Miracles On Ice: All-Time Top 10 Hockey Upsets
Bill Speros | 8 mins
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Hockey fans learned to “believe in miracles” 42 years ago when the U.S. men’s hockey team upended the Big Red Machine and iced the USSR in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, New York.
The 4-3 USA victory has justifiably reached mythic status. The all-amateur American team had been assembled just a few months prior. The Soviets were a full-time unit, paid to play in one sense or another. Many were members of the Red Army and were of NHL-caliber.
The USSR was considered unbeatable, not having lost an Olympic game since it was beaten by the upstart amateur Americans back in 1960. Team USA’s 1980 triumph over the USSR served as a sporting, cultural and political pivot for the United States. It marked an emotional turning point in the Cold War between the two nations.
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1980 Win Over USSR Set Gold Standard For Upsets
While that win did not clinch gold for Team USA, it undoubtedly set the gold standard when it comes to dramatic hockey upsets. The Americans would need to beat Finland by a 4-2 score two days later to claim golden immortality.
Finland just won the 2022 Olympic gold with a 2-1 win over the Russian Olympic Committee Sunday. The Fins were +700 to win it all before the Games began, while the Russians were +400.
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There are no available odds of what Team USA’s chances were in 1980 that can be documented. Several sources have cited “Las Vegas odds” that had the team at 1000-1. But none of those claims are substantiated. The Soviets routed the Americans 10-3 in an exhibition on the eve of the Games.
The game was only that close because Team USSR let up in the third period. A more reasonable estimate in today’s betting markets would have Team USA installed at +2000 on betting sites and betting apps before the 1980 Olympics.
Top Hockey Upsets Of All-Time
There were plenty of big-time upsets on the ice before and since. While none match the historic throw-weight of the “Miracle on Ice,” they all shocked the hockey world. And each reminds us that there is no such thing as a sure thing. Especially once the puck drops.
Here are our top 10 hockey upsets of all time. They include the winning team, the circumstances surrounding the upset, odds, when available, and a breakdown of each.
10. 1960 USA Olympic Hockey Team
Upset: Medal Round
Buzz: Led by pair of brothers from Massachusetts – Bill and Bob Cleary – the Americans upset both Canada and the USSR during the Games. The USA won the gold by virtue of the most points in the final round, winning all five games.
The team’s final cut was a forward from Minnesota named Herb Brooks. While Brooks would play in two Olympics, he is forever known as the coach of the 1980 team immortalized by Kurt Russell’s portrayal in “Miracle.” Among the other players on Team USA was Tommy Williams from Hudson, Massachusetts. He became the first American-born player in the NHL.
9. 1993-94 San Jose Sharks
Upset: Conference Quarterfinals over Detroit Red Wings
Buzz: The Red Wings, powered in large part by former Soviet stars Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Vyacheslav Kozlov, were an NHL powerhouse. The Sharks were in their third year of existence and had amassed 25 points the previous season.
Oddsmakers took note, installing the Red Wings as -900 favorites before the series. But the Sharks took the series in 7 games, thanks in large part to the play of goalie Arturs Irbe. The Sharks’ run ended in the next round when they lost to the Maple Leafs in 7 games.
8. 1944-45 Toronto Maple Leafs
Upset: Conference Semifinals over Montreal Canadiens
Buzz: The 1944-45 Montreal Canadiens won 80% of their games during the regular season, dominating the NHL. The Leafs finished 14 games back of Montreal in the standings, which is even more remarkable since they only played 50 games.
The Leafs toppled the mighty Canadiens in just six games, getting all four of their wins by just one goal, as goalie Frank McCool was McCool as ice under the relentless Habs. The Leafs would go on to win the Stanley Cup over Detroit in seven games. That series went the distance after Toronto blew a 3-0 series lead.
7. 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens
Upset: Conference Semifinals over Washington Capitals
Buzz: The Washington Capitals rode an offensive tidal wave to 121 points and the President’s Trophy. In the first round of the playoffs, Washington was a -645 favorite to eliminate Montreal, given it finished the season with 33 more points.
The Caps roared to a 3-1 series lead but could not close the deal. Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak walled off the Caps and the Habs’ defense stifled Washington’s potent power-play. Halak allowed just two goals while stopping 94 total shots in the final two games. And Washington was limited to just one power-play goal in 30 tries during the series.
6. 1941-42 Toronto Maple Leafs
Upset: Stanley Cup Finals over Detroit Red Wings
Buzz: This would be the final Stanley Cup won before the league lost most of its top talent to service in World War II. The Maple Leafs were favored before the Finals began but lost the first 3 games.
Toronto won the final four games in alternating cities, closing out this miraculous comeback at home. This was the first and only time a team has erased a 3-0 deficit to win a championship in a seven-game series in the history of the NHL. It’s never happened in Major League Baseball or NBA, either.
5. 1992-93 New York Islanders
Upset: Conference Semifinals over Pittsburgh Penguins
Buzz: The two-time Stanley Cup defending champion Penguins rolled into the playoffs on a 17-game winning streak. They +400 to three-peat as champs before the season and +100 before facing the Islanders in the Patrick Division Finals.
Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Ron Francis powered Pittsburgh through the first round, while the Islanders lost Pierre Turgeon to Dale Hunter’s on-ice assault. The relentless Islanders never let up against the stacked Penguins, scrapping their way to the upset in seven games.
4. 2002-03 Minnesota Wild
Upset: Conference Quarterfinals over Colorado Avalanche
Buzz: The Wild were +410 underdogs against the Avalanche in the first round of the 2003 NHL playoffs. Colorado was a -625 favorite. The Avalanche were +425 to win the Cup before the season. The Wild, meanwhile, were +10000 and in just their third season as an expansion team.
The Avs were just years removed from a Stanley Cup and still boasted a roster loaded with greats, including Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy and Joe Sackic. The Avs led the series 3-1 and Game 5 was set for the Pepsi Center in Denver. But the Wild won the final three games of the series, including a 3-2 OT win back at Denver in Game 7.
3. 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers
Upset: Conference Quarterfinals over Detroit Red Wings
Buzz: The Detroit Red Wings were -440 to clip the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. They won the President’s Cup trophy with 124 points and were a +96 during the regular-season. The Oilers grabbed the final spot in the Western Conference with a +5 differential and 29 fewer points than their Round 1 opponent. The Red Wings had four Hall of Famers in Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidström, Chris Cheilos and Steve Yzerman, who would play his final game in this series.
In Game 6, the Oilers knocked out the Red Wings with two comebacks and potted the game-winner with 1:04 to play in the 4-3 win. Edmonton continued its run and upset San Jose and Anaheim before bowing the Carolina in 7 games in the Stanley Cup Finals.
2. 1981-82 Los Angeles Kings
Upset: Conference Quarterfinals Over Edmonton Oilers
Buzz: This series fits the textbook definition for “upset” in every phase. Even though it was best-of-five and not best-of-seven, no other NHL matchup on this list better exemplifies the “shocker” than this series.
The No. 1 seed Edmonton Oilers won the Smythe Division with 111 points. The Kings finished fourth with 54. The Oilers roster had 7 future Hall of Famers: Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson. Gretzky scored 92 goals and finished with 212 points. The Oilers scored 417 goals. All were NHL records.
The Kings replaced their coach in mid-season. Marcel Dionne and a physical, fierce defense got them to the playoffs. This best-of-five series was tied 1-1. The Kings would wipe out a 5-0 lead in Game 3 at the Forum in Inglewood, California. The 6-5 OT win became known as the “Miracle on Manchester.” The Kings would win the series in five games but get eliminated in the next round. The Oilers rebounded, eventually winning four straight Cups from 1984-88.
1. 1980 USA Olympic Team
Upset: Medal Round Over USSR
Buzz: The USA carried no expectations of even winning a medal. The team was made up of amateurs. The win over the USSR and subsequent gold medal clincher over Finland capped a remarkable Olympic tournament in which the Americans never lost. They opened with a 2-2 tie with Sweden and won six straight games. Team USA trailed in both of its medal games, furthering cementing its spot atop this, or any list, of all-time hockey upsets.