Hockey fans around the world tuned in for last night’s game one of the Stanley Cup Final. Also tuning in: The 14 teams who came into the playoffs hoping to be there, but didn’t make the cut.
Of course, not all losses are created equal. Every playoff loss hurts, but some are far more crushing than others. So today, let’s take a look back at those 14 teams and try to answer the question: Who suffered through the most heart-breaking playoff exit?
We’ll look at three factors for each team. First, the expectations they were facing heading into the playoffs; obviously, the higher the hopes, the more drastic the drop when they’re not met. We’ll also factor in when and how the end actually came, with more dramatic losses adding to the pain. And we’ll consider what the future looks like, since a team with better days ahead won’t feel as devastated as one whose window is slamming shut.
We’ll count our way down from the least to most heartbreak, meaning we’ll start with the fan base that should be the least miserable with how things turned out. Let’s just say they may not be used to that.
No. 14: Philadelphia Flyers
Playoff expectations: 2/10. The Flyers came in as the East’s eighth seed, drawing a matchup with the powerhouse Capitals. Some of the more analytically inclined made the case that they had a shot at the upset, but for the most part nobody really expected them to win.
How it ended: 4/10. After dropping the first three games by a combined score of 12-2, the Flyers switched to Michal Neuvirth in goal and stole Games 4 and 5. With their sense of hope springing back to life and visions of a historic comeback starting to percolate, their season ended with a 1-0 game six loss on home ice.
Window status: 1/10. The Flyers are in the early stages of a rebuild under GM Ron Hextall, one that’s being carried out with uncharacteristic patience. Just making the playoffs this year was an accomplishment.
Bottom line: 7/30. Bracelet-tossing aside, this was about as painless as an early exit can be.
No. 13: Nashville Predators
Playoff expectations: 1/10. Heading into the Pacific Division as a crossover wildcard team, the Predators were given little hope by the experts. After all, everyone knew this division was coming down to an inevitable second round showdown between the Ducks and Kings.
How it ended: 6/10. After upsetting Anaheim, the Predators dropped a seventh game against the Sharks. Losing in seven is always tough, although at least this one was over quickly.
Window status: 3/10. The Predators are relatively young and still viewed as a team on the rise, although they’re well into the diminishing returns section of Shea Weber‘s mega-deal.
Bottom line: 10/30. They were one win away from the conference final, so it certainly wasn’t a pain-free experience. But they won a round, and you could make a good case that they were the only team in the playoffs that unquestionably exceeded expectations.
No. 12: New York Islanders
Playoff expectations: 5/10. Seeking their first playoff win in 23 years, the Islanders came in as a wildcard, crossing over to face the Atlantic’s top seed. But that earned them a matchup against the Panthers that looked very winnable, and any second round matchup would be against a team they finished ahead of in the standings.
How it ended: 2/10. They beat the Panthers to break that 23-year streak, then went down to the Lightning in five games. We’ll give them a bonus point for the back-to-back OT losses in that series, but otherwise this was relatively painless.
Window status: 4/10. The Islanders are a fairly young team that still seems to be on the rise, although free agency could bring some offseason turmoil.
Bottom line: 11/30. No team needed a first round win more than the Islanders, and they got it, making this the most successful playoff run many of their fans had ever seen. And when the end came, at least it came quickly.
No. 11: Detroit Red Wings
Playoff expectations: 4/10. With the Atlantic seeming wide open, the Wings went in with as good a shot as anyone. But few seemed to think of them as legitimate Cup contenders.
How it ended: 2/10. They were the first team out, bowing out to the Lightning in five.
Window status: 7/10. Call this the Pavel Datsyuk factor. With the beloved star reportedly heading to the KHL, Wing fans were hoping for one last long playoff run, if not a memorable moment or two. Instead, they got five games in which Datsyuk was held pointless.
Bottom line: 13/30. It’s like the script writers couldn’t come up with an ending worthy of Datsyuk’s brilliant career, so they didn’t bother to try.
No. 10: Minnesota Wild
Playoff expectations: 3/10. With just 87 points, the Wild had the worst regular season record of any playoff team in years, and they were facing the West’s top seed. The Stars’ obvious weakness in goal made them vulnerable to an upset, but few seemed to think the Wild could be the team to do it.
How it ended: 5/10. After falling behind 2-0 and 3-1 in the series, the Wild forced a sixth game at home, one in which they fell behind 4-0 through two periods. But a third period rally pulled them within one, and then nearly tied the game with seconds left on a mad scramble that saw the puck stop just short of crossing the goal line. That hurt.
Window status: 6/10. The Wild are an aging team locked into plenty of long-term contracts, and it’s hard to see too many paths to making this team much better. But adding Bruce Boudreau will help, and was probably the biggest upgrade that Wild fans could have hoped for.
Bottom line: 14/30. Remember when Gary Bettman said that NHL fans don’t want to look at salary cap web sites? I think he might have been talking about the Wild.
No. 9: Florida Panthers
Playoff expectations: 5/10. Despite a breakthrough season that saw them finish in first place in the Atlantic, the Panthers weren’t exactly viewed as a top tier contender. But at least they could win a round for the first time since 1996, right?
How it ended: 6/10. Losing to the underdog Islanders hurt. Losing three games in sudden death, including two straight in double-OT, hurt more. Mix in a little bit of controversy in the final game and you’ve got a deceptively tough first round exit.
Window status: 4/10. The Panthers are a young team with plenty of runway ahead of them, although it’s worth noting that Jaromir Jagr may only have three or four good years left.
Bottom line: 15/30. This also wound up marking the end of the Dale Tallon era, although nobody realized that at the time.
No. 8: New York Rangers
Playoff expectations: 4/10. After a regular season that was probably better than you remember it – they racked up 101 points – the Rangers were rewarded with a first-round matchup against the Penguins that they weren’t expected to win. Spoiler alert: they didn’t.
How it ended: 3/10. Give the Rangers credit; at least they didn’t cruelly pump up their fans with any false hope. Instead, they went out quickly and decisively.
Window status: 9/10. This is a tough call. On the one hand, maybe the Henrik Lundqvist Era’s window just slammed shut. On the other, maybe it already had and we just didn’t notice. Either way, GM Jeff Gorton has some work cut out for him.
Bottom line: 16/30. If you’re Gorton, do you owe it to Lundqvist to find a way to load up for one more shot? After seeing how far behind the Penguins your team is, that’s a tough case to make.
No. 7: Los Angeles Kings
Playoff expectations: 9/10. They coughed up their grip on the division’s top seed on the final weekend, which dampened expectations ever-so-slightly. Still, more than a few experts had picked them to win the Cup (especially on the analytics side).
How it ended: 5/10. The Kings went out surprisingly meekly, lasting just five games. To make matters worse, that defeat came at the hands of the Sharks, a longtime rival that, at last check, was still alive in their quest for the franchise’s first Cup.
Window status: 6/10. The Kings appear to be entering a transition phase, one that will apparently include a new captain and could see them part ways with some key players. But the core will remain in place, and they should be good enough to challenge for the Pacific title for at least another year or two as the division’s various bottom-feeders work through their rebuilds.
Bottom line: 20/30. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the Kings and their fans, given recent history. Still, this score may need to be nudged up a notch or two if the Sharks end up bringing the Cup back to California.
No. 6: Tampa Bay Lightning
Playoff expectations: 6/10. It’s easy to forget this now, but the Lightning didn’t go into the post-season with all that much hype. They’d had a disappointing regular season, and were missing some key pieces due to injury and health problems. Still, they were the defending conference champs, so there was some hope they could make a push.
How it ended: 9/10. The Lightning made it back to the conference final, but then blew a 3-2 series lead, dropping back-to-back games despite the dramatic Game 7 return of Steven Stamkos.
Window status: 6/10. We’ll go with something in the middle, because “TBD” probably wouldn’t be considered acceptable. Still, this one depends heavily on Stamkos, and whether we’ve really seen the last of him in Tampa. If they can find a way to bring him back, the Lightning will get at least one more swing at a Cup before the cap forces them to break up the core. But either way, the clock is ticking.
Bottom line: 21/30. And probably higher if Stamkos really does leave.
No. 5: Chicago Blackhawks
Playoff expectations: 8/10. The matchup with the Blues was a tough one. But as defending champs and the NHL’s only quasi-dynasty of the cap era, the Blackhawks went into the playoffs knowing they could win it all again if things broke right.
How it ended: 9/10. They don’t come tougher than a Game 7 loss to their longtime rivals, one in which they hit both posts with four minutes left in a one-goal game.
Window status: 6/10. It has to end eventually, right? Then again, we’ve been saying that for years, and Stan Bowman keeps finding a way to squeeze out one more year.
Bottom line: 23/30. It’s tempting to fudge the numbers and knock the Blackhawks down a few points based on their three recent Cups; how heartbreaking can a loss really be when you’ve got a city full of third-graders who’ve already seen three championships in their lifetime? Still, no team in this year’s playoffs came closer to winning a series that they ultimately lost.
No. 4: Dallas Stars
Playoff expectations: 9/10. As the West’s top seed, the Stars were expected to have an easy time with the Wild in the opening round before things got tough in the second and beyond.
How it ended: 8/10. After knocking off Minnesota, the Stars faced the Blues in a second-round series that was close right up until the end, when Dallas was blown out on home ice in Game 7.
Window status: 7/10. On the one hand, the Stars young core should allow them to be good for a long time. But then we get to that giant question mark in goal, one that throws a lot of their future hopes into doubt. Modern hockey thinking says you don’t need a superstar goalie to win, and the Stars had hoped that their pair would be good enough. But it wasn’t; it wasn’t all that close. And now they’ve got over $10 million in cap space locked into two goalies they can`t trust, and no obvious path to upgrading the position.
Bottom line: 24/30. They sure look like a team that’s one piece away. But they didn’t have that piece this year, and it may have cost them a golden opportunity at a deep run.
No. 3: Anaheim Ducks
Playoff expectations: 9/10. As the Pacific’s top seed and one of the league’s hottest teams since the new year, the Ducks entered the playoffs as a solid Cup pick, although the road to get there would be a tough one. Hey, as long as it’s not another Game 7 loss, right?
How it ended: 10/10. Yep, another Game 7 loss. The Ducks stumbled out of the gate against the underdog Predators, losing their first two before fighting back to take a 3-2 series lead. If you know your Ducks history during the Boudreau era, you know how that ends, and it’s a big reason why the Boudreau era is now over.
Window status: 6/10. The Ducks’ roster is a nice mix of young talent and a veteran core that’s locked up long-term. Probably too long-term, if we’re being honest, and GM Bob Murray has made it clear that he wants more out of the team’s top players.
Bottom line: 25/30. If you’d handed a Ducks fan a piece of paper before the playoffs and asked them to write down their worst-case scenario, the Predators series would have been pretty much it.
No. 2: Washington Capitals
Playoff expectations: 10/10. They ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy. They featured a talented roster, one they’d stacked with proven playoff performers. They had a Vezina candidate in goal. With a long history of playoff misery weighing on their backs, this was finally going to be the team that brought the Cup to Washington. It had to be.
How it ended: 9/10. After fending off the Flyers in round one, the Capitals ran into the red-hot Penguins in a second-round series between two legitimate Cup contenders. In a remarkably tight series, the Penguins pulled out the win in six games. Two of those came in overtime, including the series-winner. The only way it could have hurt more would have been if it came in seven games.
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Window status: 7/10. The Caps have most of their key pieces locked up, and could bring back essentially the same team next year if they chose to. But there’s still a sense of urgency here; with Alexander Ovechkin now on the wrong side of 30, time is running out on the prime of one of the greatest goal scorers in league history. And even if they keep the roster together, will there ever be another season where everything comes together as well as this one?
Bottom line: 26/30. This really felt like the best shot the Capitals have ever had, and in the end it didn’t even produce a trip to the conference final. You knew going in that this was a “win or bust” story for Washington, and that anything short of the Stanley Cup would be devastating. It was.
No. 1: St. Louis Blues
Playoff expectations: 8/10. The Blues went into the post-season as a very good team facing a tough road to the final. So, business as usual for this team, and in the past that’s always ended badly for a team that hasn’t made the final in over four decades. But when they knocked off the Blackhawks in seven, it felt like they’d shaken some demons, and when they did the same to the Stars, many Blues fans made a fatal mistake: They started to believe again.
How it ended: 10/10. And no sooner had those fans convinced themselves that this time may be different than the hockey gods showed them that it wasn’t. A tight conference final with the Sharks suddenly went bad, and the next thing you know your captain is sobbing about what might have been.
Window status: 9/10. No team from this year’s final four – and maybe no playoff team, period – is facing more immediate questions that the Blues. David Backes is headed for free agency. So is Troy Brouwer. Brian Elliott‘s status as the starter suddenly seems in doubt. Kevin Shattenkirk is rumoured to be on the trade block. And now, there are even whispers about Vladimir Tarasenko‘s long-term future in St. Louis.
Not all of those situations will result in change, but some will. This really did feel like the last chance for this version of the St. Louis Blues. And they got just close enough to make you think it was actually going to happen.
Bottom line: 27/30. That’s good enough for top spot on our list. Chin up, Blues fans. At least you won something for once.