The 10 greatest NHL playoff series of all time
No trophy is quite like the NHL's Stanley Cup, which has inspired players to stage some of the most remarkable battles on ice. We rank the 10 greatest playoff series in NHL history.
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Few matchups in sports can compare to a great Stanley Cup playoff series. The best-of-7 format enables teams to discover each other’s weaknesses and exploit them for a period of up to two weeks. Momentum shifts are the rule, not the exception, and individual players’ will to win can make all the difference – particularly in sudden-death overtime.
The Stanley Cup, which dates back to 1893, is older than the NHL itself. Ever since the league took control of the Cup in 1926, the coveted trophy has driven teams to push themselves to the limit for the incredible honor of having their players’ names engraved on it.
To win the ultimate prize, players go through a grueling playoff grind that can last up to 28 games if each NHL playoff series goes the distance. There is no doubt that the world’s best hockey is found annually in the NHL postseason. As a result, selecting the 10 greatest Stanley Cup playoff series of all time is no easy task, and every fan will likely have a different list of favorites.
At least one of those lists can be found right here. Let the inevitable debate over it begin.
How many games in NHL playoff series?
All NHL playoff series are structured in best-of-seven formats, meaning the first team to win four games wins the series. To win the Stanley Cup, a team must win four consecutive series, or a total of 16 games without losing four in any given series.
Teams that lose a playoff series are eliminated from the postseason. A team that wins the Stanley Cup can play as few as 16 or as many as 28 total games, depending on the length of each series. Since the 16-team format was introduced in 1980, no team has won the Cup with a perfect 16-0 record. The best performance was the Edmonton Oilers’ 16-2 mark in 1988.
How many rounds in NHL playoffs?There are four total rounds in the Stanley Cup playoffs, as 16 teams are narrowed down to a champion
Based on the regular-season standings, eight teams from both the NHL’s Eastern and Western conferences qualify for their conference quarterfinal round. Four move into the conference semifinals, and two advance to the Eastern and Western Conference Finals. The two conference winners then play for the Stanley Cup.
The 16-team playoff format has been in place since the 1980 playoffs, when the league had 21 teams. Back then, nearly everyone made the playoffs. Today, there are 32 NHL teams. Since only half of the league’s teams can reach the postseason, the regular season is far more important than it once was.
Ranking the Top 10 Greatest NHL Playoff series of all time
- 1999 Stanley Cup Final: Buffalo Sabres vs Dallas Stars
Total Games: Six
Series Result: 4-2 Stars
This is the only six-game series that made the top 10 list, and the ending to Game 6 was so controversial that many people thought it should have gone on longer.
What could be more dramatic than a series-winning goal in triple-overtime to end the longest Stanley Cup-clinching game in history? How about the fact that goal-scorer Brett Hull’s skate was clearly in the crease when he put the puck in the net?
That’s exactly what happened, and in 1999, the sort of minor crease violation related to Hull’s goal was a much bigger deal than it is today. Even Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the goal despite multiple explanations by league officials. In any event, the heavily favored Stars won the game 2-1 and claimed the franchise’s first Cup after an outstanding year that saw them lead the entire league with a 114-point regular season.
Given the magnitude of Hull’s goal, it is easy to forget how great this series was. The goaltending duel between former Blackhawks teammates and future Hall of Famers Ed Belfour of the Stars and Dominik Hasek of the Sabres was one for the ages. Only once did a team reach four goals in a game, and that was via an empty net in Game 2. Of course, the goalies saved their best for last. Belfour finished Game 6 with 53 saves, while Hasek had 48. Before Hull’s winner, there were no goals for more than 85 minutes.
The series got off to a great start with the Sabres’ surprise 3-2 OT win in Game 1 at Dallas, ended by unlikely hero Jason Woolley. Game 2 saw Hull score the winner with 2:50 left in the third period to even the series. In Game 3, Dallas limited Buffalo to 12 shots in a 2-1 win. Hasek made 30 saves in Game 4 to even the series at Buffalo, and Belfour shut out the Sabres with 23 saves for a 2-0 win in Game 5
- 1989 Smythe Division Semifinals: Los Angeles Kings vs Edmonton Oilers
Total Games: Seven
Series Result: 4-3 Kings
Talk about a series filled with emotion and drama. The storyline for this one was incredible because hockey legend Wayne Gretzky had been sent from Edmonton to Los Angeles just eight months earlier in a blockbuster deal that is arguably the most memorable and significant trade in sports history.
Now, in his first playoffs with the Kings, Gretzky had to face his old teammates – players with whom he had won four Stanley Cup championships, including the 1987 and 1988 titles. Edmonton, a weaker team without Gretzky, was going for a three-peat, while the Kings, who had not won a playoff series in seven years, were eager to make a statement with The Great One.
Game 1 in Los Angeles was a thriller, The Kings led 3-2 late in the third period before Edmonton’s Esa Tikkanen tied the score with 3:54 remaining. Overtime seemed inevitable after that, but Craig Simpson had other ideas. Only 67 seconds after Tikkanen’s goal, Simpson gave Edmonton the 4-3 win. Prior to the Tikkanen and Simpson goals, all five goals in the game had come on the power play.
Los Angeles evened the series with a 5-2 win in Game 2, thanks to a hat trick from fortunate Gretzky linemate Chris Kontos, who played the best hockey of his life in this series. The scene then shifted to Edmonton, where Oilers Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr delivered a 26-save shutout for a 4-0 win and a 2-1 series lead. No NHL goalie had shut out the Kings in their previous 264 games.
The Oilers took a commanding 3-1 series lead by winning Game 4 at home. The 4-3 nail-biter ended when Edmonton defenseman Steve Smith capped a two-goal, third-period comeback by scoring with 26 seconds left in regulation. Smith, who had missed much of the season with an injury, was the most unlikely of heroes, particularly since he had played a very different role three years earlier in another series that made this list.
It seemed that the Oilers were well on their way to a series win when the teams returned to L.A. for Game 5, but the Kings refused to lose. Gretzky had three points, including the game’s final goal on a breakaway, as Los Angeles pulled out a 4-2 win. However, with Game 6 looming in Edmonton, the Kings’ outlook was still grim.
That changed in a hurry. After giving up the first goal in Game 6, the Kings tied the game in the second period and erupted for three more goals in the third, coasting to a 4-1 win. Everything came down to Game 7 at the Great Western Forum, where Gretzky put on a show in the Kings’ 6-3 win.
Gretzky opened the scoring 52 seconds into the game and scored a shorthanded empty-netter to close it. Edmonton never led, and after the Oilers tied the score 3-3 in the second period, Gretzky set up Bernie Nicholls for a power-play goal that stood up as the series-winner.
Gretzky finished the series with four goals and 13 points, and the Kings became only the sixth team in NHL history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit.
- 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Philadelphia Flyers vs Boston Bruins
Total Games: Seven
Series Result: 4-3 Flyers
Only four NHL teams have ever overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-7 NHL playoff series. In 2010, the Philadelphia Flyers defied the odds and became the third team to join this exclusive club that would be the Los Angeles Kings just four years later.
Neither the Flyers nor Bruins had particularly great teams during the 2009-10 NHL season, but they both made the playoffs and upset higher-seeded teams in the opening round. As a No. 6 seed, the Bruins got home ice for this series against the No. 7 Flyers.
The teams were very evenly matched, and the stage was set by Boston’s 5-4 OT win in Game 1 at home. Marc Savard got the winner with 6:08 left in overtime after Philly’s Daniel Briere had tied the game with 3:22 remaining in the third period.
Game 2 was another one-goal decision, as the Bruins prevailed 3-2 for a 2-0 series lead. Milan Lucic broke a 2-2 tie with the game-winner at 17:03 of the third period. In Game 3, the Bruins drove the Flyers to the brink with a 4-1 win at Philadelphia, Boston scored four unanswered goals after Philadelphia took an early 1-0 lead.
All hope seemed lost for the Flyers, but in Game 4 at home, they began to turn the tide. Philly was on its way to a win until Boston’s Mark Recchi forced overtime with 32 seconds left. Simon Gagne then delivered a 5-4 victory for the Flyers in OT to avoid a series sweep.
Everything changed in a hurry. The Flyers went back to Boston and routed the Bruins 4-0 despite losing goaltender Brian Boucher to injury. Michael Leighton stepped in for the Flyers to finish the shutout and cut Boston’s series lead to 3-2.
Game 6 in Philadelphia saw the Flyers leading 2-0 after two periods, although Boston’s Milan Lucic averted a shutout by scoring late in the third. Making his first NHL postseason start, Leighton stopped 30 shots in the 2-1 win that forced Game 7.
With a 4-3 win in Game 7, the Flyers entered the history books. They did it in dramatic fashion after Boston cruised to a 3-0 first-period lead that included two goals from Lucic. James van Riemsdyk got the Flyers on the board late in the first, and Scott Hartnell and Briere added second-period goals to tie it. Gagne became the hero in the third, scoring the game-winner on a power play with 7:08 left in regulation.
- 1996 Western Conference Semifinals: St. Louis Blues vs Detroit Red Wings
Total Games: Seven
Series Result: 4-3 Red Wings
The 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings set an NHL record with 62 regular-season wins, and that record stood all the way until Boston shattered it this year. The Wings, who had lost to New Jersey in the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, were heavy favorites to win the championship in 1996. Their second-round playoff opponent, the sixth-seeded St. Louis Blues, hardly seemed a match for them.
Detroit would manage to win this series, but only after a seven-game scare that nearly ended the Wings’ season. Indeed, the team was so drained from this experience that it fell to Colorado in the next round and would have to wait another year to win the Cup.
St. Louis had a special “X factor” in this series – the presence of Wayne Gretzky, who had come over to the Blues as a trade-deadline rental. Gretzky was headed for unrestricted free agency, and the Los Angeles Kings didn’t want to let him walk for nothing at the end of the season. St. Louis had given up three players and a draft pick to get Gretzky in the hope of re-signing him, which they ultimately failed to do.
There were five one-goal games in this series, including the opener, which Detroit won 3-2 on a late goal by Sergei Fedorov. Game 2 also went to Detroit in an 8-3 romp that saw the Wings score three times in the game’s first 7:02. Detroit captain Steve Yzerman put on his own Gretzky-style performance, as the future Hall of Famer scored five points in the win.
Back in St. Lous for Game 3, Yzerman scored a natural hat trick, but the Blues got the last laugh with a 5-4 OT victory. The Wings were up 4-3 in the third period, but Blues enforcer Tony Twist, known mostly for his fighting prowess, scored the only playoff goal of his career to force overtime, where defenseman Igor Kravchuk needed only 3:23 to win it.
The Blues evened the series in Game 4 behind a 29-save shutout from goaltender Jon Casey. Gretzky got the game’s only goal on a second-period power play, and the 1-0 Blues win was a major blow to the Wings, who faltered again in Game 5 at home. St. Louis took a 3-2 series lead with a 3-2 victory in Game 5, as Gretzky scored the go-ahead goal late in the second period and Yuri Khmylev sealed it with the eventual game-winner for a 3-1 lead in the third.
With their backs to the wall, the Wings delivered in Game 6 at St. Louis, jumping out to a 2-0 first-period lead and cruising to a 4-2 win to force Game 7. St. Louis cut the lead to 3-2 with two goals in a 59-second span late in the game, but Nicklas Lidstrom iced it for the Wings by scoring with 29 seconds left.
Game 7 in Detroit was epic. A full 81 scoreless minutes were played before Yzerman beat Casey for a 1-0 win at 1:15 of the second overtime. It was only the 23rd NHL overtime playoff game to end with a 1-0 score. Yzerman finished the series with six goals and 11 points. Casey was heroic in defeat for the Blues, making 39 saves.
- 1975 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals: New York Islanders vs Pittsburgh Penguins
Total Games: Seven
Series Result: 4-3 Islanders
The 1974-75 New York Islanders were an expansion team playing in just their third NHL season. They finished eighth overall in the standings in an era when 12 teams made the playoffs. Reaching the postseason so early in their history was a big accomplishment, and they could have just been happy to be there.
Few teams in history, however, were more determined than that Islanders squad, which came within one win of reaching the Stanley Cup Final. They did it the hard way. After opening the playoffs with an OT victory in the decisive game against the rival New York Rangers, the Isles faced 3-0 deficits in each of the next two series. They succeeded against Pittsburgh but came up just short against the defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers.
The Islanders-Penguins series of 1975 was epic, as the upstarts from Uniondale, N.Y., became just the second team in NHL history to win a series they trailed 3-0. No other team had done it for 33 years prior to the Isles’ run.
Pittsburgh had finished just one point ahead of the Islanders in 1974-75, but the Pens were favored in this second-round series and got off to a good start by storming out to a 3-0 lead in the first 15 minutes of Game 1 at home. The Islanders refused to go away and cut the lead to 5-4 when J.P. Parise scored his second straight goal with 2:13 left in the third period. Pittsburgh held on for the win, needing 36 saves from goalie Gary Inness.
Games 2 and 3 also went Pittsburgh’s way, as the Pens again built up 3-0 leads and held on to win. In Game 2, they rode 32 saves from Inness to a 3-1 win at home and then got 43 stops from their goalie for a 6-4 win in Game 3 on the Island.
That was the last hurrah for the Penguins since the Islanders were about to make NHL history. The key to the turnaround was head coach Al Arbour’s decision to replace starting goalie Billy Smith with rookie Glenn “Chico” Resch for the rest of the series.
Trailing the series 3-0, the Islanders got a third-period go-ahead goal from future Hall of Famer Clark Gillies and avoided the sweep with a 3-1 win in Game 4. Back in Pittsburgh for Game 5, Resch stopped 36 shots to lead the Islanders to a 4-2 win. This time, the Isles ran out to a two-goal lead and held off the Pens’ surge.
Game 6 at the Nassau Coliseum was tied 1-1 in the second period when Islanders sparkplug Garry Howatt scored at 15:16 to put his team ahead for good. Captain Ed Westfall and Howatt closed the game with two empty-netters for a 4-1 win that evened the series.
The Game 7 goaltending duel between Resch and Inness was outstanding, as 13,404 fans at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena (better known and The Igloo) were treated to a 1-0 thriller decided by Westfall’s goal with 5:18 left to play. Left open in front of the Penguins net, Westfall took a pass from defenseman Bert Marshall and lofted a high backhander over Inness for the win.
Inness finished with 17 saves, while Resch made 30 for his first playoff shutout. It was a fitting end to a wild series. Incredibly, the Islanders nearly did it again in the next series by winning three in a row vs. Philadelphia before losing Game 7 on the road.
- 1987 Patrick Division Semifinals: New York Islanders vs Washington Capitals
Total Games: Seven
Series Result: 4-3 Islanders
How can any NHL fan who witnessed it ever forget this series? How can any sports fan forget any series that end in the fourth overtime of a Game 7? This was truly one for the history books, and the series finale even has its own name – the “Easter Epic.”
Washington was the higher seed for this series, as the old Islanders dynasty was in decline. Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Co. had won the Stanley Cup in four straight years from 1980 to 1983, but the team was a shadow of itself by 1987, and the series hero would end up being a younger player with no championship rings.
The Caps opened the series by winning Game 1 at home. Washington rolled out to a 3-0 lead in the first period and held on for a 4-3 win that wasn’t as close as the score might indicate. Trottier’s goal with 1:03 left in the game made it a one-goal affair, but the Caps had a commanding 4-1 lead midway through the final period.
A 3-1 Islanders win in Game 2 evened the series, although Bossy hurt his knee and would not be available for the remainder of the playoff round. Trottier broke a 1-1 tie on a power play with 2:40 left in the third period and then added an empty-netter to ice it.
Back on Long Island for Game 3, the Islanders were shut out 2-0 by Capitals goalie Bob Mason, who made 26 saves in his NHL playoff debut. Washington coach Bryan Murray made the right move in starting Mason over veteran Pete Peeters, and the shakeup sparked his team. Larry Murphy gave the Caps a 1-0 lead at 14:08 of the third period, and the score remained that way until Steve Duchesne’s empty-netter.
The Capitals took full control of the series in Game 4. After giving up an early goal, Washington scored three straight to close the first period. The Caps never looked back in a 4-1 win that gave them a chance to clinch the series at home.
The Islanders refused to lose in Game 5. They got out to a 2-0 lead in the first 5:26 behind goals from Brad Lauer and Pat LaFontaine. Washington tied it 2-2 midway in the second period, but Islanders forward Greg Gilbert broke the tie less than four minutes later. Islanders goaltender Kelly Hrudey was outstanding with 40 saves, and the 4-2 final score cut Washington’s series lead to 3-2.
Game 6 started out well for the Islanders, who took a 2-0 lead into the second period at Nassau Coliseum. Washington rallied for three straight goals in the first 9:31 of the second period before LaFontaine tied it on a power play two minutes later. The Islanders added two more second-period goals, as LaFontaine set up Mikko Makela for a 4-3 lead and then scored again to make it 5-3 heading into the final period. Washington got one back in the third, but the Islanders held on for a 5-4 victory that forced Game 7.
Game 7 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., began at 7:40 p.m. on the night of Saturday, April 18, 1987. It wouldn’t end until 1:56 a.m. on Easter Sunday. The seesaw game lasted more than six hours before LaFontaine ended it at 8:47 of the fourth overtime. Washington had led 1-0 after one period and 2-1 after two before Trottier forced OT by scoring with 5:23 left in the third period.
Between Trottier’s tying goal and LaFontaine’s winner, there were no goals for a stretch of more than 74 minutes. Hrudey made 73 saves in the game – a record that stood for 37 years before Columbus’ Joonas Korpisalo broke it in a 5OT game. Mason was no slouch either, stopping 54 shots.
LaFontaine, who had asked trainers for oxygen prior to the fourth overtime, finished the series with four goals and three assists. The Islanders went on to lose a seven-game series to Philadelphia in the next round in what became the last gasp for core members of the team’s dynasty years.
It’s worth noting that 1987 was the first year in which the NHL opening-round playoff series were structured in a best-of-7 format. Prior to the 1987 playoffs, the league had limited first-round matchups to a maximum 5-game playoff series.
- 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Washington Capitals vs Boston Bruins
Total Games: Seven
Series Result: 4-3 Capitals
The Boston Bruins were the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Washington Capitals were a highly talented team that had flopped in the 2010 playoffs’ first round after posting the NHL regular season’s best record. Boston seemed to have all the luck, and Washington seemed to have none, as high-flying Capitals teams led by superstar Alex Ovechkin had repeatedly failed to meet postseason expectations.
Who would have guessed that this first-round matchup between No. 2 seed Boston and No. 7 seed Washington would produce seven one-goal games, including four that ended in overtime? No one could have guessed that, but it’s exactly how this thrilling series played out.
The Bruins opened the series by showing why they were one of the league’s best defensive teams. Boston goalie Tim Thomas, who had won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie one year earlier, blanked the Caps 1-0, needing only 17 saves for the shutout. Washington netminder Braden Holtby, who finished with 29 saves, was brilliant in regulation before allowing Chris Kelly’s game-winner 78 seconds into overtime.
Washington got revenge with another overtime thriller in Game 2 at Boston. This time, two OTs were needed to decide a winner. The Caps led 1-0 with 7:47 left in the third period when Boston’s Benoit Pouliot scored to force the first overtime. Early in the second OT, Caps center Nicklas Backstrom beat Thomas for the 2-1 win. Holtby was the difference for the Caps, making 43 saves compared to Thomas’ 37.
As the series shifted to downtown Washington, the Bruins took over with a 4-3 win in Game 3. Washington had tied the score on a Brooks Laich goal with six minutes remaining in the third period, but B’s defenseman Zdeno Chara averted another overtime by scoring on a slap shot from the point with 1:53 to go.
The series became deadlocked again after Game 4, a 2-1 home victory for the Caps. Alexander Semin’s power-play goal late in the second period broke a 1-1 tie and stood up for the win, thanks to Holtby’s 44-save performance in Washington’s net.
Boston was pushed to the brink at home in Game 5, when the Capitals got out to a 2-0 lead in the second period and held on for a 4-3 win. Troy Brouwer was the hero for the Caps, scoring the game-winner on a power play with 1:27 remaining. Trailing 2-0, the Bruins had put themselves back in the game by scoring twice in a 28-second span late in the middle period.
Game 6 at Washington was even more thrilling. The Caps tied the score on an Ovechkin goal with 4:42 left in regulation, but they lost their first chance to close the series when Boston’s Tyler Seguin scored at 3:17 of overtime, giving the visitors a 4-3 win. Seguin’s goal was picture perfect, as he took a feed from Milan Lucic and patiently waited for Holtby to come out of the crease and commit himself before sending the puck into the net.
It all came down to Game 7 in Boston, and this one also went to overtime. Washington opened the scoring at 11:23 of the first period, and Seguin tied the game with 5:33 left in the second. Nobody scored in the third, and the unlikely overtime hero was Washington’s Joel Ward, a rental player who had come over in a trade-deadline deal with San Jose. Ward converted the rebound of a Mike Knuble shot at 2:57 of OT, abruptly ending Boston’s hope of repeating as Stanley Cup champs.
Holtby made 31 saves in Game 7 to finish the series with a .939 save percentage despite facing nearly 250 total shots.
- 1950 Stanley Cup Final: New York Rangers vs Detroit Red Wings
Total Games: Seven
Series Result: 4-3 Red Wings
You can’t have a list of the 10 greatest Stanley Cup playoffs series without including some Original Six, old-time hockey. This time-honored series between the Rangers and Red Wings was full of unexpected drama and captivated hockey fans across North America.
During the Original Six era, only the league’s top four regular-season teams went to the playoffs, which began with the Stanley Cup semifinals. The Wings had finished the 1949-50 season with the NHL’s best regular-season record and were considered a lock to win the Cup in 1950. However, tragedy struck in Game 1 of their opening series against Toronto.
Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, was a huge part of Detroit’s success, but the team lost him in its playoff opener, when an ill-timed attempt to check a Toronto player into the boards nearly cost Howe his life. Unable to connect with his Toronto opponent, Howe went face first into the boards, causing a skull fracture and severe concussion that ended his season.
Without Howe, the Red Wings barely got past Toronto, winning the series in seven games. It seemed things would be easier against the fourth-place Rangers, who had stunned Montreal in the semifinals.
Already heavy underdogs, the Rangers were not allowed to play any championship-round games at home because Madison Square Garden had been taken over by the annual Ringling Bros. circus. The NHL assigned the Rangers two home games in Toronto, where Wings-hating fans were quick to embrace them, but all other games were set to be played in Detroit
The Red Wings dominated Game 1, winning 4-1 on the strength of a four-goal second period to take a 1-0 series lead. Game 2, played in Toronto, was a different story, as New York’s Edgar Laprade broke a tie by scoring two third-period goals for a 3-1 win that evened the series.
Game 3 was also played in Toronto, but Detroit made a mockery of it, rolling over the Rangers in a 4-0 shutout by goaltender Harry Lumley, who faced only 19 shots. Back in Detroit, however, the Rangers refused to fold, again tying the series with a 4-3 victory that ended with Don “Bones” Raleigh’s winner at 8:34 of overtime. Detroit had led Game 4 by a 3-1 score with just under 12 minutes left to play before two late Rangers goals forced OT.
Game 5 was the series high point for the Rangers, who stunned the hockey world by winning in overtime for a 3-2 series lead. Leading 1-0 in the closing minutes of the third period, the Rangers were pushed to overtime when Detroit star Ted Lindsay scored with less than two minutes remaining. That didn’t shake the visitors, and Raleigh again delivered the winner -- a goal at 1:38 of OT that put the Blueshirts one win away from the Stanley Cup.
Detroit was not prepared to be embarrassed. Trailing 4-3 in the third period of Game 6 at home, the Wings rallied for Linday’s tying goal at the 4:13 mark and Sid Abel’s winner less than seven minutes later.
That set up a dramatic Game 7, which appropriately required two overtimes to decide. The Rangers ended the first period with a 2-0 lead after scoring two power-play goals during the same Detroit penalty. That would not be possible today, but prior to 1956, NHL teams remained shorthanded during two-minute minors regardless of how many goals were scored against them (a rule that still exists for major penalties).
Detroit came back in the second period and gave the Rangers a taste of their own medicine. The Red Wings scored two goals in a 21-second span during a power play to tie the score. New York’s Buddy O’Connor made it 3-2, but Jim McFadden tied it for the Wings late in the period.
There was no scoring in the third period and the first overtime. Finally, at 8:21 of the second overtime, Detroit’s Pete Babando scored his second goal of the game – snapping 52:44 of scoreless hockey and delivering the Cup to Detroit, which fired 16 of its 44 total shots at Rangers goaltender Chuck Rayner during the overtime sessions.
The Rangers, who had come so close, would not return to the Stanley Cup Final for another 22 years after their Game 7 loss.
- 1986 Smythe Division Finals: Calgary Flames vs Edmonton Oilers
Total Games: Seven
Series Result: 4-3 Flames
Few NHL teams have beaten the odds to win an NHL playoff series like the 1985-86 Calgary Flames, and they needed a little luck to complete the mission.
It is hard to overstate how good the Edmonton Oilers were in 1985-86. As two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, the Oilers dominated the regular season with a 56-17-7 record. Their 426 total goals that season were 72 more than the second-highest-scoring team, which happened to be Calgary.
On top of that, Wayne Gretzky had enjoyed the finest offensive season of his legendary career. Gretzky finished 1985-86 with NHL records of 163 assists and 215 points – records that might never be broken. The idea of a 200-point season is insane by today’s NHL standards. In 1986, Gretzky had done it for three straight years.
It’s fair to say that no one would have bet against the Oilers making it a three-peat that season. The Flames, however, were a particularly challenging playoff opponent. The rivalry, known as the “Battle of Alberta” was already an intense one, and no team was more motivated to spoil the Edmonton party than Calgary.
The Flames made a statement in Game 1 at Edmonton, rocking the Oilers for a 4-1 win. Early first-period goals by Lanny McDonald and Gary Suter set the tone, and after Edmonton cut the lead to 2-1 late in the second period, the Flames erupted for more scoring in the third to take a 1-0 series lead.
The Oilers needed overtime to survive Game 2 and even the series. Calgary had led 4-2 going into the final period before the Oilers erupted for three straight goals to take the lead. Flames sniper Joe Mullen forced OT by scoring with 1:20 to go, but Glenn Anderson responded 64 seconds into the extra period.
Edmonton was lucky to get the split., because, through two games, Gretzky had been limited to just two points. The Flames’ ability to shut down Gretzky was nothing short of miraculous.
Gretzky broke through for his first goal and multi-point performance of the series in Game 3 at Calgary, but the Flames took advantage of home ice and won 3-2 on a third-period goal by Joel Otto despite 35 saves by Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr.
The Oilers got even in Game 4 as Gretzky scored a hat trick and five points to help rout the Flames 7-4 and tie the series at two games apiece. Edmonton never trailed in the game after taking a 2-0 lead with two goals in a 20-second span of the first period. Fuhr was brilliant in goal again, stopping 36 shots.
The chess match continued back in Edmonton, where Calgary broke a 1-1 tie on a second-period goal by Lanny McDonald and went on to a 4-1 Game 5 victory that gave the Flames a chance to win the series at home. Flames rookie goalie Mike Vernon became the talk of the series as he came back from the Game 4 rout to make 30 saves in Game 5.
Calgary had the mighty Oilers on the ropes for Game 6, but Gretzky and Co. were too great to fold. After falling behind 2-0 six minutes into the second period, Edmonton picked up two quick goals, including a shorthanded Messier tally, for a 2-2 tie after 40 minutes. Anderson scored at 7:24 of the third period, and the Oilers went on to a 5-2 win after adding two more goals in the game’s final minute.
It all came down to Game 7 in Edmonton, where rookie defenseman Steve Smith made the biggest mistake of his NHL career – a mistake that gave Calgary the most improbable series victory in NHL history.
The Flames got off to a great start, scoring a shorthanded goal late in the first period and going up 2-0 just 2:08 into the second. Unfazed, the Oilers rallied on goals by Anderson and Messier for a 2-2 tie headed to the third.
Just over five minutes into the final period, disaster struck for Edmonton on an otherwise harmless line change for the Flames.
Calgary's Perry Berezan had sent the puck into the Edmonton zone as he was going off the ice. Smith retrieved the puck behind the Oilers goal, moved to his left, and attempted to fire a clearing shot out of the zone. Unfortunately, Smith did not realize he was too close to his own goal. His shot caught the back of Fuhr's left leg and banked into the Edmonton net, giving Calgary a 3-2 lead.
Berezan was credited with an unassisted goal at 5:14 of the third period, even though Smith clearly put the puck into his own net. Calgary held off the Oilers down the stretch to win the series.
The Oilers went on to recapture the Stanley Cup in 1987 and repeated the feat in 1988. Had Smith’s gaffe not ruined their 1986 run, they likely would have tied the 1956-1960 Montreal Canadiens’ record of five consecutive championships.
- 1994 Eastern Conference Finals: New Jersey Devils vs New York Rangers
Total Games: Seven
Series Result: 4-3 Rangers
Everything that could possibly make for a great NHL playoff series seemed to be in play when the Devils and Rangers met for the right to advance to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.
For fans in the New York area, this was must-see TV, but it also resonated throughout North America because it took place in what is often considered the media capital of the world, and the media were quick to latch on to the series’ many storylines.
The Rangers were looking to end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought that subjected them to derisive cheers of “1940, 1940” whenever they went on the road. The Devils, who had never won the Cup, now had a chance to show up their Original Six big brother from across the river.
There were personal stories, too. Rangers captain Mark Messier, who had won the Cup four times in Edmonton, was hoping to lead his team to the promised land, as many had expected when he joined the franchise in 1991. A year earlier, Messier and the Rangers had been humiliated by finishing last in their division and missing the playoffs.
In 1993-94, a reborn Rangers team under coach Mike Keenan had dominated the regular season but still had to prove itself in the playoffs. The Devils also had a great regular season, winning a franchise-record 47 games, but they had been overshadowed locally by the Rangers’ success.
The stage was set for a great playoff series, and this one was delivered from the start. Game 1 at Madison Square Garden went to double overtime, where the Devils enjoyed the last laugh in silencing the home fans.
After a go-ahead power-play goal by Steve Larmer, the Rangers led Game 1 3-2 with under a minute left in the third period. Victory seemed assured until Claude Lemieux scored for New Jersey, forcing the first of two overtimes. A full 35.23 of overtime hockey was played before Stephane Richer won the game for New Jersey, spoiling a night in which Rangers goaltender Mike Richter made 44 saves.
Game 2 at The Garden was a moment of revenge for the Rangers, who blasted the Devils 4-0 to even the series. Messier scored the eventual winner just 73 seconds into the game, and the Rangers added three goals in the third period, outshooting New Jersey 41-16 on the night and giving Richter an easy shutout.
In New Jersey for Game 3, the Rangers and Devils staged another double-overtime classic. The teams traded goals for the first two periods, and there was no scoring in the third. Overtime began with the game tied 2-2, and 26:13 would go by before Rangers forward Stephane Matteau, who had come to the team in a trade-deadline deal, gave the Blueshirts a 3-2 victory despite 47 saves from New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur. The Rangers took a 2-1 series lead. Little did anyone know at the time that Matteau’s heroics foreshadowed something greater.
The Devils tied the series again by winning Game 4 at home. The 3-1 victory wasn’t particularly close. New Jersey went up 2-0 in the first period, driving Richter out of the net. Matteau made it a one-goal game in the second period, but Valeri Zelepukin sealed it late in the third
Needing to win at home to take the series lead, the Rangers flopped in Game 5, allowing the Devils to break open a game they had led 1-0 with three third-period goals and an easy 4-1 victory. Incredibly, New Jersey had a chance to wrap up the series at home in Game 6.
Local media was all over the Rangers after their poor Game 5 performance. The criticism was sharp, but Messier wouldn’t stand for it. Between Games 5 and 6, he guaranteed reporters that his team would force a seventh game.
Messier was right, and he made it happen almost single-handedly. In Game 6 at New Jersey, the Devils took a 2-0 lead on first-period goals by Scott Niedermayer and Lemieux. The Rangers got one back in the second period, leaving New Jersey 20 minutes from a series victory – until Messier intervened.
The Rangers captain scored a natural hat trick in the third period to lift his team to a 4-2 win in Game 6. Messier tallied at 2:48, 12:12, and 18:15 of the third. The final goal was a shorthanded shot into an empty Devils net after New Jersey pulled Brodeur for an extra attacker.
With all of the anticipation involved, it seemed Game 7 could never live up to the hype. That was what made the series so special. Not only did Game 7 live up to the hype, it was one of the greatest games in hockey history.
After a scoreless first period, the Rangers went up 1-0 on a Brian Leetch goal at 9:31 of the second period. On a night when both goalies were outstanding (Brodeur finished with 46 saves and Richter with 31), it seemed like Leetch’s goal would be enough to win, because he Rangers still led 1-0 with time running out in the final period.
Somehow, with Madison Square Garden about to celebrate victory, New Jersey’s Zelepukin found the back of the net with just 7.7 seconds remaining in the game. There was no scoring through the first 20 minutes of overtime, but 4:24 into the second OT, the game finally ended when Matteau (remember him) scored on a wraparound to send the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final. Rangers radio broadcaster Howie Rose’s “Matteau, Matteau, Matteau” call on that goal remains an iconic New York sports moment.
New York went on to beat Vancouver in another seven-game series for its first Stanley Cup since 1940.
Parameters of Rankings
Several factors were taken into consideration when compiling this list of the best NHL playoff series of all time. Among them were the storylines associated with each series, the historic significance of each series, the length of each series, and the way in which each series was destined to linger in hockey fans’ collective memories. Series that took place later in the playoffs were given slightly more consideration than early-round series when the relative drama was equivalent.