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As Pre-Playoff Favorites Fight for NBA Title, NHL Also-Rans Compete for Cup

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The Stanley Cup does not feature a top-two team from either conference, making it only the ninth time that has happened in the past 80 seasons in major U.S. sports.

The last 20 Super Bowls and NBA Finals have included a team finishing the regular season with the best or second best record from at least one conference. Tampa Bay ranked third in the NHL East and Chicago fourth in the West this season.

Here are the only nine series in the last 20 years to lack a top-two team:

Year Sport Champion Conf Rnk Runner-up Conf Rnk
2000 MLB New York Yankees 5 New York Mets 4
2001 MLB Arizona Diamondbacks 3 New York Yankees 3
2002 MLB Anaheim Angels 3 San Francisco Giants 4
2006 MLB St. Louis Cardinals 5 Detroit Tigers 3
2007 NHL Anaheim Ducks 4 Ottawa Senators 3
2012 NHL Los Angeles Kings 8 New Jersey Devils 6
2012 MLB San Francisco Giants 3 Detroit Tigers 7
2014 MLB San Francisco Giants 4 Kansas City Royals 4
2014 NHL Los Angeles Kings 6 New York Rangers 5
2015 NHL Tampa Bay? 3 Chicago? 4

However, there is usually one surprise. The top team in each conference has met for the title only 13 times in the past 80 seasons.

Most upsets come in the NHL. That trend continues as Tampa Bay already upset the top two teams in the East, and Saturday rallied to beat the fourth best team in the West 4-3 to even the Stanley Cup Finals at a game apiece with Chicago. The Lightning overcame needing to insert backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy twice and losing a lead for the second straight game.

Meanwhile, on Sunday night in Oakland, LeBron James’ monster triple-double performance grabbed a game for Cleveland in impossible Oracle Arena. The overtime victory marks the first Finals win in franchise history.

The average standing of the champion and runner up in each sport during their regular season is below:

Sport Champion Conf Rnk Runner-Up
Hockey 2.8 4.1
Basketball 1.9 2.2
Football 2.7 1.7
Baseball 2.4 2.6

The top-seeded NBA teams have been much more likely to make and win the finals. The champion’s average standing in their conference has been 1.9 and Golden State was the No. 1 seed this year and won game one. The average runner-up’s average seed has been 2.2, and Cleveland was the No. 2 seed in the East this season.

Upsets are much less in the NBA than any other league once you consider that baseball and football have fewer teams make the playoffs and therefore would be expected to have a much lower average conference standing.

The following are the last 20 champions in each of the four traditional major sports in the US:

Year Sport Champion Conf Runner-Up Conf
2015 NBA Golden State Warriors ? 1 Cleveland Cavaliers ? 2
2015 NHL Tampa Bay? 3 Chicago? 4
1994 NHL New York Rangers 1 Vancouver Canucks 7
1995 MLB Atlanta Braves 1 Cleveland Indians 1
1995 NBA Houston Rockets 6 Orlando Magic 1
1995 NHL New Jersey Devils 5 Detroit Red Wings 1
1996 NBA Chicago Bulls 1 Seattle SuperSonics 1
1996 NHL Colorado Avalanche 2 Florida Panthers 4
1996 NFL Dallas Cowboys 1 Pittsburgh Steelers 2
1996 MLB New York Yankees 2 Atlanta Braves 1
1997 NBA Chicago Bulls 1 Utah Jazz 1
1997 NHL Detroit Red Wings 3 Philadelphia Flyers 2
1997 MLB Florida Marlins 2 Cleveland Indians 4
1997 NFL Green Bay Packers 1 New England Patriots 2
1998 NBA Chicago Bulls 1 Utah Jazz 1
1998 NFL Denver Broncos 2 Green Bay Packers 2
1998 NHL Detroit Red Wings 2 Washington Capitals 4
1998 MLB New York Yankees 1 San Diego Padres 3
1999 NHL Dallas Stars 2 Buffalo Sabres 8
1999 NFL Denver Broncos 1 Atlanta Falcons 2
1999 MLB New York Yankees 1 Atlanta Braves 1
1999 NBA San Antonio Spurs 1 New York Knicks 8
2000 NBA Los Angeles Lakers 1 Indiana Pacers 1
2000 NHL New Jersey Devils 4 Dallas Stars 2
2000 MLB New York Yankees 5 New York Mets 4
2000 NFL St. Louis Rams 6 Tennessee Titans 1
2001 MLB Arizona Diamondbacks 3 New York Yankees 3
2001 NFL Baltimore Ravens 3 New York Giants 1
2001 NHL Colorado Avalanche 1 New Jersey Devils 1
2001 NBA Los Angeles Lakers 2 Philadelphia 76ers 1
2002 MLB Anaheim Angels 3 San Francisco Giants 4
2002 NHL Detroit Red Wings 1 Carolina Hurricanes 3
2002 NBA Los Angeles Lakers 3 New Jersey Nets 1
2002 NFL New England Patriots 2 St. Louis Rams 1
2003 MLB Florida Marlins 3 New York Yankees 1
2003 NHL New Jersey Devils 2 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim 6
2003 NBA San Antonio Spurs 1 New Jersey Nets 2
2003 NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 Oakland Raiders 1
2004 MLB Boston Red Sox 2 St. Louis Cardinals 1
2004 NBA Detroit Pistons 3 Los Angeles Lakers 2
2004 NFL New England Patriots 1 Carolina Panthers 3
2004 NHL Tampa Bay Lightning 1 Calgary Flames 6
2005 MLB Chicago White Sox 1 Houston Astros 3
2005 NFL New England Patriots 2 Philadelphia Eagles 1
2005 NBA San Antonio Spurs 2 Detroit Pistons 2
2006 NHL Carolina Hurricanes 2 Edmonton Oilers 7
2006 NBA Miami Heat 2 Dallas Mavericks 4
2006 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers 5 Seattle Seahawks 1
2006 MLB St. Louis Cardinals 5 Detroit Tigers 3
2007 NHL Anaheim Ducks 4 Ottawa Senators 3
2007 MLB Boston Red Sox 1 Colorado Rockies 2
2007 NFL Indianapolis Colts 3 Chicago Bears 1
2007 NBA San Antonio Spurs 3 Cleveland Cavaliers 2
2008 NBA Boston Celtics 1 Los Angeles Lakers 1
2008 NHL Detroit Red Wings 2 Pittsburgh Penguins 2
2008 NFL New York Giants 4 New England Patriots 1
2008 MLB Philadelphia Phillies 2 Tampa Bay Rays 2
2009 NBA Los Angeles Lakers 1 Orlando Magic 3
2009 MLB New York Yankees 1 Philadelphia Phillies 2
2009 NHL Pittsburgh Penguins 4 Detroit Red Wings 2
2009 NFL Pittsburgh Steelers 2 Arizona Cardinals 6
2010 NHL Chicago Blackhawks 2 Philadelphia Flyers 7
2010 NBA Los Angeles Lakers 1 Boston Celtics 4
2010 NFL New Orleans Saints 1 Indianapolis Colts 1
2010 MLB San Francisco Giants 2 Texas Rangers 4
2011 NHL Boston Bruins 3 Vancouver Canucks 1
2011 NBA Dallas Mavericks 3 Miami Heat 2
2011 NFL Green Bay Packers 5 Pittsburgh Steelers 2
2011 MLB St. Louis Cardinals 4 Texas Rangers 1
2012 NHL Los Angeles Kings 8 New Jersey Devils 6
2012 NBA Miami Heat 2 Oklahoma City Thunder 2
2012 NFL New York Giants 6 New England Patriots 1
2012 MLB San Francisco Giants 3 Detroit Tigers 7
2013 NFL Baltimore Ravens 5 San Francisco 49ers 2
2013 MLB Boston Red Sox 1 St. Louis Cardinals 1
2013 NHL Chicago Blackhawks 1 Boston Bruins 4
2013 NBA Miami Heat 1 San Antonio Spurs 2
2014 NHL Los Angeles Kings 6 New York Rangers 5
2014 NBA San Antonio Spurs 1 Miami Heat 2
2014 MLB San Francisco Giants 4 Kansas City Royals 4
2014 NFL Seattle Seahawks 1 Denver Broncos 1
2015 NFL New England Patriots 1 Seattle Seahawks 1


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