The Greatest

The 10 Greatest Late-Season Rallies in NHL History

NHL history
A late-season rally usually comes with some once-in-a-lifetime performances. Just ask Jonathan Cheechoo, who scored 56 goals in 2005-06. (Photo: Getty Images)

We’re in the home stretch of the 2017 regular season, hockey fans. While the late-season drama is gone for most teams — Washington’s dreaming of a Cup, Colorado’s dreaming of a No. 1 pick — the rest of the league’s fortunes are changing by the day. This is the time where fans start obsessively refreshing Sportsclubstats and praying their team goes streaking. This is when we want to witness NHL history being made.

In that spirit, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 greatest late-season rallies in NHL history. Admittedly, most of these are fairly recent — historical data on playoff odds doesn’t exist before 1987 — but hey, so be it. Even if it’s recency bias, they’re still the 10 craziest turnarounds we found. Enjoy!

10) 2009-10 Detroit Red Wings

This year, the Red Wings are all-but certain to miss the playoffs, bringing an end to their remarkable run of 25-straight postseason appearances. As many dominant teams as they’ve had during that span, it’s easy to forget how close they came to losing it in 2009. The final standings don’t really do it justice, but at the end of February, Detroit’s 28-21-12 record was good for 68 points — just one ahead of Nashville (which had two games in hand) and just two ahead of St. Louis. Appropriately, they had about a 1-in-3 chance to keep the streak alive.

Detroit ultimately pulled through thanks to a combination of elite talent, charity points and a seven-game winning streak in late March.

9) 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks

To be clear, last year’s Ducks team was really, really good. It’s not as though they eked out a playoff berth– they allowed the fewest goals in the league and took first place in the Pacific Division. Although it’d be Bruce Boudreau’s final season behind the bench, the Ducks piled up 103 points en route to a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Predators. A bummer, sure, but there’s no shame in that game.

What made this team’s rally so remarkable? They got off to a DREADFUL start.

At the end of October, Anaheim was 1-7-2 and had been shut out an astonishing FIVE times. Tensions were high. Calls for Boudreau’s job were loud. One intelligent writer went as far as calling them “a glacier made of sloths.” The good news? Their underlying stats suggested that they were just incredibly unlucky, not flawed. Their solid possession numbers and untenably-low shooting percentage eventually gave way, and after two separate winning streaks of six and 11 games, the Ducks went 12-1-1 in February and put their slow start behind them.

8) 2000-01 New Jersey Devils

Trivia Question: Between 1979 and 2014, how many different NBA teams won championships? Remember, that amounts to 35 seasons of basketball. The answer?

(Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Nine teams: The Celtics (4), Lakers (10), 76ers (1), Pistons (3), Rockets (2), Bulls (6), Spurs (5), Heat (3) and Mavericks (1).

Isn’t that insane? Most sports saw that kind of top-heavy dominance fade away decades ago. The modern NHL, by contrast, has seen much more parity, although it’s had its dynastic stretches. Case in point: All Stanley Cups from 1995 to 2003 were won by the Red Wings, Avalanche, Stars … and Devils. The 2000-01 season was a damn good one for the Devils mini-dynasty: Top of the league in goals scored, fifth in goals allowed and a Stanley Cup Final loss to Colorado. Well, wait a minute. Let me clarify: It was a damn good last quarter of a season.

In their last 21 games, New Jersey poured in an absurd 94 goals and went 19-2-0, including a franchise-best 13-game winning streak. Sure, the Devils were going to make the playoffs anyway, but expectations were bigger than just making it there. Their late-season dominance re-established the Devils as a premier Cup contender.

7) 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings

One of the most popular pieces of conventional sports wisdom is that winning a championship is largely about “getting hot at the right time.” The 2011 Kings aren’t really the poster child for this phenomenon, but they definitely belong somewhere in the background.

This Kings team had a painfully anemic offense. Consider: They had as many 20-goal scorers as they had head coaches! That’s not entirely unheard of, but it’s pretty damn rare. The hallmark of their team’s late-season run, including their first-ever Stanley Cup, was defense, defense, goalkeeping and more defense. As bad as their offense was, it didn’t really matter much — not with a defense that boasted Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi. And then, of course, there was eventual Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick in net.

Los Angeles was 15-14-4 before Darryl Sutter took over and went 25-13-11 the rest of the way.

6) 2010-11 Buffalo Sabres

The hockey that was on display at the 2010 Winter Olympics was some of the most intense, thrilling action in recent memory, possibly ever. Most people remember Sidney Crosby’s incredible golden goal, but it’s worth remembering that Team USA netminder Ryan Miller put on an absolute clinic. Named the tournament MVP, Miller returned to the NHL with a new reputation as an elite goaltender. His Buffalo Sabres became an increasingly sexy darkhorse pick to make a playoff run, even into the 2010-11 season. Instead, their odds of even making the playoffs looked like this:

Chart via the incomparable Sportsclubstats.com

As the calendar rolled into February, Buffalo found itself just 20 percent likely to make the playoffs. What drove the sudden turnaround after that? One possibility: ownership. Former owner Tom Gosliano was in the process of selling the team, and there were two potential buyers: Terry Pegula, who had plans to invest in the team and the city, and Jim Balsillie … who was openly ready to ship the Sabres off to Ontario.

In the end, Pegula won out, and it’s not hard to imagine his dedication paying on-ice dividends. The Sabres went 13-3-3 in March and April, a nice coda to a stressful season. Though they were quickly bounced from the playoffs by the Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo’s surge represented more than just the short-term results. It also represented stability, passion and optimism about the team’s future.

5) 2010-11 New Jersey Devils

There’s an apocryphal Prince quote that I absolutely love. Not only did Prince dismiss the idea of turning Michael Jackson’s “Bad” into a duet, he allegedly added that the album “was only called ‘Bad’ because there wasn’t enough room on the sleeve for ‘Pathetic.'” If you had to pick the hockey team that best embodied that sentiment, it’d be your 2010-11 Devils. They weren’t just bad — they were pathetic.

Too harsh? Maybe. Then again, they only scored 174 goals all season. For context, that’s less than the Blues, Red Wings, Pens and Nordiques scored in 1994 … during a partial lockout. But the playoff push they managed was among the most improbable and captivating runs in recent memory.

As with a few of these late-season surges, it’s easy to point to a coaching change as the turning point. John MacLean (9-22-2) made way for Jacques Lemaire (29-17-3). A major upgrade, sure, but still not enough to make the playoffs. Ultimately, they’d just dug too deep of a hole early on — and with Zach Parise hurt for most of the year, there weren’t enough people around to help fill it. Still, their run was memorable enough to make them the only team on this list who missed the playoffs.

4) 2007-08 Washington Capitals

Mid-season coaching changes are risky propositions. Makes sense, right? You don’t fire a guy if you’re in first place, you fire him if you team is struggling and you need a new guy to shake things up before it’s too late. The Capitals, blessed with the prodigious talents of Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, shouldn’t have been a 6-14-1 team — yet that’s exactly where Glen Hanlon had led them. Hanlon was axed, opening the door for a guy we’ve mentioned already: Bruce Boudreau. Washington went 37-17-7 after he took over, winning their last seven straight before the playoffs began.

If there’s any knock on Boudreau as a coach, it’s that his regular-season greatness hasn’t translated to the playoffs. Whether that’s a testament to the randomness of hockey in small sample sizes or evidence of some personal failing on his part isn’t important here. What’s important is recognizing that Boudreau is extremely adept at getting the best out of a roster. He did it in Anaheim, he’s doing it right now in Minnesota, and the 2007 Capitals were his first success story.

3) 2008-09 St. Louis Blues

Let’s start with the playoff odds chart on this one.

Chart via the incomparable Sportsclubstats.com

That’s the 2008-09 Blues in a nutshell. At the start of January, they were on the bottom of the Central Division pile. They were decimated by injuries, most notably to defenseman Erik Johnson, scorer Andy McDonald and veteran goalie Manny Legace. Their team goal differential on the season ended up at an even zero. There wasn’t much reason to believe St. Louis would end its postseason drought.

Fortunately for the Blues, help WAS on the way. Top-flight prospect and American hero T.J. Oshie made his debut, putting up 39 points in 57 games (and on just over 16 minutes of ice time per night, no less). Fellow rookie Patrik Berglund chipped in 47 points in his 76 games, veteran netminder Chris Mason turned in a stellar-albeit-unexpected season and the Blues managed a 21-7-6 record in the final three months of the year. The payoff came in their 81st game of the year, a 3-1 home win that saw them sew up a playoff spot for good.

2) 2005-06 San Jose Sharks

The 2005-06 season was super weird. That’s really about the only way to put it, right? I mean, the league was returning from a lockout and broadcasting its games on Outdoor Life Network. The five WORST teams in the league were the Bruins, Caps, Blackhawks, Penguins and Blues. The NHL was a lava lamp turned on for the first time in years, and this season was that weird transition before it started flowing right.

Case in point: The Rocket Richard Trophy was won by former San Jose Shark Jonathan Cheechoo. He scored 56 (!) goals, and it will not surprise you to learn that was easily his career best. It also may not surprise you to learn he led the Sharks in points … but what might surprise you is that Joe Thornton finished just one point behind him — in 24 fewer games.

See, the Sharks weren’t great through their first 20-ish games. They were a respectable 8-12-4 through 24, but they were also in the midst of a 10-game losing streak. So GM Doug Wilson, eager to turn their fortunes around, swung the now-infamous deal to bring Joe Thornton over from Boston. In his first game, Thornton was the primary assist on two Cheechoo goals.

This was no coincidence for San Jose’s fortunes. Cheechoo had just seven goals before Thornton arrived. That’s right: incredibly, he scored the other 49 in just 58 games. As they went, so went the Sharks, rattling off a six-game winning streak right after Jumbo Joe arrived and winning eight of their last nine to close out the season. They saw their odds of making the playoffs go from roughly 10 percent at the end of November to roughly 50-50 by mid-January.

1) 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins

I’m on record saying I believe the early-2000s Pittsburgh Penguins were a blatant Producers-style attempt at tanking hard in order to secure a big payoff down the road. The 2008-09 Pens were that payoff.

Seriously, go look at that roster. Between 2002 and 2006, Pittsburgh snagged Ryan Whitney, Max Talbot, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Goligoski, Tyler Kennedy, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Jordan Staal in the draft. A couple of those guys were obviously bigger locks than others, but that’s an absurd haul to take from five drafts.

Since that core was drafted in such a short span, it also meant they had a chance to grow and hit their strides at roughly the same time. If that was the plan, it worked like a charm: the eight skaters listed above accounted for 388 points (48.5 per player, average) despite none being older than 25. Between that core plus Fleury, the Penguins had all the makings of an elite, Cup-contending team.

NHL history

(Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

We’ve seen this story before, though: Under head coach Michel Therrien, the Pens were just 27-25-5 through 57 games. Sensing that something needed to be done to get back to the finals — and likely emboldened by the spirit that saw Pittsburgh make a deadline deal for Marian Hossa the season before — the team fired Therrien and installed Dan Bylsma. They also brought in depth scoring in the form of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, key contributors in the team’s eventual Cup run.

The rest is, of course, memorable history. Bylsma led the Pens to a blistering 18-3-4 record down the stretch thanks to enchanted Qdoba burritos, Pittsburgh earned a rematch against Detroit in the finals and Fleury threw himself in front of a Nick Lidstrom shot to preserve a Game 7 victory.

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Joe St. Germain

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