NHL Playoffs: Avoiding The Big First Round Scare

For the last four seasons, and potentially a fifth this year, we’ve seen a team make the Stanley Cup Finals who was on the brink of elimination in the first round. These teams all generally would’ve been favored in their first round series, but took the more difficult route to round two, with dramatic game 7 victories and improbable comebacks, thus overcoming what we have come to identify as “the big scare”.

Here’s the list of teams, starting in 2011 – this may bring you back to some good or not-so-good nostalgia.

2011: Vancouver Canucks / Boston Bruins – (won Stanley Cup)

Yes, both of the Stanley Cup finalists in 2011 were very close to being ousted in the first round.

The Vancouver Canucks were the President’s Trophy winners and were heavily favored to beat the Chicago Blackhawks who, despite being defending Cup champions, barely held on to the Western Conference’s eighth seed to earn a spot in the dance.

Vancouver breezed through the first three games to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the series, before handing Chicago the next three games to force game 7. The Blackhawks became the seventh team in NHL history to do this and having eliminated Vancouver in 2009 and 2010, Canucks fans were on edge.

However, Vancouver held on, avoiding their big scare and beating Chicago in game 7 in overtime.

And what Canucks fan could forget Alex Burrows’ game winner?

Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins had their hands full in a rivalry that was peaking at this time with their first round opponent, the Montreal Canadiens.

The Canadiens took the first two games on the road to go up 2-0, but Boston stormed back. They won three straight games and after dropping game 6, the Bruins avoided their big scare with an overtime win on home ice in game 7.

Nathan Horton was Boston’s hero, with his second game winning goal in overtime of the series.

Boston won 3 of their 4 games in overtime, and became the first team to win a seven-game playoff series without a powerplay goal. The Canadiens could only cringe at this incredibly tight series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

2012: New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils entered as the sixth seed against the Southeast Division Champion Florida Panthers, although they had 102 points compared to Florida’s 94. It was the Panthers’ first playoff appearance since 2000, who much like the 2011 Canadiens let their first round series slip away. After losing game 1, Florida went on to take 3 of the next 4 games from New Jersey to go up 3-2 in the series.

Game 6 went to the Devils in overtime on a goal from Travis Zajac, and they never looked back, winning game 7 in double overtime on Adam Henrique’s second goal of the game – avoiding the big scare in dramatic fashion, and deflating the hopes of an inspired Florida Panthers squad.

2013: Boston Bruins (yet again)

Apparently the Bruins have had a flare for the dramatic in playoffs in recent years.

The lockout-shortened season saw the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed Bruins match up against the fifth seed Toronto Maple Leafs. Boston took 3 of the first four games to go up 3-1 in the series, but the Maple Leafs showed resiliency with back-to-back 2-1 wins to take Boston to game 7. Toronto led 4-1 heading into the third period in that game 7, which eventually became one of the most monumental collapses in recent playoff memory.

The Bruins made it 4-2 halfway through the third before two goals in the last two minutes with goalie Tuukka Rask pulled. And just over six minutes into overtime, Patrice Bergeron made history in Boston, as the Bruins avoided yet another big scare.

Boston’s victory marked the first time a team trailing by three goals in the third period of game 7 went on to win the series.

2014: Los Angeles Kings (won Stanley Cup)

The Los Angeles Kings claimed their first ever Stanley Cup in 2012 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2013. So despite having 100 points compared to the 111 of their first round opponent, the San Jose Sharks, the Kings had become a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

The Sharks held a commanding 3-0 series lead after winning the first three games, and despite their big scare the Kings weren’t going to bow out that easily.

Los Angeles took off and won the next four games, outscoring San Jose 18-5 and winning each of those games by at least three goals. The Kings became the fourth team in NHL history to come back and win a series after trailing 3 games to none.

Though this seriously didn’t need overtime in game 7 like the previous four outcomes, the turning point may have been in game six, on the Kings’ controversial second goal midway through the third, en route to a 4-1 win. Justin Williams appeared to push Sharks goalie Alex Stalock backwards, and the puck was lost underneath Stalock as Justin Williams pushed in the eventual game winner. Nonetheless, the play was ruled a goal and San Jose was livid following the loss, and mentally had all but already lost the series.

2015: Tampa Bay Lightning (to be continued)

The young Tampa Bay Lightning entered the 2015 playoffs with 108 points, squaring off in the first round with the much older Detroit Red Wings, who with 100 points clinched their 24th straight playoff spot. Many had the Lightning favored to sweep this series, but you can never count out Detroit come playoff time.

Backed by superb goaltending from Petr Mrazek and typical magic from Pavel Datsyuk, the Red Wings carried a 3-2 series lead heading into game 6. The Lightning stormed back however, taking game 6 on the road before game 7 when Ben Bishop and the Bolts shut out Detroit with a 2-0 victory, shutting down the prospective big scare.

The turning point in this series was likely in game 4 when, with the Lightning trailing 2-0 and about to go down 3-1 in the series, Tyler Johnson (who had six goals in the series) scored with just over five minutes to play, set up the tying goal a minute and a half later, and lifted Tampa Bay with a goal in overtime to give his team a 3-2 victory.


Since 2011, it’s been an interesting trend to see these type of emphatic and emotional first round victories for a handful of teams that have advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. To properly explain these kind of results is almost as improbable as the series themselves.

One thing that’s for sure is it has been an exciting prospect in the NHL playoffs which are always so tightly played and closely matched, albeit if the results are good feelings or hard feelings for fans alike.