Saturday, June 26, 2021

Playoff Party Crashers

30 years ago, a team with a losing record reached the Stanley Cup Final.

I was ten years old when the Minnesota North Stars made their miracle run. Checking the box scores in the sports page to see this Cinderella squad had won again were some of my first memories of being a hockey fan. It was fascinating to me that a 27-39-14 team could suddenly become unbeatable.

The North Stars finished fourth of five teams in the Norris division. They beat the NHL's best regular season team:

Then they beat the NHL's second-best regular season team, which also happened to be in their division:

Then Minnesota defeated the defending Stanley Cup champions:

This was wild. How does a team that won or tied only 42% of their games in the regular season go 12-5 against the best teams in the NHL? How did they even make the playoffs in the first place?

The answer to the second question is quite simple - there were only 21 NHL teams at the time and 16 of them qualified for the playoffs. It should be noted that the 1990-91 Flyers had a better record than three playoff teams - but didn't qualify because they finished last in their own division. Hold that thought.

Minnesota won the first game of the final, and actually led the series against Pittsburgh 2-1. But the clock struck midnight as Mario Lemieux and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in six games.

I thought about this Minnesota team recently as I watched the Montreal Canadiens march to their 35th final.

Les Canadiens posted a 24-21-11 record in the regular season - which looks like a winning record.

Montreal's 11 overtime losses gave them an actual Win-Loss record of 24-32. Howeva the 2020-21 season was shortened to 56 games due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Canadiens surely would have won more games than the 1990-91 North Stars in a 'full' NHL season - though it should be noted that teams didn't get a chance to win games via shootout until 2005.

The 2020-21 Canadiens finished fourth among the seven teams in their division. Howeva their division was not only the weakest in the NHL it should not even exist.

Montreal finished with a worse record than two non-playoff teams (including a 2020 Stanley Cup finalist) and would not have made the playoffs if it weren't for a temporary realignment due to Covid-related travel restrictions.

This is the North division (officially known as the Rogers Scotiabank Tim Horton's Canadian Tire North division presented by Molson) Under normal circumstances, Montreal would be in the Northeast division with much stronger competition (and Ottawa, Detroit, and Buffalo.) Based on 2020-21 results the  Habs would have finished fifth:


Tampa Bay3617375

I can't figure out how to center a spreadsheet. :(

The Canadiens wouldn't have finished fourth in the Atlantic Division, either. In fact they wouldn't have even been fifth:


NY Islanders3217771
NY Rangers2723660
New Jersey1930745

There's no way to know how game-by-game results would have changed when teams would have played a traditional schedule rather than facing only divisional opponents in order to minimize travel. It's entirely possible that Montreal would have caught fire down the stretch in a traditional 82-game schedule. If you add their 12-5 postseason record the Habs' points percentage increases from .527 to .575 - better than 2021 postseason participants Nashville, Winnipeg, and St. Louis.

Howeva it is a fact that the Canadiens finished with the 10th-best record of all Eastern-based NHL teams, 12 points behind the "eight-seed" Islanders. And even if the team had maintained a .575% throughout the regular season - they still wouldn't have leap-frogged any Eastern Conference teams.

Several clutch performers have made the Montreal Canadiens' run to the final possible including Carey Price, Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, and "Goal" Caulfield. But I doubt that anyone in the province of Quebec will take a minute to thank the real MVP of the 2021 playoffs. The man who closed off cross-border travel, effectively creating the "North" division and giving Montreal a path to the playoffs:

Montreal will face the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in an all-Eastern Stanley Cup Final. With Covid under control (knocking on every piece of wood) the 2021-22 NHL season will return to normal and we'll have East vs. West again. Unless Mr. Trudeau decides to keep the border closed ;P

I'll be back with some NBA-related posts next week. Until then, enjoy the weekend and the playoffs!

Thanks for reading!



  1. I wouldn't have Florida and Tampa Bay in the Northeast. But I wouldn't have Calgary and Vancouver in the same division as Toronto and Montreal.

  2. And if they hadn't gotten a gift of two goals by the refs in that game against Toronto they wouldn't have even made it out of the first round.

  3. I'm old enough to remember the North Stars before they moved but I don't think I was paying enough attention to hockey (maybe not even the Wings) that year to recall this. Crazy! By the way, Modano's from my hometown of Livonia, Michigan.

  4. I remember the '91 North Stars. They were part of that whole "losers win" theme that was the baseball World Series (worst-to-first participants Twins and Braves).

    I don't follow hockey enough to have an opinion on this. I'm always happy to see a Canadian team in the finals though.

  5. i certainly remember the north stars' run, and i remember the last time the canadiens were in the final, too. if it weren't for marty mcsorley's stick, who knows what might have happened.

  6. I don't know much about hockey, but looking at those scores, the North Stars really crushed the other team in a lot of games - 7 goals, 8 goals. I looked them up quickly - they got off to a terrible start to the season, then shook the team up with a few trades that went off very well. So the team in the postseason was quite different than the one that started the year.

  7. Great post. I was surprised that I wasn't familiar with this Minnesota Cinderella story since I started opening hockey packs that season. Then I realized that the Sharks weren't around until the following season and that's when I actually started paying attention to the sport in addition to the cards.

  8. "officially known as the Rogers Scotiabank Tim Horton's Canadian Tire North division presented by Molson"

    Hah! That had me laughing. But it's disappointing, too. Pretty soon each player will have a sponsor attached to them, and every time a goal is scored, the PA announcer will have to add the sponsor in. ("Goal scored by Nikita Kucherov, courtesy of Gatorade, assisted by Steven Stamkos, courtesy of State Farm Insurance, and Victor Hedman, courtesy of Domino's Pizza. The puck was sponsored by Mastercard.")

    I remember that run by the North Stars too, as I was a big fan of that team back then. It was exciting to watch them roll through to the Finals. Nice Starting Lineup card choice, as you can see the Stanley Cup patch on Modano's jersey in both images.