NHL fans are starting to get a little bit spoiled when it comes to the conference finals. This year’s two matchups have featured plenty of star power, several close games, and more than a little drama. And for the third consecutive year, both series are going at least six games.
That might not sound all that impressive, but it’s actually a relatively rare situation in the modern era. Until 2014, it hadn’t happened at all in the salary cap era. And it wasn’t much more common before that. For example, it happened only once during the dynasty-packed 80s, as teams like the Islanders and Oilers (or both) could often be found cruising through a weaker opponent on their way to the final.
So today, let’s look back at some of the best conference finals, dating back to the introduction of the 16-team format in 1980. Remember, we’re looking for the best combination of two series, meaning some all-time classic series (like Leafs/Kings in 1993 and Devils/Rangers in 1994) won’t show up here because the other conference served up a dud.
Here are my picks for the five best years for the NHL’s final four:
In the East: Lightning over Rangers in seven. The Rangers were the defending conference champs and looked dominant in blowout wins in Games 4 and 6, but the Lightning went into MSG and shut them out in Games 5 and 7 to advance to the final.
And in the West: Blackhawks over Ducks in seven. Through five games, this was one of the best series in recent memory, including six extra periods of overtime hockey. Then the Hawks pulled away with dominant wins in Games 6 and 7, cementing yet another Ducks late-series collapse.
Add it all up: This is one of only two times in the history of the modern format that both conference finals went seven games, so it pretty much has to be on the list. Neither series will be remembered as an all-time classic a decade down the line, but both were very good despite somewhat anti-climactic endings.
In the East: Hurricanes over Maple Leafs in six. This was the Leafs’ fourth trip to the conference finals in a decade (and, in hindsight, their last for a very long time). The two teams combined for three overtime games, and all but one game in the series was decided by one goal. In the deciding Game 6, the Leafs tied the game on a dramatic goalmouth scramble in the dying seconds, only to lose the series on a Martin Gelinas OT winner.
And in the West: Red Wings over Avalanche in seven. The series was everything you’d expect, featuring three overtime games and a dramatic Game 6 win by the Red Wings that featured the infamous Statue of Liberty goal. That set the stage for a dramatic Game 7, the only one played between the two teams over the course of their storied rivalry. And that game was an epic dud – a 7-0 Wings win that stands as one of the worst Game 7s ever.
Add it all up: Both series provided plenty of drama, and while the Wings/Avalanche Game 7 was a bust, it was certainly memorable.
In the East: Panthers over Penguins in seven. If you love scrappy underdog stories, this was the series for you. If you like offensive hockey, not so much. I’ve made the argument that it was this series, not the commonly cited Devils Cup win in 1995, that signaled the start of the Dead Puck era, as the underpowered Panthers and a red hot John Vanbiesbrouck managed to clutch-and-grab their way to a win over a Penguins team stacked with Hall of Famers. That said, the series itself was reasonably good despite a lack of overtime, and Florida’s David vs. Goliath run was hard not to root for at the time.
And in the West: Avalanche over Red Wings in six. This was ground zero for what may well stand as the greatest rivalry in hockey history. Detroit came in as the heavy favorite, having racked up an NHL record 62 regular season wins. But they’d only barely survived against the Blues thanks to Steve Yzerman, and the Avalanche took them out in six games. Of course, the most memorable moment came in Game 6. These two teams combined to win five of the next seven Cups.
Add it all up: You could make a strong case for this being the most historically significant conference finals of all-time, as the Dead Puck Era and the Wings/Avalanche rivalry would come to define hockey for the next decade.
In the East: Devils over Flyers in seven. With Philadelphia looking to wrap up the series with a Game 6 win in New Jersey, Flyers’ captain Eric Lindros made a dramatic return to the lineup from a concussion, scoring a goal and having another waved off. It wasn’t enough, as the Devils won to force Game 7. We all know what happened that night: the crushing Scott Stevens check that cemented his reputation as the game’s most feared hitter, ended Lindros’s career in Philadelphia, and is still debated 16 years later. The Devils won the game, and went on to win the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.
And in the West: Stars over Avalanche in seven. In a battle between two of the era’s greatest goaltenders, Patrick Roy and the Avalanche faced Eddie Belfour and the defending Cup champion Dallas Stars. The series was packed with future Hall of Famers, four on each team. That included Ray Bourque, who’d arrived in Colorado in a trade deadline deal designed to give him a shot at his first career Stanley Cup. He’d get it, but he had to wait a year – the Stars held on for a seven-game win.
Add it all up: This is the only other case of both conference finals going seven games, and it delivered two star-studded series and one of the most dramatic moments in modern hockey history.
In the East: Rangers over Canadiens in six. This series will be best remembered for the injury suffered by Carey Price in a Game 1 collision with Chris Kreider. The scene wasn’t a completely unfamiliar one for Kreider, and it turned a classic goaltending matchup into a lopsided one in the Rangers’ favor. Combine that controversy with a decent series that featured a pair of overtime games and 1-0 nail-biter in the finale, and you had a memorable matchup.
And in the West: Kings over Blackhawks in seven. This was the second of back-to-back conference finals matchups between the two best teams of the era, and it lived up to the hype, serving up what many consider the greatest conference final matchup ever. Fittingly, it ended with Game 7 overtime. But that wasn’t even the series highlight. Instead, that would have been a Game 5 overtime in which the two teams threw off the shackles and went end-to-end, at one point playing for eight straight minutes without a whistle. It was, quite possible, the greatest overtime ever.
Add it all up: The Rangers/Habs series was very good, but 2014 takes the top spot based on the Hawks/Kings matchup. If you ever have 25 minutes to convert a non-fan into a hockey diehard, show them that Game 5 overtime.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.