The Edmonton Oilers are heading back to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
OK, sure, they haven’t clinched a spot quite yet. But the math will work itself out. Barring some sort of epic late collapse, they’re going to be back in the playoffs after a long absence. And they’ll have some company. While nobody has an active playoff drought as long as Edmonton’s, we’re also going to see teams like the Blue Jackets, Bruins and maybe even the Maple Leafs return to the postseason after a few years away.
That’s the good news, as far as those teams are concerned. The bad news is that when teams get back to the playoffs after several seasons on the sidelines, they typically make quick exits. That’s just the nature of a league where we’re constantly told that teams need to learn how to win. That first loss is a necessary step. You show up, you get your behind handed to you, and you regroup for a longer run next year. That’s just how it works.
Well, most of the time. But every now and then, a team will skip the whole “just happy to be here” phase and returns to the playoffs with guns blazing. Maybe it’s an all-time classic series, or maybe it’s a deep playoff run. Maybe it’s even both.
That’s what Oiler fans will be hoping for. So today, as we get ready for Edmonton’s long-awaited return to the post-season, let’s look back at five teams that ended an extended playoff absence with a bang.
Edmonton Oilers, 1997
If we’re going to pump the tires of Oilers fans, we may as well start with one of the most entertaining first-round series ever.
The 1996-97 edition of the Oilers made the playoffs for the first time since 1992, although they didn’t exactly kick the door down to get there. They managed 81 points, good for the seventh seed in the West and a first round matchup with the Dallas Stars. The Oilers went in as heavy underdogs – the Stars had finished with 104 points and were on the verge of ascending into the league’s elite tier of teams, including a Stanley Cup win in 1999.
But once the series arrived… well, even if you’re not an Oiler fan, you probably remember this one. Curtis Joseph stood on his head while posting a pair of shutouts, and the series went to a deciding seventh game in Dallas. That’s where Joseph made one of the most famous saves of a generation, diving across to rob Joe Nieuwendyk (and eliciting a classic “OH MY GOODNESS” from Bob Cole). Seconds later, Todd Marchant blew by Grant Ledyard to score the winner and complete the upset.
That’s pretty much where the good news ends for the Oilers; they lost in the next round and then were knocked out by the Stars in five of the next six seasons. But you could argue it was all worth it, in exchange for what remains to this day one of the most famous sequences in sudden death history.
Calgary Flames, 2004
Sticking in Alberta, we can’t talk about ending a playoff drought with an exclamation point without mentioning the 2003-04 Flames. Calgary hadn’t made the playoffs since 1996, and they hadn’t won a round since the 1989 final. But after new GM Darryl Sutter remade the roster, they finished with 94 points, good enough for third in the Northwest and a sixth seed in the Western Conference.
That drew a matchup with the Vancouver Canucks. And for the third straight time, that particular pairing produced a Game 7 overtime. This one came after Vancouver tied the deciding game with a dramatic goal in the dying seconds, and ended with Martin Gelinas scoring the winner to send the Flames into the second round.
The run didn’t end there, as Gelinas scoring series winners became a bit of a thing. He knocked out the top-seeded Red Wings with another overtime goal, then had the winner against the Sharks in the conference final. Calgary fans would argue that he had the winner in the Cup final too, but the officials had other ideas, and the Flames’ miracle run ended one game short of a championship.
Chicago Blackhawks, 2009
Five years after snapping their own drought, the Flames were on the other end when the Blackhawks did the same. Chicago hadn’t made the postseason since 2002 (and had missed for nine out of ten years altogether), but seemed to be on the verge of something special with a young core built around Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
The Hawks drew the fifth-seed Flames in the opening round, and the first playoff game played in Chicago in seven years went to overtime. The hometown fans didn’t have to wait long.
The Blackhawks won the series in six, then went on to knock off the Canucks in six more to advance to the conference final. That’s where the ride ended, as the veteran Red Wings put an end to the young Blackhawks’ run. But a year later, they’d be back, and this time they’d be ready to finish the job.
Montreal Canadiens, 2002
The turn-of-the-century Canadiens were the first in franchise history to miss the playoffs in consecutive years since the 1920s. They sat out three straight postseasons, and by 2002 a franchise that hadn’t gone more than seven years without a Stanley Cup since the 1940s found themselves having won only a single round since their last title in 1993.
The 2001-02 edition barely got in, edging out the Capitals by two points for the eighth and final spot in the East to set up a first round matchup with the top-seed Bruins. But the Canadiens pulled off the upset, riding the goaltending of Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore and big performances by a mish-mash roster featuring serviceable veterans like Donald Audette, Richard Zednick and Yanic Perreault.
The run ended in Round 2 with a loss to the Hurricanes, and the Canadiens were out of the playoffs again the following year. But the series win was the first of three in six years over the Bruins, reigniting a rivalry that could be headed for another chapter this season.
New Jersey Devils, 1988
We saved the best for the last.
The 1987-88 Devils were looking to snap a playoff drought of… well, forever. Literally, the Devils had never made the postseason in their history despite playing in an era where 16 of 21 teams got an invitation. That’s the kind of thing that gets you called a “Mickey Mouse organization” by Wayne Gretzky.
But that 1987-88 team finally broke through, sort of, shattering the previous team record of 64 points in a season to hit the 80-point mark with one game to go. That last regular season game would need to be a win, and it was, with John MacLean potting the dramatic winner in overtime to send the team to its first playoff appearance ever.
That would have been a pretty cool story on its own. But as it turns out, things were just getting started. The Devils went on to upset the Islanders in the first round and the Capitals in the second, making one of the most unlikely conference finals trips in memory. That set up a meeting with the Bruins, and it turned out to be one that introduced hockey fans to the phrase “have another donut.”
Mix in a hastily arranged court hearing, a wildcat officials’ strike, some bright yellow sweaters and one disappearing league president, and you had one of the most bizarre playoff series in pro sports history. The Bruins ultimately won in seven, ending one of the greatest Cinderella storylines of a generation.
Could one of this year’s drought teams match the Devils’ run? Lord, let’s hope not. But we’ll keep the pastries away from the referees, just in case.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.