NHL Playoffs: First Round Upsets

With the 2012-13 Stanley Cup playoffs only a week away, it’s an exciting time to be a hockey fan. 

If you’re lucky enough to have your team entering the final sixteen you are undoubtedly pumped up and optimistic about their chances. Even if your team is just squeaking in there is a lot to be hopeful for. Every playoff season there are teams we expect a lot from and teams we can’t imagine winning a round. The great thing about the NHL is that the winners are chosen through grueling on-ice seven game series, not on a piece of paper. This is a look back at some of the most recent NHL playoff first round shockers.

The (8) Edmonton Oilers stun the President Trophy winning (1) Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06. 

When the 2006 NHL playoffs began, the days of the Detroit Red Wings losing to an inferior first round opponent were for the most part, over a decade in the rearview mirror. The Oilers entered the series with very little expected of them. Truthfully, of every upset in this article, the Oilers defeating the Red Wings in the first round of the 2006 NHL playoffs was probably the most shocking. Welcome to the new NHL we all thought! League parity at its best.

The Oilers of 06’ were largely made up of young unproven forwards, a few vets, and a goaltender who had never really proven his worth as an accomplished number one in the NHL. Netminder Dwayne Roloson was a big difference maker against the Wings when the Oilers upset them, but their real secret weapon was one of the best players in the world at the time.

Not often enough is Chris Pronger openly considered one of the best players of his generation but the evidence suggests he is deservedly on a short list of the most elite in the game over the last twenty years. Pronger is the only defenseman not named Bobby Orr to win a Hart trophy in the last sixty years. When the Oilers 2006 magical run to the Stanley Cup finals began with a first round upset of the President Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings it was Pronger’s ability to log big minutes and shutdown his opponents that allowed Edmonton to win that series.

The (8) Anaheim Ducks teach the (1) San Jose Sharks a lesson about playoff hockey. 

For many people who watched this series it wasn’t a big surprise when the 8th place Ducks defeated the Presidents’ Trophy winning San Jose Sharks in six games. The Ducks were only two seasons removed from winning the Cup themselves, whereas, the Sharks had earned a stigma as a franchise that wasn’t capable of winning important playoff games. This was also one of the most entertaining first round series of the last decade. As is always the case, when the California teams play head-to-head with something on the line there is magic in the air. Without the prestige and history of Bruins/Habs or Blackhawks/Wings to back it up, any combo of Ducks/Kings/Sharks in the playoffs is just as entertaining. The California teams deliver all out physical punishment fueled by mutual hatred when they go to war with each other. The series came down to the Ducks top players outdoing the Sharks best players. Another Presidents’ Trophy winner out in the first round. Another Chris Pronger team.

In 2010 the (8) Montreal Canadiens exposed Alex Ovechkin causing the President Trophy winning (1) Washington Capitals to bow out in the first round. 

In 2010 the Washington Capitals looked like they had finally arrived with Alex Ovechkin leading the way. Their smooth puck possession style had dominated opponents throughout the regular season leaving many to think this could be their year. For Ovechkin, it was supposed to be a coming out party in the playoffs. His answer to Sidney Crosby’s Stanley Cup from the season before. But for Ovechkin and his crew it turned into a good old fashioned playoff lesson about hard work, attention to detail and doing the little things it takes to win. The Canadiens proved once again that a good game plan and complete team effort will beat raw skill every time.

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Pittsburgh fans are convinced a

The Caps loss to the Canadiens came in seven hard fought games. When it was done, the Capitals became the third Presidents’ Trophy winner in five seasons to lose in the first round. Canadiens’ goaltender Jaroslav Halak stoled the show with exceptional puck stopping over many long stretches of offensive siege by the first place Capitals. Although Ovechkin had 5 goals and 5 assists for a total of 10 points in 7 games he was largely criticized for the loss. Canadiens’ defenseman Hal Gill was credited with shutting down The Great 8 by blocking many of his shots and consistently keeping him to the outside. Since that shocking first round exit the Caps’ Ovechkin has not been the same arguably until the last month of this season. He seemed to go a few years without the swagger he displayed in that series, showcased when he snowed a little kid at the Bell Centre in the pre game ceremonies before game four.

The (7) Philadelphia Flyers do a quick number on the (2) New Jersey Devils in 2010. 

The 2010 edition of the Philadelphia Flyers didn’t even make the playoffs until the final day of the regular season by beating the New York Rangers in a shootout. It was a fateful afternoon that sparked an incredible run Flyers’ fans won’t soon forget. Their first round opponent, the New Jersey Devils didn’t put up much of a fight which led to a quick exit in five games.

Danny Briere (Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE)
Danny Briere (Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE)

I’ll admit when I started writing this article the last name in my head was Chris Pronger, but here he is again. Three times is not a coincidence. Pronger and the Flyers came into the 2010 playoffs in playoff mode. Sometimes being hot at the right time is more important than coasting into the playoffs with home ice advantage.

Before the 2009-10 NHL season began the Philadelphia Flyers were considered Cup favourites but their performance throughout the season did not reflect it. Luckily, the Flyers managed to find their game at the right time and play their way to the Stanley Cup finals as a seven seed. They lost the Stanley Cup finals in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Were the (8) Los Angeles Kings ever really an underdog when they lined up to play the President Trophy winning (1) Vancouver Canucks in the 2011-12 Stanley Cup playoffs? 


About one year ago the fourth Presidents Trophy winner in the last eight years fell at the hands of an eight seed in the first round. This time it was the Vancouver Canucks turn to deal with the embarrassment that goes along with playing so well all year only to lose quickly in the Spring when it matters. The Kings were good and everyone knew it in 2012. Although they finished eighth, many people had the Kings pegged to win the Cup before the playoffs even started. They were the best 8th place team in NHL history. The Kings, much like the Flyers of 2010, were considered Cup favourites in the pre-season but they failed to dominate the 82 game regular season schedule.

Perhaps the biggest surprise wasn’t that the Kings beat the Canucks in the first round and went on to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. It’s the way they did it that is most shocking. The Kings seemed to win the Stanley Cup with ease in 2012. Their record when they hoisted the legendary mug was 16-4.

 Are more first round upsets on their way?

As we look forward to another great NHL playoffs there are teams that are more likely to upset than others. In the East, the New York Rangers will finish in the bottom of the playoff picture but last seasons’ Eastern finalist could beat anyone without it being a big shock. That is not the case for the New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs who go into the playoffs with very little expectations.

In the West the Chicago Blackhawks should be on their toes when they play an inferior first round opponent. In the last eight seasons the Presidents Trophy winner has lost in the first round four times. That’s 50%. And it looks like the Hawks will be playing the Columbus Blue Jackets who fit the Cinderella profile perfectly, the Detroit Red Wings who are such a Hawks rival that regular season success could not matter, or the Minnesota Wild who are an unknown.