikely comebacks ever.

If any of those teams had decided to blow it all up or wobbled off track for a year or two, would you have blamed them? Instead, they were all back and looking better than ever.

The Islanders don’t really fit the narrative, because hockey gods forbid these four teams ever agree on anything. Their 2018-19 ended badly, with a sweep against the Hurricanes, but overall it was a surprisingly successful year, the kind a team can grow on. That’s how it’s supposed to work – a team wins a round one year, then goes to a conference final the next, then finally builds to winning the Cup. One positive step after another.

Often, that’s exactly how it does go. But this year, there’s a good chance that one team is going to write one hell of a short-term recovery story.

So today, let’s set the stage with a look back on NHL history, and a question: Which Stanley Cup champion recovered from the most agonizing end to their previous season? We’re not just looking for teams that had disappointing seasons, with an early exit or even missing the playoffs altogether. We’re looking for style points, with as much pain as possible in how it all ended. Let’s really twist the knife.

I’ve picked 10 teams from modern history; let’s count them down from the merely horrific to the outright unconscionable.

10. 2017-18 St. Louis Blues

We all know the story of the 2019 Blues and their Gloria-inspired journey from dead last in January to Stanley Cup champions in June. It’s a great tale, and if you’re looking for a comeback story, those six months are really all you need.

That makes it easy to forget about the Blues’ 2017-18 season. Which is probably a good thing, because man, did that ever end badly.

Most of the entries on this list will be about miserable playoff losses, with Game 7 collapses or controversies. The 2017-18 Blues didn’t even get that. After six straight years of making the playoffs, including a trip to the conference final, the Blues were looking to build on sustained success. And despite some ups and downs, they were in decent shape heading down the stretch. After a March 27 win over the Sharks, the Blues were sixth in the West, part of a four-team logjam fighting for three playoff spots. They had six games left, including two against the struggling Hawks and one against the last-place Coyotes. All under control.

Then it all went off the rails. The Blues lost four straight, including an embarrassing 6-0 loss to the Coyotes. That set up a desperate final weekend, and after a win over Chicago snapped the streak, it was down to a winner-take-all finale against an Avalanche team that had been the worst in the league a season prior. The Blues lost that one 5-2, missed the playoffs, and some of us wrote them off as serious contenders. In hindsight, possibly incorrectly.

9. 2000-01 Detroit Red Wings

The 2002 Wings are one of my favorite teams ever. Just a roster stacked with future Hall of Famers, from longtime Wings like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan to ringers like Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull, almost all of them old and expensive. It is, quite literally, the sort of team we could never see again in the cap era.

But if you went back to the spring of 2001, you’d have found plenty of fans who thought the Wings were all but done. They’d put together a strong 2000-2001 season, one that saw them rack up 111 points, tied for second in the NHL. But it all fell apart in the playoffs against a Kings team they should have beaten easily. The Wings cruised through the first two games with wins by a combined score of 9-3, then lost four straight one-goal games, including two in overtime. To make matters worse, Yzerman and Shanahan both got hurt in Round 1, building a narrative that the Red Wings were too old and beaten up to go the distance again.

No less an authority than Sports Illustrated was writing articles about how the 2001 postseason could be “the last dance for the NHL’s oldest team.” And it really did feel that way. But rather than hit the reset button, the Wings doubled down on even older names, and it paid off. And we mostly forgot about those disastrous two weeks the year before.

8. 1978-79 New York Islanders

When we look back at the Al Arbour era of Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Mike Bossy, we naturally tend to jump ahead to the dynasty. But that leaves out some really strong seasons, including thee 1978-79 squad, a 51-win powerhouse that finished with a league-leading 116 points.

They continued to roll in the playoffs, knocking off an overmatched Hawks team in four straight. That set up a meeting with a Rangers team they’d finished 25 points ahead of during the season. But they lost the series in six, with most of the big names disappearing. Bossy had one goal, Trottier had two points and Clark Gillies had one point as John Davidson shut the door for the Rangers.

That Rangers team was good, but wasn’t especially well-respected; you may remember Don Cherry calling them a “piece of cake” opponent for whoever faced them in the final. But the Islanders couldn’t get past them, and at the time there were some who were starting to wonder if Arbour’s boys would ever break through.

And yes, this was during the “Potvin Sucks” era. But it had just started – the Ulf Nilsson hit had come just a few months earlier – which had to make it even worse.

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