In our modern day and age, it’s nigh impossible to predict the winner of the Stanley Cup, but go back 30 or more years and it was much more predictable. Even so, there were teams that broke through and surprised everyone with their Stanley Cup victories. Here is the first half of my Top 10 Underdog Stanley Cup Champions.
10. 1952-53 Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal Canadiens had some dominant years in the mid 40s and were extremely dominant in the late 50s, but it was the Detroit Red Wings who ran the show in the early 50s. Montreal finished second out of six teams in the 1952-53 season with a 28-23-19 record, but were still far behind Detroit and their 36-16-18 record. Fortunately for the Canadiens, the 4th place Boston Bruins heavily upset the Red Wings, while the Canadiens topped the third place Black Hawks. In the final, the Canadiens were able to shut down the Bruins in a 4-1 series victory.
9. 1979-80 New York Islanders
Many know that the Islanders had one of the greatest dynasties in the early 80s, but their start was unexpected. The Islanders had the 5th place seed and breezed past the 12th place Kings. However, the Islanders had to place the 4th place Bruins, but beat them surprisingly easily in a 4-1 series. The Islanders’ first real challenge came in the Semifinals, when they had to face the powerful Buffalo Sabres, who had amassed 110 points, far more than New York’s 91 points. Amazingly, the Islanders topped the Sabres in four games, but it wouldn’t get any easier. The finals featured a duel between New York and the deadly Philadelphia Flyers, the only team to have a better record than the Sabres, piling up 116 points while losing just 12 games during the regular season. Despite being huge underdogs, the Islanders pulled a huge upset, defeating the Flyers in an extremely close six game series. Bryan Trottier was awarded with the Conn Smythe trophy for his heroics.
8. 1989-90 Edmonton Oilers
After trading away Wayne Gretzky, the Oilers were a shell of their former selves. The Oilers finished with 90 points and at 5th in the league, a far cry from their former dominant years. The Oilers defeated the weaker team in the Winnipeg Jets in the Division Semi-finals in a 7-game series before facing the Los Angeles Kings in the Division finals, who had upset the Division leading Calgary Flames in round one. The Oilers swept the Kings before finally facing their toughest competition yet, the Norris Division leaders, the Chicago Blackhawks. Still, the teams were fairly evenly matched and the Oilers won the series by a score of 4-2. In the finals, the Oilers finally faced competition much above their level in the Boston Bruins, the NHL’s President’s Trophy winners. The Bruins had cruised through rounds two and three with an 8-1 record, and intimidating fact to deal with. Still, Edmonton shocked the hockey world by not only beating the Bruins, but doing it in a five-game series, winning 4-1. Goaltender Bill Ranford had his moment of glory as he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for his clutch saves in Edmonton’s net.
7. 1996-97 Detroit Red Wings
In 1996-97, the Red Wings finished 5th in the NHL and it was clear that they were finally becoming a respectable team, but few expected them to go on the run they did to win the Cup in 1997. The Red Wings knocked off the St. Louis Blues in six games in the Conference Quarterfinals and then promptly swept the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in what was expected to be a closer series. It was, however, the legendary Conference finals between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings that was the first true upset on the side of Detroit. Colorado was the top team in the NHL coming into the playoffs and provided fierce competition for the Red Wings. In a hard fought and nasty series, the Red Wings were victorious in six games. Even after that series, the Red Wings were up against the Flyers, who were also seen as the series favourites by a fairly large margin. Amazingly, perhaps spurred on by their conference finals series, the Red Wings swept the Flyers in four games to win their first Cup in 42 years.
6. 1944-45 Toronto Maple Leafs
The 1944-45 Maple Leafs were the epitome of mediocrity. They made the playoffs, but with a .520 point percentage, a 24-22-4 record. By contrast, the 2nd place Red Wings had a .670 point percentage and the Canadiens had a stunning .800 point percentage. In a massive upset, the Maple Leafs beat out the Canadiens in a David and Goliath story. The Canadiens were just coming off Maurice Richard‘s 50-in-50 season and Elmer Lach‘s Hart trophy season with Bill Durnan in net. To lose to the “mediocre” Maple Leafs was unthinkable, but it happened. In the other series, the Bruins had proven a surprisingly difficult challenge for Detroit, pushing them all the way to seven games, but the Red Wings were victorious. Despite Toronto’s first series upset, the consensus was that Detroit was still a much better team than Toronto and favoured to win the Stanley Cup. Yet despite this, in a series that almost featured a reverse sweep by the Red Wings, Toronto remained victorious, winning on a 2-1 game to take the series in seven games.