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.)
We’ll rank those teams based on a handful of key criteria:
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.
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.
9. 1992-93 Kings
Underdog status: 3/10. With 88 points on the season, the Kings finished 11th overall. But they didn’t really feel like underdogs, largely because Wayne Gretzky had missed half the season but was back for the playoffs.
Road to the final: 7/10. It was an all-Canadian journey, as the Kings knocked off the Flames, Canucks and Maple Leafs. There may have been some sort of controversy in that Toronto series, but I’m not sure.
Final chapter: 7/10. They faced yet another Canadian team in the final, but this time the north prevailed as the Canadiens won the Cup in five games. The series was closer than it sounds; the Habs won three games in overtime, including a comeback win in Game 2 to avoid heading to Los Angeles down two games.
Enduring image: 7/10. Marty McSorley’s illegal stick. To this day, the Kings think the Canadiens stole their sticks to make it happen.
Final score: 24/40. They were a decent story. But Cinderella? When you have Gretzky, you’re not fooling anyone.
8. 1995-96 Panthers
Underdog status: 8/10. The Panthers are the one team we’ll slip into the rankings even though they don’t meet our cutoff – they actually finished the year with 92 points, good for seventh overall. But they were also in just their third season as a franchise, so it feels like they should qualify.
Road to the final: 7/10. They knocked off the Bruins in round one, then bounced the top-seeded Flyers in six. That set up a showdown with the loaded Penguins, who took a 3-2 lead after five games. But the Panthers held Pittsburgh to just one goal in the final two games to win a seven-game stunner.
Final chapter: 2/10. The final was a total dud, maybe even one of the worst ever. The Panthers lost to the Avalanche in four straight, with the Cup-winning goal coming in triple-overtime of a 1-0 game that absolutely nobody was still awake for.
Enduring image: 8/10. Rats. So many rats.
Final score: 25/40. Everyone blames the Devils for the Dead Puck era, but I’ve argued it was the expansion Panthers who really showed the league what a clutch-and-grab approach could do. The rats were cool, though.
7. 2011-12 Kings
Underdog status: 6/10. This one’s a bit controversial. On the one hand, the Kings went into the playoffs as the West’s eighth seed, and nobody had ever won a Cup from that spot. On the other, anyone with even a passing understanding of analytics was screaming that the Kings were a legitimate Cup threat.
Road to the final: 2/10. They rolled through the West with ease, losing just two games in three series wins. Impressive? Sure. But by the time they’d reached the final, Cinderella looked more like a runaway train.
Final chapter: 9/10. They’re the only team on this list that actually won the Stanley Cup. But the series, a six-game win over the Devils, probably stands as the worst final of the last decade.
Enduring image: 9/10. Gary Bettman handing them the Stanley Cup. You can’t ask for a better finish than that.
Final score: 26/40. In case you’re wondering, the 2013-14 Kings fall just short of our cutoff, finishing 10th overall. But even if they’d dropped a spot, we’d have disqualified them from this list just on principle; you can’t be two years removed from a Cup and still be a Cinderella team.
6. 2002-03 Mighty Ducks
Underdog status: 5/10. The Mighty Ducks just barely make our cutoff; they finished tied for 10th place, but dropped behind the Wild on the tie-breaker. Still, they were pretty clearly a Cinderella team, heading into the playoffs without ever having won a series in 10 years of franchise history.
Road to the final: 8/10. The Ducks opened the playoffs by stunning the West’s two top seeds, knocking out Detroit in four and Dallas in six. Then came a sweep over Minnesota, in which the Wild were held to just a single goal.
Final chapter: 8/10. The Ducks went into the final against the Devils as underdogs, but pushed the series to seven games before falling just short. Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere won the Conn Smythe in a losing effort, and remains the last player to do so.
Enduring image: 8/10. Paul Kairya’s “off the floor and on the board” goal in Game 6 against the Devils.
Final score: 29/40. That Kariya sequence is an all-time example of a play that we all agreed was awesome at the time but gets really uncomfortable in hindsight.
5. 2009-10 Flyers
Underdog status: 9/10. The Flyers finished with the league’s 18th-best record, which is a pretty solid underdog resume in a league where only 16 teams make the playoffs. As a bonus, they only made the post-season with a shootout win over the Rangers in the season’s final game.
Road to the final: 7/10. They stunned the Devils in five, then knocked off the Bruins in seven in a series that featured only the third comeback from a 3-0 series deficit in NHL history. From there, it was a Cinderella showdown with the Canadiens, which the Flyers finished in five.
Final chapter: 8/10. After all that, the Flyers saw their Cup dreams end in six games with a loss to the Blackhawks. In overtime. On home ice. On a goal scored by a player that the Hawks drafted after jumping past the Flyers in the draft lottery. Other than that, not too painful.
Final score: 30/40. The Flyers are one of those franchises that the rest of the league will always have trouble getting behind as a true Cinderella story, but they check all the boxes.
4. 1990-91 North Stars
Underdog status: 10/10. No Cinderella team has ever been worse. The North Stars finished the season with a stunning 68 points, winning just 27 of their 80 games. That was still good enough to make the playoffs, because the Norris Division existed.
Road to the final: 9/10. The Blackhawks and the Blues had battled all year for the Presidents’ Trophy; the North Stars knocked both of them out in the opening two rounds. That set up a date with the defending-champion Oilers, who’d gone 6-0 against Norris teams in the conference final over the last decade. The North Stars beat them, too, closing out the series in five games.
Final chapter: 6/10. The last matchup brought yet another powerhouse, as Mario Lemieux and the Penguins were waiting in the final. The Stars won two of the first three, and for a moment it looked like they were really going to pull it off. But the Penguins found another gear and took the Cup with three straight wins, including an 8-0 blowout in the clincher.
Enduring image: 7/10. Lemieux’s mind-boggling goal in Game 2:
Final score: 32/40. No team this bad has ever come so close to a Cup. In today’s age of parity, it’s safe to say that nobody else ever will.
3. 1993-94 Canucks
Underdog status: 8/10. With 85 points, the Canucks finished 14th, meaning they were in the bottom half of what was then a 26-team league.
Road to the final: 7/10. They kicked things off with a seven-game win over the Flames that saw them take the last three in overtime. Game 7 featured Kirk McLean’s kick save and Pavel Bure’s legendary goal:
From there they knocked off the Stars and Maple Leafs, both in five games.
Final chapter: 9/10. By the time the final arrived, the hockey world was ready to coronate Mark Messier and the Rangers. But the Canucks refused to play along, taking the Rangers to seven games and coming within an inch of forcing overtime.
Enduring image: 9/10. This photo of an exhausted Trevor Linden hugging McLean after Game 6.
Final score: 33/40. Man, if only the Canucks had had a guy like Messier. I bet they’d have been unbeatable then.
2. 2003-04 Flames
Underdog status: 8/10. They went in as the West’s seventh seed after finishing 13th overall.
Road to the final: 8/10. They beat the Canucks in a seven-game OT classic, then beat the Red Wings and Sharks in six to reach the final.
Final chapter: 10/10. They won three of the first five against Tampa Bay. Then they sure seemed to win a fourth, with Martin Gelinas appearing to put the puck over the line late in regulation:
But the goal didn’t count, the Lightning won Game 6 in overtime, and then took the series in seven.
Enduring image: 8/10. Other than the Gelinas no-goal, probably the most memorable star-vs.-star fight in final history.
Final score: 34/40. This was the series that introduced NHL fans to the concept of the parallax effect. But man, that puck looked like it was in.
1. 2005-06 Oilers
Underdog status: 9/10. The Oilers were the eighth seed in the West, and finished 14th overall. The deadline addition of Dwayne Roloson had boosted their chances, but they still weren’t expected to do much.
Road to the final: 8/10. Their first-round win over the 124-point Red Wings ranks as one of the greatest upsets in recent NHL history. That was part of a bizarre opening round that saw all four underdogs win in the West, leaving the conference wide open the rest of the way. The Oilers then knocked off the Sharks and Ducks to reach the final.
Final chapter: 9/10. They lost Roloson in the opening game of the final, but still gave the Hurricanes everything they could handle in a seven-game classic. The Oilers fought back from down 3–1 in the series to force a seventh game, but fell just short in the deciding game.
Enduring image: 9/10. Justin Williams putting it away with an empty-net goal after Fernando Pisani had been robbed by Cam Warm minutes earlier. Then Chris Pronger walked out on the team and they didn’t make the playoffs for another decade.
Final score: 35/40. A few weeks ago, we ranked the best “Canada’s Team” stories of the country’s Cup drought, and the Flames narrowly nudged out the Oilers for top spot. This time, Edmonton gets the nod in another photo finish. If the Predators want to go down in history as the NHL’s greatest Cinderella team, the 2006 Oilers are the team they’ll need to beat.