With a 3-2 victory in Uniondale, N.Y., on Thursday night, the Los Angeles Kings won their third straight on a five-game road trip and moved back into playoff position with eight games to play.
By sweeping the New York area teams this week, the Kings took a one-point lead on the Calgary Flames for third place in the Pacific Division and its final playoff spot. With 88 points, they still trail the Wild and the Jets in the Western Conference wild card race, so holding on to the lead over the Flames is the quickest, surest way not to become the fifth Stanley Cup champion in the expansion era to miss the playoffs the next season.
When the National Hockey League expanded from six teams to 12 and added more playoff spots in 1967, it would have seemed to help the current champion in its quest to defend the title, but it didn’t quite work out that way. As the league continued to expand, growing to 30 teams and 16 playoff spots, it has become much more rare for a Stanley Cup champion to fall that far short. Not that it hasn’t happened.
1967-68 Toronto Maple Leafs
They only lost a third of their games, but the Maple Leafs did not get a chance to defend the last Original 6 Stanley Cup title thanks to the way the league decided to divide the divisions when it grew to 12 teams. Rather than mix the old and new teams to match their geography, the expansion teams — even Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — were all put in the West Division.
With coaches George “Punch” Imlach and Francis “King” Clancy still at the controls, the Maple Leafs posted a 35-26-15 record, good enough for 80 points that actually would have won the West Division. But they finished fifth and out of the playoffs as a member of the East Division. The finish was actually better than the 32-27-11 mark that got the Leafs third place, with 75 points, in 1966-67.
For their 1967 title, the Leafs defeated Chicago and Montreal both by 4-2 counts. Toronto, which had won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, and 11 total going back to 1918, has never even returned to the finals since.
1969-70 Montreal Canadiens
Once again a team was undone by the NHL decision to continue with the six expansion teams in their own division, but this one really stung.
A year after the team that has the biggest collection of Stanley Cup wins took down the St. Louis Blues, who were making their second-straight trip to the finals, the Canadiens lost their shot at defending the title when they tied the New York Rangers for fourth place in the East with 92 points (92!). The teams had identical 38-22-16 records, but the Rangers took the last playoff spot based on the second tie-breaker: Total goals scored.
Knowing the Canadiens needed a win and at least 4 goals in their final game against Chicago, coach Claude Ruel went with an empty net for most of the game’s final 9½ minutes, and saw a 5-2 deficit turn into a 10-2 pasting.
But don’t feel too bad for the Canadiens. The next season they returned to the playoffs, and etched their names onto the Stanley Cup once again.
1995-96 New Jersey Devils
Talk about an aberration. Here’s a team that was coming off its first of three Stanley Cup seasons, and actually posted a 37-33-12 record, placing sixth in the Atlantic Division. If this had still been the era of the 21-team NHL bumping off just five teams before the playoffs, the Devils might still have squeaked in. But thanks to expansion to 26 teams, 10 were dispatched by mid-April, and the Devils were one of them.
New Jersey’s first Stanley Cup came at the end of a sprint in 1995, as the league was shut down due to a lockout until January. The Devils finished second in the Atlantic with a 22-18-8 record, then dropped just four games total in defeating Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Detroit to win the Cup.
The Devils returned almost all of the players instrumental in the Stanley Cup run, chief among them Scott Stevens, John MacLean, Bill Guerin and Stephane Richer. But over the summer, they had dealt Claude Lemieux, winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP, to the newly christened Colorado Avalanche. While the Devils missed the playoffs by two points, as the Tampa Bay Lightning clinched the final spot on the last day of the season, Lemieux went on to win the cup with the former Quebec Nordiques in 1996.
The Devils would go on to place first in the Atlantic Division the next three seasons, and win Cup titles again in 2000 and 2003.
2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes won their only Stanley Cup 10 years after moving from Hartford, Conn., but it should be considered their second league title, after winning the first World Hockey Association crown as the New England Whalers in 1973. While their roster had only minimal changes in 2006, the wear and tear of the long season that culminated in the Cup victory in June seemed to plague the team throughout the following campaign.
Carolina still amassed 88 points with a 40-34-8 record, but losing five of its last eight left the Hurricanes in 11th place, four points behind the New York Islanders and five points back of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the final two spots.
The 2006-07 Hurricanes included current Kings forward Justin Williams, who tallied a career-high 33 goals and 34 assists that season.