The 2018-19 Stanley Cup Playoffs have already gone into the history books as one of the most bizarre playoffs brackets in the history of the league. With all four number one seeds being eliminated after the first round, it’s the indisputably the year of the underdog.
The Colorado Avalanche, among the underdogs, were one of four Wild Card playoff teams to move on into the second round. However, they standout from the pack by having an additional nuance with their playoff berth: they had a losing regular season record.
A whole new game in the playoffs
Colorado’s 90 points were good enough to get them into the second wild card spot, and that was accomplished with a 38-30-14 record. Only five teams—including Colorado—since the four-division realignment, made the playoffs with less than 41 wins during the regular season.
It doesn’t matter how a team gets their playoff berths, everyone knows by now, especially after what has transpired this year that anything can happen. But what exactly did happen with the set of teams that loss more often than they won? Let’s take a look.
Detroit Red Wings (2013-14)
When the NHL first had their division realignment, two teams simultaneously made the playoffs with losing records. One of which was the team that made the jump from Western to Eastern Conference. The Detroit Red Wings ended the season with 93 points (39-28-15) and secured the second wild card spot in their new conference.
In the first round, they matched up against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Boston Bruins. The Red Wings made a small splash in Game 1, as Jimmy Howard earned a shutout and Pavel Datsyuk scored the game’s only goal.
However, the Bruins stormed back, winning four straight games, led in offence by Milan Lucic, Jarome Iginla, and Zdeno Chara. More importantly, Tuukka Rask was rock solid in net.
In the five games played, Rask only allowed six goals. Conversely, the Red Wings’ netminders, Howard and Jonas Gustafsson each let in six goals in their shared goaltending duties. That was the difference in the series.
Round 1: Boston vs. Detroit
|Game 1||Detroit Red Wings||1-0||Boston Bruins|
|Game 2||Detroit Red Wings||1-4||Boston Bruins|
|Game 3||Boston Bruins||3-0||Detroit Red Wings|
|Game 4||Boston Bruins||3-2 (OT)||Detroit Red Wings|
|Game 5||Detroit Red Wings||2-4||Boston Bruins|
Boston won 4-1.
Dallas Stars (2013-14)
In the West, the Dallas Stars also locked up the second wild card spot with 91 points (40-31-11). They faced off against the Anaheim Ducks, the second best team in the regular season. The Ducks opened the series with two wins at home to take a commanding lead; however, the Stars returned the favour, winning two of their own in front of their fans.
The momentum quickly turned back in Anaheim’s favour though, as they blew out the Stars in Game 5 and closed the series out in overtime in Game 6.
This series was a lot closer than it should have been, and that’s mainly due to goaltending being shaky on both sides of the ice. Frederik Andersen ultimately posted a 0.892 save percentage, compared to Kari Lehtonen‘s 0.885.
Another parallel between these two teams were were that the captains led in offence. The Ducks had three goals from Ryan Getzlaf (and Nick Bonino), and the Stars got four goals from Jamie Benn (Ryan Garbutt had three).
Again, the series was close, probably closer than it should have been. Ultimately, Dallas lost in overtime in a high-scoring game; a bitter way to go out.
Round 1: Anaheim vs. Dallas
|Game 1||Dallas Stars||3-4||Anaheim Ducks|
|Game 2||Dallas Stars||2-3||Anaheim Ducks|
|Game 3||Anaheim Ducks||0-3||Dallas Stars|
|Game 4||Anaheim Ducks||2-4||Dallas Stars|
|Game 5||Dallas Stars||2-6||Anaheim Ducks|
|Game 6||Anaheim Ducks||5-4 (OT)||Dallas Stars|
Anaheim won 4-2.
Minnesota Wild (2015-16)
The 2014-15 season saw all 16 playoff teams posted winning records. One year later, the Minnesota Wild clawed their way into the second wild card spot, and did so with the lowest point total of any playoff team since the realignment at 87 points (38-33-11).
Their opponent, the Dallas Stars went from being the aforementioned second wild card two years prior to missing the playoffs the following season, and jumped all the way to leading the Western Conference.
This time around, Lehtonen had a much better playoff outing, and alongside Antti Niemi, they bested Devan Dubnyk at the goaltending battle.
Benn had a solid series, posting four goals and six assists. Jason Spezza was right behind with four goals and five assists.
The Wild’s Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu and Nino Niederreiter were their best players and made for an entertaining series; however, as things go in the playoffs, the Stars won three games that were decided by one goal, and that led to the Wild’s exit.
Round 1: Dallas vs. Minnesota
|Game 1||Minnesota Wild||0-4||Dallas Stars|
|Game 2||Minnesota Wild||1-2||Dallas Stars|
|Game 3||Dallas Stars||3-5||Minnesota Wild|
|Game 4||Dallas Stars||3-2||Minnesota Wild|
|Game 5||Minnesota Wild||5-4 (OT)||Dallas Stars|
|Game 6||Dallas Stars||5-4||Minnesota Wild|
Dallas won 4-2.
Toronto Maple Leafs (2016-17)
The captain-less Toronto Maple Leafs managed to put up 95 points (40-27-15) and were tasked with facing the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.
It was a crazy series, and was one of the closest playoff match-ups in recent memory. It was hard to believe it was between the top team in the league and a team with a losing regular season record, but five games went to overtime, and the one that didn’t was still won by just one goal.
The Leafs even held a 2-1 lead in the series after three games, but the Capitals rallied and won three straight to finish the series.
It was a fairly close goaltending battle between Braden Holtby and Andersen, but the story of the series was simply which team was more clutch in overtime.
Tom Wilson scored the overtime goal in Game 1 and Kasperi Kapanen scored the game-winner in the second-overtime Game 2 to tie the series up. In Game 3, Tyler Bozak‘s overtime heroics gave the underdogs the series lead, but Game 5 was decided with by Justin William’s overtime marker, which gave the Capitals the lead once again.
Finally, the series was decided with Marcus Johansson‘s overtime goal. One might have thought that at least one of Alex Ovechkin‘s three goals or Auston Matthew’s four might have been an overtime winner, but nope. Even the game-winning goal in Game 4 belonged to T.J. Oshie.
It was a wildly entertaining series, but the Capitals prevailed, much to the dismay of the Leafs.
Round 1: Washington vs. Toronto
|Game 1||Toronto Maple Leafs||2-3 (OT)||Washington Capitals|
|Game 2||Toronto Maple Leafs||4-3 (2OT)||Washington Capitals|
|Game 3||Washington Capitals||3-4 (OT)||Toronto Maple Leafs|
|Game 4||Washington Capitals||5-4||Toronto Maple Leafs|
|Game 5||Toronto Maple Leafs||1-2 (OT)||Washington Capitals|
|Game 6||Washington Capitals||2-1 (OT)||Toronto Maple Leafs|
Washington won 4-2.
Colorado Avalanche (2018-19)
And now, finally at the current season, maybe there’s a detail that’s immediately clear. Colorado gained entry into the playoffs at 90 points (38-30-14). By defeating the Calgary Flames, they became the first team in the four-division era with a losing regular season record to get past the first round.
After getting shutout in Game 1, the Avalanche, led by Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, came back with a voracity that the Flames just couldn’t match. Colorado won four straight games by being relentless on the puck. The strategy worked as they completely neutralised the Flames’ top brass.
Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Mark Giordano all struggled to score. Mike Smith played some of his best hockey of the season, but Philipp Grubauer was simply better.
Twice during the series, the Avalanche were able to tie up the score late in the third, and in both instances they won those games. Taking the underdog role in stride, the Avalanche took advantage of every shift in momentum, shift by shift, game by game.
Round 1: Calgary vs. Colorado
|Game 1||Colorado Avalanche||0-4||Calgary Flames|
|Game 2||Colorado Avalanche||3-2 (OT)||Calgary Flames|
|Game 3||Calgary Flames||2-6||Colorado Avalanche|
|Game 4||Calgary Flames||2-3||Colorado Avalanche|
|Game 5||Colorado Avalanche||5-1||Calgary Flames|
Colorado won 4-1.
After quickly handling the Flames, the Avalanche earned their rest as they watched the Sharks and Golden Knights tearing away at each other through seven games. Ultimately, the Sharks prevailed and became the Avalanche’s second round opponent.
In a back and forth series, the Avalanche and Sharks traded wins from start to finish. The Sharks came out on top in the end, with outstanding series performances from Brent Burns and Logan Couture.
With their Game 7 loss, the Avalanche totalled seven wins over two series—five more than any other second wild card team with a losing regular season record has ever accomplished.
Round 2: San Jose vs. Colorado
|Game 1||Colorado Avalanche||2-5||San Jose Sharks|
|Game 2||Colorado Avalanche||4-3||San Jose Sharks|
|Game 3||San Jose Sharks||4-2||Colorado Avalanche|
|Game 4||San Jose Sharks||0-3||Colorado Avalanche|
|Game 5||Colorado Avalanche||1-2||San Jose Sharks|
|Game 6||San Jose Sharks||3-4 (OT)||Colorado Avalanche|
|Game 7||Colorado Avalanche||2-3||San Jose Sharks|
Sharks won 4-3.
The Avalanche dismantled the Flames, and took the Sharks all the way to Game 7 in a neck-and-neck series. They far exceeded all expectations heading into the playoffs.
With Cale Makar injected into their lineup, not to mention their future fourth overall pick, the young Avalanche core will look to cross off a few more things on their to-do list next season. First and foremost, they’ll look to make the playoffs, but perhaps this time, they’ll do it by winning more often than losing.
Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images