To the serious hockey fan, the Stanley Cup playoffs are more important than holidays, wedding anniversaries and lifesaving surgeries. It’s one of the most intense tournaments in sports, and its lengthy history has produced countless amazing moments. These ten are the greatest of them all.
10. The Goal
The 1970 Cup Final was an uneventful series, as the favoured Boston Bruins breezed past the St. Louis Blues in the first three games before completing the sweep in a more competitive game four. But a single moment in this otherwise forgettable affair would prove to be among the greatest in NHL history—Bobby Orr’s goal in overtime of the deciding game produced the most iconic hockey photo ever taken.
The goal itself was weak, and neither Orr nor Glenn Hall, the goaltender, had any idea how it squeaked in. But the end result was magnificent—Orr’s look of excitement, Hall’s fall to the ice and the jubilant fans in the background captured all the emotion of the Stanley Cup in a single photo.
9. The Fog and the Bat Game
Not every hockey game is remembered for the hockey—game three of the 1975 Cup Final between the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres is famous for the oddities that occurred during play.
It began with a bat that got loose in the arena. Not content to just fly around in the rafters, the little guy went down to ice level and swooped over the heads of players. The Sabres’ Jim Lorentz, apparently not an animal lover, eventually smacked the bat out of the air with his stick, killing it.
Nature got its revenge minutes later as a heavy fog rolled over the ice, making it difficult for players to see what was going on, and obscuring the game from the fans completely. The match continued regardless, because who needs to see clearly when you’re only waving big sticks around and shooting hard rubber at each other, and the Sabres eventually won in overtime. But the Flyers would go on to take the series in six games, and the bat’s death is now seen as a curse that caused the Sabres’ defeat.
8. The Marathon Game
The 1990 Cup Final represented the end of a dynasty—the Edmonton Oilers had traded Wayne Gretzky, and this would prove to be their last shot at glory before the rest of the franchise’s stars drifted away. It was an opportunity they wouldn’t waste, as the Oilers defeated the Boston Bruins in five games for their fifth championship in seven years.
But this series is remembered for what happened in game one, which, at a length of 115 minutes and 13 seconds, is the longest in Final history. By the start of the third overtime period the Oilers were exhausted, and their coach resorted to sending out Petr Klima. Klima, a defector from Czechoslovakia, was a talented player; but he also had a reputation for being lazy and defensively weak, which was why he had spent the rest of the game on the bench.
Kilma’s fresh legs turned out to be the difference, as he scored the winning goal on just his second shift. It’s the most famous moment of his career, and his heroics set the tone for the Oilers’ last championship to date.
7. Mario Lemieux’s Greatest Play
Bobby Orr’s goal is remembered for its aftermath, but Mario Lemieux’s is famous for its execution. It occurred in game two of the 1991 Cup Final; Lemieux’s Penguins were down a game to the Minnesota North Stars, and they needed a win to avoid going to Minnesota in a two game hole. They got just what they wanted, skating to a convincing four to one victory that was headlined by one of the most dazzling goals in history.
Even if you’re not a hockey fan you’ve probably seen that goal before, as it’s a staple of highlight reels. A lot of hockey goals are scrappy, ugly things (especially in the playoffs), but Lemieux’s graceful tally summed up the disparity in talent between Mario and his opponents, a difference that allowed him to captain the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup victory, and be named MVP in the process.
6. The Best Cup Final
Most famous moments in sports are just that: mere moments. A single goal, blunder or weird event can, as we’ve already seen, define entire championships. But every once and a while there are victories that can’t be summed up in just one play—the 1987 Cup Final didn’t have any truly iconic moments, but it’s still considered one of the best series in playoff history.
Why? Well for starters, it occurred in the middle of the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty period. Gretzky and company were playing for their third Cup in four years, and they were up against a Philadelphia Flyers team they had beaten two seasons ago. The Flyers had gone down in just five games in 1985, but they had made improvements and were looking for revenge.
That provided a compelling storyline for a series between two evenly matched teams. Every game was a battle, with the Oilers’ remarkable offensive talent clashing against a determined Flyers squad led by goaltender Ron Hextall. Edmonton took a three games to one lead, but the Flyers would fight back to force the first game seven in a Final since 1971. Philadelphia led early in the climatic game, but the Oilers stormed back to win the Cup. Despite losing, Ron Hextall was named MVP for his heroic effort in goal, a testament to how hard fought the series was.
5. Ray Bourque’s Cup
In 2001 the Colorado Avalanche defeated the New Jersey Devils in seven games to win the Stanley Cup, but their championship will forever be associated with one man: Ray Bourque.
Bourque spent most of his career in Boston, where his 21 year tenure made him the franchise’s leader in numerous categories, including games played, points and years as captain. He led the Bruins to two Stanley Cup finals, and became popular for putting his dedication to Boston ahead of his bankbook, several times turning down the prospect of a salary increase in order to stay in the city.
Bourque helped make the Bruins a competitive team, but by 2000 their fortunes had changed and the club found themselves at the bottom of the standings. Bourque’s career was nearing its end and, desperate for a chance to win the Stanley Cup, he requested a trade. He was moved to Colorado, where the Avalanche made it to the Conference Final before losing in seven games.
Bourque came back for one final season and, barely showing his age, helped the Avalanche achieve victory. In honour of the veteran’s achievement, captain Joe Sakic eschewed tradition by letting Bourque take the first victory lap.
Of all the players to win the Stanley Cup, Bourque waited the longest, playing 1826 games before hoisting the trophy. It was an emotional moment for the entire league to witness the triumph of a man so talented and dedicated to the game.
4. Brett Hull’s “Goal”
The 1999 Stanley Cup Final had a little bit of everything: an underdog going up against a heavy favourite, a dramatic, triple overtime finish, and one of the most controversial calls in hockey history.
When Brett Hull put his own rebound past Dominik Hasek in the early morning of June 20th, it appeared the Dallas Stars had won the Cup in six games. But the Buffalo Sabres weren’t ready to concede defeat; they argued vehemently that Hull’s goal had broken the rules.
At the time, players weren’t allowed to be in the goal crease until the puck entered it, and Hull’s left skate had been in the blue paint when he scored. The rule, however, had an exception: if a player was in possession of the puck, he could enter the crease first.
The NHL claimed that Hull handling his own rebound constituted possession, and the goal stood. The Sabres were furious, and they had a point—goals like Hull’s had been disallowed all season long. They refused to leave their locker room for 20 minutes after the game ended, but their protests fell on deaf ears.
Most fans accepted the NHL’s logic, but others disputed the call and a few even felt a conspiracy was afoot, claiming the league only allowed the goal because they didn’t want to admit they were wrong and be forced to continue an already exhausting game. Whatever you believe, we can all agree it was a good decision to eliminate the draconian crease rule the following year.
3. Mark Messier’s Guaranteed Win
The playoffs put enough pressure on players as it is—the last thing any of them need is their captain placing their reputations on the line by promising the media a victory. But that’s exactly what Mark Messier did in 1994: his New York Rangers were down three games to two in the Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils, and the day before game six Messier told the sceptical New York press that he guaranteed the Rangers would win.
The Rangers went down two to nothing in the second period, and it looked like the doubters would be proven right. But then Messier assisted on a goal to close the gap before exploding for a hat trick in the third frame, helping the Rangers to victory in what remains one of the most remarkable individual performances the sport has seen.
To grasp the true significance of Messier’s promise, you must realise that in 1994 the Rangers held a reputation of playoff ineptitude. Fans thought they were cursed to never see success again—a not unreasonable belief, given New York’s performance in recent years. Messier keeping his promise gave fans a reason to believe in the Rangers, and their belief was rewarded—the Rangers would win game seven in a thrilling double overtime triumph before defeating the Vancouver Canucks in seven games for their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. Fittingly, Messier scored the Cup winning goal.
2. The Miraculous Comeback
We’re going way back into the history books for this one, but the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defeat of the Detroit Red Wings in 1942 for their fourth Stanley Cup victory is a landmark in the sport for two reasons. It was the first Final to go seven games, but more importantly it was the first time a team had come back from a three games to none deficit to win a series. It’s a remarkable feat that has only been accomplished twice since, and never again for a championship.
What makes it even more amazing is how it was accomplished. After losing the third game, Maple Leafs’ coach Hap Day benched his best defensemen and star forward, replacing them with a pair of rookies who had contributed almost nothing during the regular season. The move angered fans and appeared to be a white flag, an impression made stronger by the fact that halfway through game four the Leafs found themselves down two to nothing. But Toronto was somehow able to come back and win four to three, and the roster changes would remain in place for the next three games, where the Leafs outscored Detroit by a combined 15 to four tally on route to an improbable comeback. Hockey has changed a lot since 1942, but the sport has yet to see a greater reversal of fortune.
1. Two Dynasties Collide
As a series, the 1983 Cup Final was a rather dull affair—the New York Islanders swept the Edmonton Oilers in four lopsided games. A look at the bigger picture, however, shows that 1983 was a landmark year for the league.
The Islanders’ victory marked their fourth straight championship, the first franchise to accomplish this feat since the league expanded from six teams in 1967. No North American professional sports team has won four consecutive titles since, and no NHL team has managed more than two. The Islanders also set a record amongst all North American leagues with 19 straight playoff series victories, and the 1983 Cup marked the end of perhaps the greatest sports dynasty of the modern era.
It also marked a changing of the guard—the Oilers may have been swept, but their trip to the Final was a sign of things to come. They dominated the other teams they faced in the playoffs, averaging over six goals a game and losing just one match. Their defeat to the Islanders taught them valuable lessons, and the following season they would return to the Final and topple New York, winning their first of five championships over a seven year span. The Oilers were a great dynasty in their own right, and by showcasing both the end of one era and the beginning of another the 1983 Final is a unique part of hockey history.