Top 10 Individual Single-Season Playoff Performances of all time
The NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs often bring out the best in the game’s best players. When that happens, the result can be magical, creating memories that last a lifetime for fans. Ranking the 10 greatest NHL Playoff individual performances of all time.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are supposed to be a time when fans focus on the performance of teams rather than individuals, but some players have managed to overshadow everyone else on the ice by dominating the competition on their way to championships.
In 1965, the NHL chose to recognize these great performances by naming an annual playoff MVP. The new award was named the Conn Smythe Trophy in honor of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ founder, who had just celebrated his 70th birthday. Over the past 58 years, this award has become one of the highest individual honors, ranking alongside the Hart Trophy (League MVP), Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman), and Vezina Trophy (Best Goaltender).
Fifty different players have won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Among that group, 26 of the 37 retired players have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In other words, special players tend to make their presence known in the playoffs.
The list below ranks the top 10 playoff performances of all-time list. It includes seven Conn Smythe winners. One of the three who did not win the Conn Smythe worked his playoff magic before the award existed. The other two happened to be playing on the same team as a Conn Smythe winner and were instrumental in their teammate’s success.
The list includes players who set postseason records that still stand decades later. You’ll find the names of nine hockey legends, but there is also one player who never made it to the Hall of Fame.
When do the NHL Playoffs start?The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs traditionally start in mid-April, just a few days after the regular season concludes. Sixteen of the league’s 32 teams get to participate. The 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs got under way on April 17 and will continue into June. This year’s best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final series will begin on June 8. If it goes the full seven games, it will conclude on June 18.
Which NHL player has played the most playoff games in NHL history?Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios, who appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, and Detroit Red Wings, holds the NHL record for most playoff games played. Chelios, a defenseman whose teams went to the playoffs in 24 of his 26 NHL seasons from 1984 to 2009, played in a total of 266 playoff games and won the Stanley Cup three times (with Montreal in 1986 and with Detroit in both 2002 and 2008). His 266 playoff games are three more than his former Red Wings teammate and fellow defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who played in 263. Chelios’ 24 postseason appearances are also the NHL record for most years in the playoffs by one player. Hall of Famer Ray Bourque is second to Chelios with 21 playoff years.
Ranking the 10 Greatest NHL Playoff Individual Performances of all time
- Patrick Roy, Colorado Avalanche, 2001
Playoff Games: 23
Won-Loss Record: 16-7
Goals-Against Average: 1.70
Save Percentage: .934
Awards: 2001 Conn Smythe Trophy (only player to win the award three times)
A three-time playoff MVP who holds the NHL postseason record of 151 career postseason wins, goaltender Patrick Roy saved his best for the last of his four Stanley Cup championship years. Having already won the Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986 and 1993, Roy arrived in Colorado during the 1995-96 season and promptly won his third Stanley Cup that year.
Five years later, at age 33, Roy was back in the playoffs on an Avalanche team that would win it all. During the 2001 playoffs, he led all goaltenders in wins (16), shutouts (4), and goals-against average (1.70). During Colorado’s first-round series sweep of Vancouver, Roy wasn’t at his best with a subpar .898 save percentage and 2.22 GAA. However, over the next three rounds -- including two series that went the full seven games -- he was nearly unbeatable.
In Round 2 vs. the Los Angeles Kings. Roy was voted the No. 1 star three times and stopped 25 of 26 shots in Game 7 for a 4-3 victory. Over the final four games of the series, he allowed only three goals to finish with a 1.32 GAA and .943 save percentage.
Against St. Louis in the Western Conference Finals, Roy helped the Avs take the series in five games by recording a 1.97 GAA and .939 save percentage. He won back-to-back overtime games to close the series and made 56 saves in Game 3, which he lost in double-overtime.
Another seven-game series awaited Roy in the 2001 Stanley Cup Final, and he was more than ready. In a goaltending duel with New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, Roy shut out the Devils with 25 saves in Game 1 and did not allow more than two goals in six of the seven games. He posted an incredible 1.43 GAA and .944 save percentage in the Stanley Cup Final. In becoming the ninth NHL goalie to record the maximum 16 playoff wins in the same year, Roy was a no-brainer choice for his record third Conn Smythe Trophy.
- Bobby Orr, Boston Bruins, 1970
Playoff Games: 14
Awards: 1970 Conn Smythe Trophy
Most hockey fans have seen the famous photograph of Bobby Orr flying through the air after scoring the Cup-clinching overtime goal for the Boston Bruins in 1970. Orr was upended on the play, which is why he was parallel to the ice when the puck entered the net. The image is so famous that they made a statue out of it.
The truth is that the Bruins 1970 Stanley Cup Final victory was a cakewalk against a 3-year-old St. Louis Blues team that was not ready to compete with the Original Six clubs. The Bruins swept the Blues that year, and the only close game was Game 4, when Orr, a defenseman, needed just 40 seconds of overtime to score his winner. That was the only goal he scored in the 1970 Cup Final.
Although they had an easy time with the Blues, the Bruins leaned on Orr heavily in two earlier series victories over the New York Rangers and Chicago Black Hawks.
In the Stanley Cup quarterfinals vs. New York, Orr led the Bruins to a dramatic six-game series victory by scoring seven goals and 10 points. He had a pair of two-goal games and a total of three power-play goals in the series.
Against Chicago in the Cup semifinals, Orr and the Bruins came away with a four-game sweep. Orr had a goal and four assists in that series, with four of his five points coming on the power play.
The four-game Final sweep of the Blues saw Orr add another five points, including his dramatic Cup clincher. In Game 2 of that series, he registered two assists to break Tim Horton’s NHL record of 16 points by a defenseman in one playoff year. Orr finished the 1970 playoffs with 20 points in 14 games, including eight power-play points.
Two years later, the legendary Orr would break his own playoff scoring record with 24 points and win his second Conn Smythe Trophy along with his second Stanley Cup championship.
- Mike Bossy, New York Islanders, 1982
Playoff Games: 19
Awards: 1982 Conn Smythe Trophy
The New York Islanders won their third of four straight Stanley Cup championships in 1982, and they could not have done it without Bossy’s heroics.
Perhaps no moment captured Bossy’s greatness that year more than a midair goal he scored in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final at Vancouver. Bossy’s body was horizontally levitating a few feet above the ice as he whipped a backhand past stunned Canucks goaltender Richard Brodeur for a 2-0 lead at 12:30 of the second period. The Isles went on to a 3-0 win and a four-game series sweep.
Bossy played in all four rounds of the 1982 playoffs, becoming more dominant with each series. Against Pittsburgh in a best-of-five series to open the playoffs, he scored two goals and four points. In the next round, six games against the Rangers, he scored four goals and nine points. In a four-game sweep of the conference final series vs. Quebec, he had four goals and seven points.
In the sweep of Vancouver, Bossy had seven goals and eight points. He opened the Final with a hat trick and closed it with two goals – his fourth multi-goal game of the playoffs.
Bossy set what was then an NHL record for goals in a four-game Stanley Cup Final and had at least one point in 17 of his 19 playoff games in 1982. Incredibly, he did all that playing with torn cartilage and stretched ligaments in his left knee – an injury he had suffered in the Islanders’ final regular-season game.
- Terry Sawchuk, Detroit Red Wings, 1952
Playoff Games: 8
Won-Loss Record: 8-0
Goals-Against Average: 0.63
Save Percentage: .977
There was no Conn Smythe Trophy or MVP award handed out after the 1952 playoffs, but if there had been, Terry Sawchuk was an obvious choice after putting on perhaps the finest goaltending performance in the history of the Stanley Cup Final.
Back in the days of the Original Six, only four of the NHL’s six teams made the playoffs, which opened with the Stanley Cup semifinals. In that opening series against Toronto, Sawchuk backstopped the first-place Detroit Red Wings to a four-game sweep of the Maple Leafs, who had finished third in the regular season.
Sawchuk stopped 112 of 115 Toronto’s shots in the series, posting shutouts in Games 1 and 2. He did not allow the Leafs their first goal until 131:15 minutes of the series had elapsed. He also made 39 saves in Detroit’s series-ending Game 4 victory, where he allowed just one early goal in a 3-1 win.
In the Cup Final against Montreal, Sawchuk stopped 105 of 107 Canadiens shots for an unfathomable .981 save percentage. After allowing single goals in Games 1 ad 2, he concluded the playoffs with a pair of 3-0 shutouts. When the final buzzer sounded, Sawchuk’s shutout streak had reached 160:23.
Perhaps the most remarkable statistic from Sawchuk’s 1952 performance was the fact that he did not allow a single playoff goal on Detroit’s home ice – a shutout streak that lasted 277:54 through four total games.
- Paul Coffey, Edmonton Oilers, 1985
Playoff Games: 18
NHL Records: Most goals, points, and assists by a defenseman in one playoff year.
Make no mistake about it. Had it not been for some guy named Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers defensemen Paul Coffey would have been the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as MVP of the 1985 playoffs.
With Gretzky as his teammate, Coffey set NHL defenseman scoring records for goals, assists and points in a single playoff year. Those records still stand nearly 40 years later, and Coffey is remembered as one of the finest skaters who ever played the game.
He appeared in 18 playoff games for the Oilers in 1985 and had at least one point in all but three of them. He had multiple points in nine of the 18 games and set the NHL defenseman record of five assists and six points in one playoff game in Game 5 of the conference finals against Chicago on May 14. He also set NHL records for points and assists by a defenseman in one series, burning the Hawks for 11 assists and 14 points in only six games.
In three games of the opening round against Los Angeles, Coffey had four points. In four games against Winnipeg, he had eight, and he had 11 in five Stanley Cup Final games vs. Philadelphia. The closest any NHL defenseman has come to Coffey’s 37 points was 34 points by Brian Leetch in 1994.
Given the nature of today’s goaltending and the differences in the game from the 1980s “firewagon” style, it’s quite possible that Coffey’s playoff scoring record for defenseman will never be broken.
- Mark Messier, New York Rangers, 1994
Playoff Games: 23
Record: First Player to Serve as Captain for Two Different Cup-Winning Teams
Great Stanley Cup performances aren’t just measured in terms of big statistical numbers. Sometimes they can be measured in terms of leadership and, on rare occasions, they can be a product of both. In that sense, Mark Messier’s showing as captain of the 1993-94 New York Rangers was one for the ages.
By the time Messier got to New York in 1991, he had won five Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers, including the 1990 Cup as team captain. He was determined to bring the trophy to New York, where Rangers players had not owned it since 1940 – a painful, 54-year drought that was often mocked by rival teams’ fans.
Messier changed all that in the 1994 playoffs, becoming the first player to captain two different NHL franchises to a Stanley Cup victory. He got the postseason off to a fast start in a four-game sweep of the rival New York Islanders, scoring four goals and seven points in those games. Next up was a five-game series against Washington, where Messier contributed five points.
The 1994 Eastern Conference Finals was an epic series between the Rangers and New Jersey Devils that went the full seven games. With his team trailing the series 3-2 headed back to New Jersey, Messier promised local media that the team would win Game 6. True to his word, or “The Guarantee”, as it became known, Messier delivered with a third-period natural hat trick in Game 6, sending the series back to Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers won Game 7 in double-overtime.
Another seven-game series against Vancouver followed, but the Cup Final ended with Messier and the Rangers’ desired result. At age 33, Messier had put together the third-highest playoff scoring total of his Hall of Fame career, leading the team with 12 goals and finishing second to Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brian Leetch with 30 points.
His 30 points included 10 on the power play and four game-winning goals. Most important, he made the Rangers and their fans believe they could end “The Curse” that had kept them away from the Cup for so many years.
- Reggie Leach, Philadelphia Flyers, 1976
Playoff Games: 16
Awards: 1976 Conn Smythe Trophy
Over the past 58 years, only five NHL players have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP despite playing for a team that lost the Stanley Cup Final. Four of those players were goaltenders (Roger Crozier, Glenn Hall, Ron Hextall, and Jean-Sebastien Giguere). Only one played in the role of a skater – Philadelphia Flyers right wing Reggie Leach, who was the talk of the 1976 Stanley Cup playoffs even though the Montreal Canadiens beat his Flyers team in the Final.
Unlike his longtime Philadelphia linemates Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber, Leach is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame. An argument could be made for his inclusion, but his greatness did not endure as long as most Hall of Famers’ success. In fact, Leach’s real Hall of Fame numbers all came in the same year.
Leach was unstoppable in 1975-76, leading the NHL with 61 goals in 80 regular-season games. In the 1976 playoffs, he took it up a notch, setting a single-year goal-scoring record that has been tied but never surpassed in 47 seasons since.
We’re talking, of course, about Leach’s 19 goals in 16 playoff games during the Flyers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. Philadelphia won a seven-game series over Toronto and beat Boston in five games before falling to the vaunted Canadiens in a four-game sweep that ended the Flyers’ two-year hold on the Cup.
Consider what Leach did in the 1976 playoffs. In the opening series against Toronto, he scored six goals in seven games. Against Boston, he had nine goals in five games, and he had four more in losing to Montreal. Included in that run was a five-goal game in the series-ending victory over Boston on May 6. That offensive outburst tied the NHL record. Still one of only five players to score five goals in a playoff game, Leach is the only one not in the Hall of Fame.
Even more impressive than the five-goal game was an NHL record 10-game playoff goal-scoring streak. He started the streak on April 17 in Game 3 of the opening series against Toronto. He did not fail to score a goal again until Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 11. Over the 10-game streak, Leach scored a total of 15 goals. In the streak’s final game on May 9, he became the first player since 1919 to reach 17 goals in one playoff year.
It's also worth noting that Leach opened the scoring in five of the Flyers’ 16 games in 1976. Given how important the first goal of a game can be, Leach played an outsized role in his team’s success that year.
- Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche, 1996
Playoff Games: 22
Awards: 1996 Conn Smythe Trophy
In 2022, Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Sakic earned a Stanley Cup ring as the Colorado Avalanche’s General Manager, adding to the two he won as a player for the Avalanche. Sakic has enjoyed so much success in the executive ranks that it’s almost too easy to forget how great he was as a player. Anyone with that concern need look no further than the 1996 playoffs.
As team captain, Sakic was the driving force behind Colorado’s first Stanley Cup championship in 1996. He played the greatest hockey of his NHL career throughout the 1995-96 season and playoffs, putting up numbers that dwarfed most of his other great years.
After scoring a career-high 51 goals, 69 assists, and 120 points in the regular season, Sakic took it up a notch in the playoffs, starting with the Avs’ first round series vs. Vancouver, which ended in six games.
Sakic scored at least one goal in five of the six games against the Canucks and had a hat trick in Game 5, where his OT goal enabled Colorado to take a 3-2 series lead. He finished the series with seven goals and 11 points, including two game-winning goals
In Round 2 against Chicago, Sakic again scored in five games of a six-game series, including a two-goal performance in Game 4 at Chicago. The goal-scoring cooled off a bit in a Western Conference Final showdown with Detroit, but Sakic still managed 10 points in the six-game series that ended Detroit’s record-setting, 62-win season. Sakic had at least a point in every game against the Wings.
A four-game sweep of the upstart Florida Panthers made the Stanley Cup Final rather anticlimactic. Sakic had a goal and four assists in the four games, with all four assists coming on the power play and his lone goal the Game 3 winner.
When the playoffs ended, Sakic had a career-high 18 goals on 98 shots and a career-high 34 points. There was no question that the soft-spoken Sakic had made his statement on the ice and deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
- Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1991
Playoff Games: 23
Awards: 1991 Conn Smythe Trophy
Mario Lemieux, one of the three or four greatest players in NHL history, is the only player to win back-to-back honors as the MVP of the playoffs. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in both 1991 and 1992 as the heart and soul of the early 1990s Pittsburgh Penguins dynasty. Over the last 40 years as a team captain and team owner, his name has become synonymous with the Penguins brand.
Coming out of the 1991 playoffs as Stanley Cup champions was no slam dunk for Lemieux and the Penguins. They ended the 1990-91 regular season only eight games above .500 and barely managed to claim first place in a weak Patrick Division. Six other NHL teams had better regular-season showings then the Pens, who were hardly favored to emerge as champions.
Lemieux had spent most of his first seven NHL seasons in the shadow of Wayne Gretzky. Although he was clearly the NHL’s second-best player, he needed to prove he could win, which he finally did in 1991.
But it wasn’t easy. In 1991, the Penguins became the only Stanley Cup champion in NHL history to lose Game 1 in each of their four playoff series. The postseason got off to a rough start in a seven-game series with the New Jersey Devils that could have gone either way. New Jersey led the series 3-2 before Lemieux rallied the Penguins to wins Games 6 on the road and Game 7 at home. He finished the first round with eight points in seven games but was just warming up at that point.
In the second round, Lemieux had two goals and seven assists in a five-game series with Washington. That set the stage for the next two rounds where Super Mario absolutely dominated. In the six-game Eastern Conference Final vs. Boston, Lemieux scored six goals and 15 points. In the Stanley Cup Final vs. an underdog Minnesota North Stars team, he had five goals and 12 points in seven games.
Highlights of Lemieux’s playoff run included a 10-game assist streak, 20 power-play points, and a 15-game point streak. Had Lemieux not missed Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final vs. Minnesota due to back spasms, he would have tied the NHL record for the longest playoff point streak, because he returned to the lineup and stretched his personal streak to 18 games, which would have equaled Bryan Trottier’s mark from 1981. However, the league refuses to recognize a point streak interrupted by injury.
Incredibly, Lemieux scored at least one point in 22 of his 23 playoff games in 1991. He had 14 multi-point games. He had 28 assists in a single playoff year, exceeded only by Gretzky in that statistic. He also had 44 points – three short of Gretzky’s NHL record.
Lemieux is the only player other than Gretzky to reach 40 points in a playoff year. When he won the Conn Smythe again in 1992, he had a mere 34 points, which shows just how special his 1991 run was.
- Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers, 1985
Playoff Games: 18
Awards: 1985 Conn Smythe Trophy
Yes, the time has come to honor the Great One. Wayne Gretzky could probably be named the greatest player in NHL history based on his playoff performances alone. His 382 career playoff points are almost 100 more than runner-up Mark Messier, and he also holds career records for playoff goals and assists – just like the regular-season records he holds in those categories.
Gretzky posted four of the five greatest scoring years in Stanley Cup playoffs history, but none was greater than his performance in 1985, when the 24-year-old Oilers captain led his team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup.
In 18 playoff games, Gretzky set the single-season playoff record of 47 points as the Oilers rolled to a 15-3 record at a time when the first-round series were a best-of-5 rather than a best-of 7.
It began with a three-game sweep of the Kings in that opening best-of-5. Gretzky had points in all three games, but did not score any goals. In the second round against Winnipeg – another Oilers sweep – he extended his points streak to seven games, finishing the four-game series with six goals and 13 points, including two shorthanded goals.
In the six-game conference final against Chicago, Gretzky erupted for multi-point performances in every game except Game 3, when he was held off the scoresheet for the only time in the 1985 playoffs. He had three four-point games and two three-point games against the Hawks, setting an NHL record with 14 assists in one playoff series. That record stood for 37 years until another Edmonton Oilers star, Leon Draisaitl, broke it last year. Gretzky’s 18 points against Chicago were one short of the NHL playoff series record set by Boston’s Rick Middleton in 1983.
The Oilers needed only five games to eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers from the 1985 Stanley Cup Final, but that was enough time for Gretzky to add seven goals and 11 points to his scoring totals, including a hat trick in Game 3. His 30 total assists in the series were a record he later broke himself with 31 in 1988, when he won his second Conn Smythe Trophy.
Another remarkable thing about Gretzky’s 1985 point total is that only 15 percent of those 47 points came on power-play opportunities. By contrast, Mario Lemieux got 45 percent of his 44-point playoff performance in 1991 from power plays.
It is hard to imagine anyone ever dominating the playoffs in any sport in the way Gretzky during his heyday in the 1980s.
Parameters of Rankings
Multiple factors were taken into consideration when compiling this list. Statistical performance and record-setting years were the most important categories for a player to make the top 10. Conn Smythe Trophy winners (i.e. playoff MVPs) and those who played on Cup-winning teams were given priority over others, but only if the statistics merited it. Finally, the greatness of each performance was considered in terms of the relative unlikelihood of it ever happening again.
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