Down Goes Brown: Stanley Cup champs who survived near-elimination experiences

Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals celebrate their Stanley Cup victory in style, including singing "We Are The Champions".

The Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions. That still feels weird to write.

Seeing those words today comes as a mild surprise based on what we expected at the start of the season, when the Capitals were listed with the sixth-best Cup odds. They’d be a bigger surprise based on the start of the playoffs, when Washington went into the post-season with just the eighth-best odds.

But they would have been downright shocking, bordering on the unbelievable, if you’d read them on April 15.

That was the night that Matt Calvert’s overtime goal was allowed to stand after an offside review, giving the Blue Jackets the win and a 2–0 series lead in their first-round matchup with Washington. The Caps had blown a two-goal lead on home ice for the second straight game, and found themselves heading to Columbus in a massive hole. There were plenty of reasons to think they wouldn’t make it back home for a Game 5. In the history of the NHL playoffs, no team had ever lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series in overtime and come back to win. As Calvert himself put it: “Two games in overtime — that can really crush a team.”

It can. But this time it didn’t. The Caps blew yet another third-period lead in Game 3, and the two teams headed to sudden death once again. This time, it felt like there was far more than one game hanging in the balance. As a wise man put it at the time:

You know the rest. The Capitals did get the next goal, on a lucky bounce that was credited to Lars Eller. They won the next three to finish off Columbus, slayed the dragon against the Penguins, edged out the Lightning in seven and then handed the Golden Knights their first four-game losing streak in franchise history.

Not bad for a team that was one goal away from a franchise-altering disaster. And yet, this situation isn’t all that rare. Looking back at modern NHL history, we can find several examples of Stanley Cup champions who had to overcome the same sort of near-death experience that this year’s Capitals did. So today, let’s look back at eight other teams from the last 25 years who seemed to be all but done, only to get up off the mat and then go all the way.

1) 1993 Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens’ 1993 run is remembered for plenty of things. There was the unbelievable streak of 10 straight overtime wins, Patrick Roy’s wink, Marty McSorley’s stick, Eric Desjardins’s hat trick and Denis Savard’s joy. It remains the last Cup for both the franchise and the country, and it didn’t even come with all that much suspense — over the last three rounds, the Canadiens never needed more than five games to win a series.

But that first round nearly spelled a quick end to the Habs’ hopes, as they drew a tough Nordiques team that was returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Quebec held home-ice advantage thanks to a 104-point season, and they looked like the better team early on. Scott Young’s overtime winner gave the Nordiques Game 1, and they followed that by cruising to a 4–1 win in Game 2.

Here’s where things get crazy. Heading back to Montreal facing a 2–0 deficit, there was talk about whether the Canadiens might try to spark the team with a goaltending switch. That’s right — there were people back then who actually thought it might be a good idea to bench a struggling Roy in favour of Andre “Red Light” Racicot. Maybe not many, but they all had the phone numbers of their local call-in radio shows.

There’s no evidence that Montreal coach Jacques Demers ever actually considered making the switch, and rightly so. But he didn’t shrug off the losses either, delivering emotional post-game sermons to media that included phrases like “We can’t do this to our fans” and “Right now, I’m mad” and “I am very, very, very disappointed.”

Much like this year’s Capitals, the Canadiens found themselves back in overtime in Game 3, knowing that giving up the next goal would almost certainly mean the end of their season. Instead, Vincent Damphousse snuck one by a furious Ron Hextall. We didn’t know it at the time, but Montreal’s unprecedented overtime magic had begun.

Montreal would go 15-2 the rest of the post-season, and Roy would win the Conn Smythe. To this day, nobody who wanted him benched for Racicot has ever admitted it.

2) 2011 Boston Bruins

Let’s skip ahead to a year in which the Canadiens were on the other side of a Cup champion’s near-miss. The 2011 Bruins actually faced a 2–0 series deficit twice that year, with the second coming in the Stanley Cup final against the Canucks. But it was the one they faced in the first round against Montreal that felt like it was heading to the kind of loss that reshapes a franchise.

Remember, the Bruins were one year removed from one of the worst collapses in pro-sports history. In 2010, they’d held a 3–0 series lead over the Flyers, only to lose three straight to set up a seventh game. Then they’d led 3–0 in that game, only to blow that lead, too. It was the sort of loss that has even the most diehard fans wondering if something has gone terribly wrong with a team.

That collapse didn’t cost Claude Julien his job, but it had him on thin ice heading into the 2011 post-season. When Montreal went into Boston and took the first two games, holding the Bruins to a single goal in the process, you figured Julien was already packing up his desk. As one Montreal columnist gleefully put it, Julien “has been flat out-coached by Jacques Martin.” That’s generally not a phrase you want to hear in the playoffs.

Game 3 saw Tim Thomas stand on his head in a 4–2 win, and Michael Ryder’s overtime winner in Game 4 sent the series back to Boston all tied up. The two teams would battle until overtime of a seventh game, where Nathan Horton would win it for the Bruins. They’d get some revenge against the Flyers with a second-round sweep, then go on to capture their first Stanley Cup in 39 years.

3) 2002 Detroit Red Wings

If there are any Canucks fans still reading after we mentioned the 2011 Bruins, this section should finish them off.

The 2001–02 Red Wings were easily the Cup favourites heading into the season; they were coming off a 116-point season in a year when nobody else managed more than 101. But the eighth-seeded Canucks seemed poised to pull off the upset, stealing the opener on Henrik Sedin’s OT winner and then rolling to a 5–2 win in Game 2.

With the Red Wings on the ropes and a raucous home crowd cheering them on, the Canucks tied Game 3 with a goal midway through the second period and were headed into the intermission with a chance to shove the favourites into an impossible hole.

Every Canucks fan remembers what happened next:

The goal held up as the winner, and the Canucks didn’t win another game. The Red Wings went on to beat the Blues and Avalanche on their way to an easy final matchup with the overmatched Hurricanes.

But look on the bright side, Canucks fans. While the series may have featured one of the most devasting gut-punch goals in modern NHL history, at least it served up a legendary Brian Burke press conference.

4) 2000 New Jersey Devils

So far, we’ve focused on teams that had their near-death experience early in the first round. But some eventual Cup champs have made it a bit further into their run before their backs were against the wall.

For example, the 2000 Devils had a relatively easy path to the conference final. They swept the Panthers in the opening round, then knocked out the Maple Leafs in series that ended with the infamous six-shot shutout. That set up a tough matchup against the 105-point Flyers, but the Devils got off to a strong start, stealing home-ice advantage with a 4–1 road win in Game 1.

That’s where things started to unravel. The Devils blew a third-period lead in Game 2 and went on to lose. Then they dropped both games in New Jersey to fall behind 3–1 in the series. It’s worth remembering that at this point, the Devils weren’t anyone’s idea of a proven powerhouse; they’d only won one Cup, and hadn’t been out of the second round since 1995. They’d even fired their coach late in the season. Now they were facing three straight must-win games, two of which would come on the road. And to make matters even worse, the rumour mill had Flyers superstar Eric Lindros almost ready to return to the lineup after missing two months.

That last bit ended up defining the series. The Devils stayed alive with a Game 5 win in Philadelphia. Lindros returned and scored a goal in Game 6, but the Devils held on for a 2–1 win. That set up a Game 7 showdown that turned out to be a classic, with a Patrik Elias goal with less than three minutes left in regulation holding up as the winner.

Of course, that’s not what people tend to remember from that game. Instead, we immediately think back to this:

The Devils went on to beat the Dallas Stars in the final, opening the series with a 7–3 win and closing it out with Jason Arnott’s overtime Cup winner.

5) 2013 Chicago Blackhawks

The Devils weren’t the only champs to overcome a 3-1 deficit against a rival; the Blackhawks had to pull off the feat before winning their second Cup back in 2013.

That year’s team went into the playoffs as heavy favourites, having won the Presidents’ Trophy. And they finished 21 points ahead of the Red Wings, a huge gap when you remember that the lockout-shortened season lasted only 48 games. But once the second round arrived, the Wings gave the Hawks all they could handle, taking a 3–1 series lead thanks to three straight wins in which the high-flying Hawks were held to just two goals. There were whispers that Corey Crawford, who wasn’t on the 2010 championship team and hadn’t won a playoff round in his first two seasons as a starter, might not be post-season material.

Crawford settled in and the Blackhawks found their offence in Game 5, taking a 4–1 decision to extend the series. They trailed heading into the third period of Game 6, but scored three straight to earn a 4–3 win and send the series back to Chicago for a seventh game. That one would need overtime, with the winner coming from an unlikely hero.

Brent Seabrook‘s goal sent the Blackhawks through to the conference final, and they lost just three games the rest of the way while dispatching the Kings and Bruins to capture their second Cup of the cap era.

6) 2006 Carolina Hurricanes

To this day, the Hurricanes’ championship still feels odd. It was completely legitimate, and they won it fair and square (although some Oiler fans might disagree). But it came at the end of one of the most unpredictable years the league has ever seen, as the post-lockout landscape made the season feel almost random. And the Hurricanes missing the playoffs in 11 of the next 12 years makes the whole thing feel like an out-of-nowhere one-hit wonder.

All of which makes it worth remembering how the Hurricanes’ run started, and how close it came to ending quickly. Carolina was a very good team, having put up 112 points and earning the conference’s second seed, and were heavy favourites over the Canadiens. But they got shelled on home ice in the opener, losing 6–1. And they gave up six more in the second game, including Michael Ryder’s overtime winner to send the series back to Montreal with the Habs up 2-0 and thinking sweep.

That set the stage for a pair of series turning points. The first was Hurricanes’ coach Peter Laviolette’s decision to bench struggling starter Martin Gerber and hand the reins over to rookie Cam Ward. As bad as Gerber had been, it was at least a somewhat-controversial move; Ward had only 29 games of NHL experience under his belt, and hadn’t looked sharp in relief of Gerber in Game 2. But he gave the Hurricanes the sort of performance they needed in Game 3, stopping 27 of 28 shots.

The second key moment came midway through that third game. Justin Williams‘s high-stick on Saku Koivu put the Canadiens’ captain and second-leading scorer out of the game and the series. To make matters worse, the foul went uncalled, even as officials handed out five straight minors to Montreal in the game’s second half. One of those came in overtime, and with Tomas Plekanec in the box for hooking it was Eric Staal who scored the winner.

The Hurricanes would win the next three, all by one goal, including another overtime win in Montreal in Game 6. The Hurricanes went on to win their first Stanley Cup and rookie Ward earned Conn Smythe honours. Would Koivu have made a difference in any of those one-goal games if he’d been available to play? We’ll never know.

7) 2014 Los Angeles Kings

We’ve been looking at teams that were facing 2–0 or 3–1 series deficits, but we can’t forget about the recent Cup winner who pulled off the rare comeback from down 3-0.

The 2014 first-round matchup between the Kings and Sharks figured to be a tight one. The Sharks had been the better regular-season team, but the Kings were just two years removed from a championship while San Jose’s playoff history was somewhat less positive. Given the bad blood between the two teams, it looked like a potential classic.

Instead, the Sharks dominated. They took a 5–0 lead in Game 1 before cruising to a 6–3 win. Then they outright embarrassed the Kings in game two, pumping seven straight goals past Jonathan Quick on their way to a 7–2 win. That led to Darryl Sutter offering only a lukewarm endorsement of his starter, calling Quick’s game “OK”, and creating some chatter of a possible goaltending switch.

Sutter ended up going back to Quick for Game 3 and got a better performance, but Patrick Marleau‘s overtime winner stunned the L.A. crowd and gave the Sharks a 3–0 lead that seemed to all but end the series.

We all know how that turned out. The Kings didn’t just come back — they steamrolled the Sharks. They outscored San Jose 18–5 while winning four straight; Drew Doughty would later tell reporters that the Kings knew they had the series won early on in the comeback, dropping his infamous “you could see it in their eyes” jab at Joe Thornton and the Sharks.

The Kings would face three more elimination games on their way to the final, where they’d knock off the New York Rangers in five to win their second Cup in three years.

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8) 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins

We can’t do a playoff-comeback story without at least one mention of the Capitals blowing a series. Don’t worry — I’m guessing their fans won’t mind right now.

The Penguins were looking to get back to the final after falling just short of a Cup win in 2008. But they’d stumbled through an inconsistent regular season that cost coach Michel Therrien his job before running into the Capitals in round two. The Caps took each of the first two games, including the memorable “dueling hat tricks” showdown between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin:

Facing a must-win Game 3 on home ice, the Penguins held a 2–1 lead late in regulation. But Nicklas Backstrom scored with less than two minutes left to send the game to overtime, leaving the Caps one goal away from a 3–0 series lead. Instead, it was Kris Letang who found the net, and the Penguins were back in the series.

The Pens went on to win the series thanks to a 6–2 blowout in Game 7 that helped cement Ovechkin’s reputation as a player who couldn’t deliver in the clutch. The Penguins would go on to sweep the Hurricanes and then win the rematch against the Red Wings, overcoming another 2–0 series deficit in the process. It would be the first of three Cups for Crosby and the cap-era Pens, and yet another in a long line of Washington playoff failures.

(See how much less that hurts to read now, Caps fans? Winning really does cure everything.)

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