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Shocking Stanley Cup playoff upset
in Tampa? Red Wings fans can relate
By KEITH GAVE
The hype-sters among us have been hasty in calling the quick exit of the Tampa Bay Lightening from the Stanley Cup playoff tournament the biggest upset in the league’s post-season history. After a record-tying 62-win season, the President’s Trophy winners went down in four straight games – and after the first period of the series opener, it wasn’t even close.
Every bookie in Vegas and beyond has Tampa Bay as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup this spring. No other team was even worth betting a nickel. And then they dropped the puck.
The truth is, however, that while the result was stunning indeed Tampa Bay isn’t the best team to be swept in the first round. That distinction goes to the 2003 Detroit Red Wings, one the most star-laden team in NHL history. Eight Hall of Famers: Captain Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios and Igor Larionov. And two more who will be there soon: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, both youngsters at the time.
No, those Wings did not win the President’s Trophy that season. They weren’t even first overall in the Western Conference. They finished second. But they were coming off their third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons, and few doubted this team. It was full of veterans who had been there before. They knew how to pace themselves. They knew how to win when it counted.
Sure, two important pieces were missing from the Wings of a year earlier: Coach Scotty Bowman had retired, succeeded by Dave Lewis. His departure was followed by goaltender Dominik Hasek, who was succeeded by the tandem Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace.
Few gave either loss much consideration. That team didn’t need a coach, just somebody to hold the gate open during line changes. And goaltending? Who needed great goaltending when your team had the puck the entire game? This was the new era of puck possession, after all, a style of play perfected by Detroit since the mid-1990s, when the Wings put five former Soviet players on a unit together and changed the NHL forever.
And then they dropped the puck.
Four games later, the reigning Stanley Cup champions were done. All those Hall of Famers were booking tee times.
The Wings were dispatched by the upstart Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who in their ninth NHL seasons advanced to the second round of the playoffs for just the second time. They were led by a good young player in Paul Kariya, an unknown goaltender and a rookie coach named Mike Babcock.
The goalie, J.S. Giguere, was spectacular, beating Detroit in four, low-scoring one-goal games. He out-dueled Curtis Joseph in the Detroit net. Joseph wasn’t horrible, but he wasn’t able to steal a game, like the great goalies find ways to do when it counts. (And still, for reasons I cannot fathom, people are clamoring for Joseph to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the same time they dismiss Chris Osgood as someone who won three Stanley Cups only because he played behind such great teams.)
The seventh-seeded Ducks (and Babcock) rode Giguere all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were beaten in a spectacular seven-game series by New Jersey. Giguere, nevertheless – and deservedly so – was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP.
Babcock, of course, cemented his reputation as the game’s hot new coach, and when General Manager Ken Holland was ready to replace Lewis two years later, the only person he considered was Babcock. In 10 seasons with Detroit, Babcock won a Stanley Cup in 2008, lost a chance to repeat despite a three-games-to-two lead in a second straight Finals against Pittsburgh, but lost.
And the genius coach, arguably the most over-rated in the game today, hasn’t been able to win in the playoffs ever since.
But I digress.
They do not award the Stanley Cup on the strength of expectations. If they did, Detroit would have had about 15 from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s. Like Tampa Bay fans today, Red Wings fans know the ungodly pain of having a team everyone expected to win it all go down too early.
It happened in consecutive seasons in the ’90s – first, in a shocking seven-game, opening-round loss to Toronto, on Nikolai Borschevsky’s overtime goal that cost Bryan Murray his coaching job. It happened again the following year, in Scotty Bowman’s first season in Detroit, in an even more shocking fashion. Detroit, the overwhelming Stanley Cup favorite, lost in seven games to the No. 8 seed San Jose Sharks in just their third NHL season.
More disappointments followed. In the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, Detroit posted a 12-2 record going into the Stanley Cup Finals against New Jersey. Everyone said this was the Wings’ year, finally winning it all and breaking a 40-year drought. They were swept by the Devils.
The next year, Detroit won a record 62 games. The favorite again to win the Cup, only to lose in the Western Conference Finals to archrival Colorado. So both teams that share that 62-wqin record have failed to win the Stanley Cup.
It’s hard for Lightening fans to accept now, but those so-called “upsets” by No. 8 seeds, while surprising and always painful to the favored team, shouldn’t be so shocking anymore. It happens in a league whose salary cap has provided the kind of parity that should be the envy of other professional sports.
In 2012, remember, the Los Angeles Kings barely made the Stanley Cup tournament. Then, as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, they rolled to through four rounds to win it all.
Let’s see an NBA team do that. The closest we’ve seen to that in the NBA is when coach Rudy Tomjanovich took his sixth-seeded Houston Rockets to the title over the top-seeded Orlando Magic – in a four-game sweep.
The top seed in the NHL’s regular season gets the President’s Trophy. The last time that trophy-winner won the Stanley Cup was in 2013, by Chicago. So some are prone to calling a curse these days.
In fact, since the President’s Trophy was introduced in 1986, the winner has gone on to raise the Stanley Cup eight times, so just over 25 percent of the time. (Detroit has won it six times; two of those teams have won the Cup.)
During those same years, the top-seeded NBA club has gone on to win the playoff championship 21 times, nearly two-thirds of the time.
Just one more reason – sorry Tampa Bay fans – the Stanley Cup playoffs offer far more entertainment value, at least for me.