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The Most Unlikely Champions in NHL History

Few gave the Florida Panthers a chance to defeat the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2023 playoffs, much less reach the Cup Final. Can Florida became the latest big longshot to lift the Cup?

Entering the 2023 NHL Playoffs, 11 teams had shorter odds than the Florida Panthers to win the Stanley Cup. After sweeping the Hurricanes in the East Finals, Florida looks primed as ever to win its first Cup in franchise history.

How would a Panthers triumph stack up against the biggest underdog stories in Stanley Cup Playoff history?

We take a look. 

Chicago Blackhawks (1938) 

The Stanley Cup wasn't even in the building when the Chicago Blackhawks clinched it on home ice in 1938 because the league president didn't believe they could win it. 

The Blackhawks finished sixth of eight teams in the regular season with a paltry 14-25-9 record, the lowest winning percentage of any eventual Stanley Cup Champion in history.   

But once the playoffs started they went on one of the most improbable championship runs and beat the heavily favoured Toronto Maple Leafs in the Final by three games to one. 

The Stanley Cup had been sent by league presidents Frank Calder straight from Detroit, the previous winner, to Toronto believing the Leafs would comfortably win in Chicago and take the Final to a deciding Game 5. 

Edmonton Oilers (1990)

The 1989/90 season saw the Edmonton Oilers win a fifth Stanley Cup in seven years, but what makes it unlikely is that it came after they had traded their talisman and the greatest player of all time Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings

Not only was Gretzky gone, but the core of players from the dynasty were considered to be getting past their primes too. 

However, led by Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Craig Simpson, the Oilers proved that they had one more run in them and incredibly it included a four-game sweep of Gretzky's Kings in the second round. 

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Pittsburgh Penguins (1991)

The Pittsburgh Penguins struggled badly in their first 20-plus seasons as a franchise and entered the 1990/91 season with just three playoff series victories to their name. 

But that record was forgotten in 1991 when after winning the Patrick Division title, the Penguins went on to win their first Stanley Cup. 

The success came as a surprise because although Pittsburgh's 88 points were enough to finish first in their division, they ranked seventh overall in the standings, and they weren't at all expected to challenge for the championship. 

In fact, their 33 losses in that regular season is joint most for a Stanley Cup Champion along with the 1986 Montreal Canadiens

With Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr leading their offence and Tom Barrasso in goal, the Penguins eliminated several favourites before coming back from 3-1 down in the Final series to beat Minnesota North Stars. 

Boston Bruins (2011) 

The Boston Bruins of 2011 were the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a plus-51 goal differential on the season, so their run to the Stanley Cup that year wasn’t a total surprise. 

However, what made their first championship in 39 years unlikely was that three times they were fortunate enough to win a Game 7 to settle a series. 

The star of the show was goalie Tim Thomas who went 16-9-0 with a .940 save percentage and 1.98 goals against average to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. 

Los Angeles Kings (2012) 

Not only did the Kings manage to win the Stanley Cup in 2012 with a remarkable 16-4 post season record but they became the lowest seed ever to do so. 

The Kings replaced Terry Murray with Daryl Sutter in late December and went on a 25-17-7 run to grab eighth place in the conference on the final day of the season. 

In the playoffs they knocked off the number one, two and three seeds, Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes respectively before beating the sixth seeded New Jersey Devils in the Final. 

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.   

The run made legends of goalie Jonathan Quick, defenceman Drew Doughty and forward Anze Kopitar who continue to lead the team ten years later. 

St. Louis Blues (2019) 

With the worst record in the NHL, the St. Louis Blues fired coach Mike Yeo and gave the interim position to Craig Berube on the turn of the year in 2019. 

Netminder Jordan Binnington was called up from the Blues’ AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage and he and the team remarkably went on a run to become Stanley Cup Champions. 

The Blues won 30 of their final 45 regular season games and collected points in five others to secure a playoff place. 

In the Stanley Cup Final, they beat the much-fancied Boston Bruins to lift their first championship in their 52-year history. 

Although Captain Ryan O’Reilly won the Conn Smythe Trophy, the major story was Binnington who went 16-10-0 with a .914 save percentage and 2.46 goals against average (GAA) to join a short but storied list of four rookie goalies who managed to lead their team to glory in their first playoffs. 

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