The NHL is one of, if not the most competitive and balanced leagues in professional sports. The teams are so closely matched, that chances of an ‘upset’ happening is particularly high, especially in the first round. Looking back, big upsets have happened more than a couple times recently.
For instance, no one thought in 2011-2012 that the Phoenix Coyotes would make it all the way to the conference finals, where they lost to the number eight seed and eventual Stanley Cup Champions, L.A. Kings. Back in 2002-2003 the Anaheim Mighty Ducks led by now Leafs head coach, Mike Babcock swept the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. Their storybook journey did not end until game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals against the New Jersey Devils.
These types of Cinderella stories appear to take place a little more often in the NHL compared to other sports leagues. Here are a couple of teams with the potential for first round upsets this year.
St. Louis Blues
Not many people are giving the Blues much of a chance as they head into the playoffs in their first round series against the Minnesota Wild. The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook is giving St. Louis a 35-1 shot of winning the Stanley Cup, with only the Toronto Maple Leafs, at 40-1, being bigger underdogs.
Since Mike Yeo took over the head coaching duties from Ken Hitchcock in February, the team has been playing at the level that brought them to the conference finals just one year ago. In the last 30 games the Blues are 20-8-2, and the only teams to have more points in that span are the Blackhawks, Capitals, and Penguins.
Yeo was known for his defence during his five-year stint in Minnesota, and that mentality transferred over to his new club. No team in the Western Conference has displayed a better penalty kill rate than the Blues 88% in the 2016-17 regular season. Their goal differential stands at plus-32 under Yeo, which is the best in the entire league. Defence was a staple point for the Blue the previous year, ranking fourth best in goals allowed, but in the first 50 games under Hitchock this season, only three teams had allowed more goals. Compare this to the final 30 games under Yeo, where the same Blues allowed a league low 54 goals.
The stars on the roster experienced a rebound in their play, and the question marks surrounding goaltender Jake Allen turned into check marks. He has an 11-5-2 record, 1.83 goals against average, and a 0.939 save percentage. There used to be reports saying Hitchock and All-Star Vladimir Tarasenko were not on the same page, but under Yeo the Russian seems to be happier, having put up 17 goals and 26 points in the 32 games since Hitchcock’s firing.
This year’s roster features 22 players from last year’s team that upset the Blackshawks in the first round and knocked off the first seed Dallas Stars in the next round. It would be very unwise to sleep on the Blues this postseason.
New York Rangers
The Rangers have been locked up in the second wild card spot for a majority of the season, and have also known for a little over a month now that their opponent would very likely be the Montreal Canadiens. Without being able to move up or down in the standings for the final stretch of the year, the Rangers had few ‘meaningful’ games.
The positive of this is that they have been able to get healthy on all fronts. Offensively, New York has the depth needed for a deep playoff run. They rank fourth in the league in goals for and have 11 players with 34-or-more points. Under head coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers play a fast, up-tempo style that can wear a team down in a seven game series. On the defensive side of the puck stands a veteran core in Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and Kevin Klein, who have all played over 72 playoff games respectively. In addition, they have the impressive young pieces of Brady Skjei and Nick Holden who add speed to the back end.
Of course the success of a team goes through their goaltender, and for the Rangers that is Henrik Lundqvist. A perfect example was last year when the team lost in five games to the eventual champion Penguins, the 35-year-old posted a goals against average of 4.39 and an 0.867 save percentage. Lundqvist has had an average year, but don’t be surprised if the Rangers go with Antti Raanta if things get ugly in the first two games in Montreal. This season the backup is 16-8-2 with a 2.27 goals against average and a 0.922 save percentage. The Finn has shown flashes of number one goalie potential.
A big reason for the Rangers as a potential dark horse is that they won’t see the Penguins or Washington Capitals until the conference finals. Instead, they play the Canadiens and either the Ottawa Senators or Boston Bruins in the second round. A significantly easier path than having to march through the Metropolitan Division opponents.
Dark horses are what make the playoffs so special to watch, and given the surprises of previous years, don’t be fooled into overlooking either of these two teams.