A look at seven unlikely Stanley Cup champions

Tuesday, 06.11.2013 / 4:00 PM

A team needs a lot of things to come together to win the Stanley Cup. Weeks of hard work and loads of dedication are a must -- as is the willingness to sacrifice that Boston Bruins forward Gregory Campbell showed last week when he continued to kill a penalty despite suffering a broken leg. A little bit of luck never hurts either.
But the team that looks best on paper isn't always the one that ends up drinking champagne from the Cup. The NHL has had its share of unexpected champions over the years.
Here are seven teams that might have surprised even themselves by ending their season hoisting the Cup:
1928: New York Rangers
The New York Rangers entered the NHL as an expansion team in 1926, and under the guidance of Lester Patrick finished first in the American Division in their inaugural season. They weren't as good in year two, dropping to second in the division, but swept Pittsburgh and the division-winning Boston Bruins to make their first Stanley Cup Final. Their opponent was the powerful Montreal Maroons; the 1926 Cup winners had ousted the archrival Canadiens in the other semifinal.

As was the case for the Rangers for decades, the circus was the No. 1 priority at Madison Square Garden during the spring, forcing the hockey team to fend for itself -- in this case, giving the favored Maroons home ice for the entire best-of-5 series. It looked like they would win easily after skating off with a 2-0 win in the opener. Things turned even bleaker for the Rangers midway through the second game when goalie Lorne Chabot was cut over the eye by Nels Stewart's backhander. With no backup goaltender available, the 44-year-old Patrick put on the pads, went into the net in a scoreless game -- and made 18 saves to get the victory when the Rangers won 2-1 in overtime on a goal by Frank Boucher. The Rangers hoisted Patrick onto their shoulders and carried him off the ice after the win.
"Lester didn't have many tough shots to stop," forward Murray Murdoch recalled a half-century later. "As soon as the Maroons got to the blue line, we knocked them down."
The NHL allowed the Rangers to use Joe Miller, a goaltender who had played for the rival New York Americans, for the rest of the series, but the Maroons moved within one win of the Cup with a 2-0 victory in Game 3. However, Miller turned the table in Game 4, shutting out the Maroons 1-0, and Boucher scored twice in Game 5 to give the Rangers a 2-1 win. They became the second U.S.-based team (after the 1917 Seattle Metropolitans) to win the Cup -- and the first to use a 44-year-old goalie while doing it.
1938: Chicago Blackhawks
Six of the NHL's eight teams made the playoffs in 1938, and the Chicago Black Hawks (they didn't go for the one-word nickname until the early 1980s) were the final qualifier from the American Division despite a 14-25-9 record. The Black Hawks, with a roster that featured eight U.S.-born players, looked to be headed for a quick exit when they dropped their playoff opener 6-4 against the Montreal Canadiens, but they came back with a 4-0 win at home in Game 2 and stunned the Forum crowd by winning the third and deciding game 3-2 in overtime.
The second-round against the New York Americans went the same way -- lose the first game on the road, win via shutout (1-0 in two overtimes) in Game 2 and capture Game 3 on the road (3-2 at Madison Square Garden) to win the series.
That sent the Black Hawks to the Stanley Cup Final against the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canadian Division champions who had ousted the Boston Bruins in the Semifinals. Even worse, goaltender Mike Karakas broke his toe in the clincher against the Americans and couldn't play. Chicago signed journeyman goalie Alfie Moore, who was superb as the Hawks shocked the Leafs 3-1 in the opener at Maple Leaf Gardens.
However, League president Frank Calder ruled before Game 2 that Moore was ineligible (though he allowed the Game 1 victory to stand). With minor-leaguer Paul Goodman in goal, the Hawks were pummeled 5-1, sending the series to Chicago all even.
Karakas returned for Game 3 wearing a steel-capped boot to protect his toe and excelled as the Hawks won 2-1. Doc Romnes, wearing a football helmet to protect a broken nose, scored the winning goal at 15:55 of the third period, triggering an eruption from a record crowd of 18,497 at Chicago Stadium. The Hawks wrapped up the franchise's second Stanley Cup with a 4-1 win in Game 4.
The '38 Hawks are perhaps the biggest long shot ever to win the Cup, and rookie coach Bill Stewart became the first U.S.-born bench boss to lead his team to the championship. Not that it provided much job stability -- Stewart was fired the next season.
1942: Toronto Maple Leafs
Few things are more certain in sports than a team winning a playoff series after taking a 3-0 lead. That's why things didn't look promising for the Toronto Maple Leafs after they blew a 2-0 lead in a 5-2 loss at the Olympia that put them down 3-0 to the Detroit Red Wings in the 1942 Final.
With nothing to lose, coach Hap Day shook up his lineup for Game 4, benching first-line forward Gordie Drillon and Bucko McDonald and inserting rookies Don Metz and Ernie Dickens -- Metz took Drillon's place on the Leafs' top line, playing on a trio that included his brother Nick and No. 1 center Syl Apps, who had been held without a point in the first three games.
The Wings were less than 15 minutes away from the Cup after Carl Liscombe put them ahead 3-2 early in the third period of Game 4, but Apps tied the game at 6:15 and Don Metz scored the winner minutes later for a 4-3 victory.
All of a sudden, the Leafs were unstoppable. The series returned to Toronto, where the Leafs erupted for a 9-3 victory as Don Metz had a hat trick and two assists.
By now, the Wings were in full retreat. Goaltender Turk Broda was the hero in Game 6 as the Leafs won 3-0 at the Olympia (Don Metz had the game-winner), sending the series back to Maple Leaf Gardens for Game 7.
With a record crowd of 16,218 packing the Gardens, Detroit's Syd Howe opened the scoring late in the second period. The Red Wings led 1-0 heading into the third, but Sweeney Schriner tied the game early in the period and Pete Langelle put Toronto ahead at 9:48. Schriner added a second goal, and then pandemonium broke out on the ice and in the stands as the clock ticked off the final seconds of Toronto's 3-1 win.
The comeback from the 3-0 series deficit never has been duplicated in the Stanley Cup Final; it's been done only twice in any playoff series -- by the New York Islanders in the 1975 quarterfinals and by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
1949: Toronto Maple Leafs
In the 25 seasons of the Original Six Era, the Stanley Cup was won by the fourth-place team (the last playoff qualifier) exactly once -- 64 years ago.
The 1948-49 Toronto Maple Leafs entered the season as two-time defending Stanley Cup champs, having finished first in the previous season and then losing just once on the way to Cup No. 2. But the 1948-49 Leafs had suffered some serious losses -- most notably the retirement of star center Syl Apps. Toronto went from first in 1947-48 to fourth the following season, making the playoffs only because Chicago and the New York Rangers struggled badly throughout the season.
But being a champion can count for something when the pressure is on. Despite finishing with a sub-.500 record, the Leafs had little trouble polishing off the second-place Bruins, winning in five games including wins in all three games in Boston. Meanwhile, first-place Detroit had to go the full seven games before sending Montreal home for the summer.

Still, the weary Wings did have the NHL's best three-man unit -- the "Production Line" of Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe. The trio scored 66 goals during the regular season and had 12 of Detroit's 17 goals against the Canadiens.
But the Leafs had shut down the Production Line in the 1948 Final, and they did it again in '49.
The opening game at the Olympia went into overtime before Joe Klukay whipped a pass from Roy Timgren past Harry Lumley at 17:31 of the extra session for a 3-2 victory. Sid Smith scored all three Toronto goals in Game 2, a 3-1 win. Back in Toronto, Turk Broda's goaltending and goals by Bill Ezinicki, Ted Kennedy and Gus Mortson in a five-minute span gave the Leafs another 3-1 win and a 3-0 lead in the series.
The Production Line finally got on the board when Lindsay opened the scoring in Game 4, but that was the last puck to get by Broda. Goals by Timgren, Cal Gardiner and Max Bentley gave Toronto its third 3-1 win and made the Leafs the first team to win three consecutive Cups.
The 1948-49 Leafs are the last team to capture the championship after finishing the regular season under .500.
1980: New York Islanders
It's easy now to look at the New York Islanders' four-in-a-row dynasty and think that they were dominant in all of their Cup-winning seasons. But they weren't -- not by a long shot.
No one would have blinked had the 1978-79 Islanders won the Cup. Those Islanders ended the Montreal Canadiens' reign as regular-season champs and were given a great chance to do the same to their three-year run as Cup winners. But they lost to the archrival New York Rangers in the Semifinals, clearing the way for the Canadiens' fourth consecutive Cup.
The '79-80 Isles showed the effects of the previous spring's disappointment. They stumbled through most of the season, scraping along just over the .500 mark. An 8-0-4 burst following the acquisition of center Butch Goring got them to sixth in the overall standings with 91 points, a drop of 25 from the previous season.
But New York was peaking at the right time. The Islanders polished off the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round, then stood up to the big, bad (and heavily favored) Boston Bruins, beating them in five games. A six-game victory against the Adams Division-champion Buffalo Sabres sent the Islanders to their first Stanley Cup Final.
Their opponent was the Patrick Division-rival Philadelphia Flyers, the regular-season champs with 116 points who had set an NHL record by going unbeaten in 35 games. But the Islanders stunned the sellout crowd at the Spectrum in Game 1 by winning 4-3 on Denis Potvin's power-play goal in overtime.
Philadelphia won Game 2, but the Islanders' special teams carved up the Flyers in Games 3 and 4 on Long Island, putting the Isles within a victory of their first Stanley Cup.
The Flyers won Game 5 at home, but looked to be done when the Islanders took a 4-2 lead into the dressing room after two periods of Game 6. Instead, Philadelphia rallied to tie the score and only Billy Smith's heroics in goal enabled the Isles to get the game into overtime.
Both teams had chances in the extra period before Lorne Henning's takeaway in the neutral zone set up a 2-on-1 break. John Tonelli's pass found Bob Nystrom for a backhand chip past Pete Peeters at 7:11 of the extra session for a 5-4 win that turned out to be the start of a dynasty.
The Isles were the first team to win the Cup by beating three 100-point teams -- and still the only one to beat the top two teams in the regular season on the way to the Cup (this year's Bruins are trying to become the second). The 25-point differential is the biggest ever overcome by a team to win the Final.
1991: Pittsburgh Penguins
None of the “Second Six” teams struggled as badly in their first 20-plus seasons as the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins entered the 1990-91 season having won a total of three playoff rounds since entering the NHL in 1967. They had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs the previous season and had made the postseason just once since 1982.
But with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr leading the offense and Tom Barrasso in goal, the Penguins won their first division title, capturing the Patrick Division. However, they managed just 88 points, seventh in the overall standings, and weren't expected to seriously challenge for the Cup.
However, Pittsburgh outlasted the New Jersey Devils in seven games and beat the Washington Capitals in five, giving the Penguins multiple series wins in the same season for the first time in franchise history. The run looked to be over when they lost the first two games of the Wales Conference Finals on the road to the Boston Bruins, only to win the next four games to make the Stanley Cup Final for the first time.
But the "Penguins as Cinderella" theme was undercut by their opponents in the championship round. The Minnesota North Stars finished with only 68 points, but staged three consecutive upsets to make the Final for the first time since 1981.
The North Stars' magic looked like it might carry them all the way to the Cup. They won Game 1 at Pittsburgh, lost Game 2, then took the series lead with a 3-1 home victory in Game 3 -- benefitting from the absence of Lemieux, who had to sit out with back spasms.

But Lemieux was back for Game 4, and the Penguins responded with three quick goals on the way to a series-tying 5-3 win. Pittsburgh scored the first four goals of Game 5 and held on for a 6-4 win, then routed the North Stars 8-0 to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
At seventh in the overall standings, the Pens were the lowest finisher to win a Stanley Cup. They struggled again for most of 1991-92, finishing third in the division and tied for sixth overall, but repeated as champions. Ironically, 1992-93 was by far their best season -- they set an NHL record with a 17-game winning streak on the way to a League-high 119 points -- only to lose to the New York Islanders in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
2012: Los Angeles Kings
Little was expected from the Los Angeles Kings when the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs got underway. The Kings had struggled to score all season, changed coaches in midstream and didn't lock up the last playoff berth in the Western Conference until the final days of the season.
L.A.'s reward for finishing eighth in the West and 13th in the overall standings was a first-round date with the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks. That the series lasted five games wasn't a surprise; that the Kings won three times in Vancouver on the way to ousting the Canucks was.
The Kings' next opponent was the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues. This time, L.A. rolled to a sweep. In the Western Conference Final, the Kings faced the champions of their own division, the Phoenix Coyotes -- and again started the series with back-to-back road wins, this time on the way to a five-game victory and their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1993.
For the fourth straight time, the Kings opened a playoff series on the road when they faced the New Jersey Devils -- and as they had done in each of their previous series, they won both times to take a 2-0 lead back to Los Angeles. A 4-0 victory in Game 3 had fans in L.A. primed for a sweep, but the Devils spoiled the party with a 3-1 victory in Game 4.
New Jersey then ended the Kings' perfect road playoff season with a 2-1 victory, but all that did was give L.A. fans a chance to see the franchise win its first championship in person -- which the Kings did with a 6-1 victory in Game 6.
The Kings finished with a 16-4 record as they became by far the lowest-seeded team to win the Stanley Cup. They also became the first team to take a 3-0 lead in all four series and the first to start the playoffs by going 10-0 away from home. It was a brilliant stretch no one could have foreseen two months earlier.