If the Bruins go on to win the Stanley Cup despite an inferior resume to that of the Canucks, no one will blink. There's nothing unusual about the better team losing a playoff series. Seven games isn't enough to guarantee a representative result. But if the Canucks win, they'll cap off one of the most unlikely, albeit unimpressive, achievements in sports history.
The Canucks have been outscored 19 goals to 8 in the first six games of the series. That 11-goal differential is the largest at any point in a Stanley Cup Final since 1996, when the Florida Panthers were outscored by a cumulative 15-4 while being swept.
Unlike those Panthers, Vancouver is one home-ice victory away from a title. There have only been four champions in the history of the NHL who allowed more goals than they scored in the final. The worst differential was -3.
To put Vancouver's potential feat in its proper context, we can look at every World Series (starting in 1903), NBA Finals (1950), and Stanley Cup Finals (1915) in history. Instead of using raw differential, we'll use Pythagorean expectation: how well the champion would be expected to do in a seven-game series based on its goals/points/runs scored and allowed. This allows us to translate across the three sports. Here are the 10 least-deserving champions in American sports history based on their in-series expected win total (extrapolated to seven games for shorter series):
1. 1960 World Series: Pirates over Yankees 4-3, -28 differential, 1.33 Expected Wins
2. 1996 World Series: Yankees over Braves 4-2, -8 differential, 2.39 Expected Wins
3. 1958 NBA Finals: Hawks over Celtics 4-3, -28 differential, 2.48 Expected Wins
4. 1972 World Series: Athletics over Reds 4-3, -5 differential, 2.74 Expected Wins
5. 1940 World Series: Reds over Tigers 4-3, -6 differential, 2.76 Expected Wins
6. 1912 World Series: Red Sox over Giants 4-3, -6 differential, 2.82 Expected Wins
7. 2009 Stanley Cup: Penguins over Red Wings 4-3, -3 differential, 2.83 Expected Wins
8. 1928 Stanley Cup: Rangers over Maroons 3-2, -1 differential, 2.87 Expected Wins
9. 1997 World Series: Marlins over Indians 4-3, -7 differential, 2.89 Expected Wins
10. 2003 World Series: Marlins over Yankees 4-2, -4 differential, 2.90 Expected Wins
The '60 World Series is best known for Bill Mazeroski's walk-off homer, but it's also remarkable as an extreme outlier in differential: The Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27. Over seven games, Pittsburgh would be more likely to win zero games than four based on their runs scored and allowed. Of the 263 champions studied, the Pirates were the only ones to be outscored by such a wide margin.
But if the Canucks win tonight, Pittsburgh will have company. A 1-0 victory would give Vancouver 1.28 Expected Wins over the course of the series, which would make the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals the most bizarre in American championship history by that measure. Even a 4-0 blowout would result in 2.23 Expected Wins, still second all-time. It would be one of the flukiest Finals ever, and Canucks fans wouldn't care one damn bit.