Well, at least the Senators came through. While the Ducks couldn’t stave off elimination in Monday’s Game 6 loss to the Predators, the Senators managed to extend their series with the Penguins with Tuesday night’s win. That means we’ll at least get one Game 7 out of this year’s conference finals.
So to celebrate, let’s count down the five most memorable conference final Game 7s, dating back to the introduction of the four-round format back in 1975. Here’s hoping the Pens and Sens can deliver something that will push for a spot on this list when they meet Thursday night.
No. 5: Devils vs. Senators, 2003
Here’s a secret about the 2003 conference final showdown between the Devils and the Senators: It was for the Stanley Cup.
Nobody wanted to say that out loud at the time; it would have been bad form. But the Senators had posted the league’s best regular season record, while the Devils had finished fourth overall. With all of the other contenders already eliminated, Ottawa and New Jersey were playing for the right to face the upstart Mighty Ducks in the final. And while Paul Kariya and friends were a great story, nobody gave them much of a chance against either the Senators or Devils.
So this series really did feel like it was for the championship. And the two teams put on a show worthy of those stakes, with the Devils taking a 3-1 series lead before the Senators roared back to force a seventh game thanks to a Chris Phillips overtime winner in Game 6. That set up a deciding game back in Ottawa, and it lived up to the hype. The teams traded goals, Martin Brodeur and Patrick Lalime traded big saves, and we were all tied at 2-2 late in the third.
And then, with overtime looming, it all fell apart for Ottawa thanks to a broken coverage on a harmless-looking rush.
Jeff Friesen’s goal held up as the winner, and New Jersey moved on. Those Mighty Ducks turned out to be a tougher opponent than most of us expected, stretching the final to seven games. But the Devils prevailed, capturing their third Cup and leaving Senators fans to agonize over how close they’d come.
No. 4: Wings vs. Avalanche, 2002
Typically, whenever you’re putting together a list of the most memorable games, you’re going to wind up focusing on the close ones. That just makes sense. There’s nothing better than a Game 7 nail-biter, and if it happens to go into overtime, even better.
But every now and then, a game can be memorable for different reasons. That was the case in 2002, when the Wings and Avalanche met in what was the only Game 7 matchup of their historic rivalry. The series had already been packed with highlights, including three overtime games and Patrick Roy’s infamous Statue of Liberty gaffe in a tight Game 6. And like with the Devils-Senators game, there was a relative lightweight waiting in the final – this time, the Hurricanes – making this feel like a de facto Cup final.
It all set the stage for a seventh game showdown that you just knew was going to go down as one of the greatest games ever.
And then, instead, we got this:
To this day, the game remains completely inexplicable. Arguably the best big-game goalie in hockey history wet the bed, the most heated rivalry of modern times went out with a whimper, and one of the biggest games of the Dead Puck Era was decided by a touchdown. The conference finals wouldn’t see another blowout so lopsided until this week’s Senators-Penguins massacre.
None of it made any sense, but you have to admit it was memorable. Nobody who watched it can say they’ve forgotten it since.
No. 3: Kings vs. Blackhawks, 2014
By the time the Kings and Blackhawks took the ice for Game 7 of the 2014 Western Conference final, they’d raised expectations to almost impossible heights. The series was already a classic, and Game 5 had featured one of the greatest periods in NHL history.
So what do the two best teams in hockey do for an encore? How about some Game 7 overtime?
The game featured plenty of goals, including five in the first period alone. The Blackhawks took three leads, only to have the Kings claw back each time, including Marian Gaborik’s goal late in the third to send the game to sudden death.
This time, the overtime lasted just over five minutes, ending on a seeing-eye point shot from Alec Martinez.
Admittedly, the winning goal wasn’t exactly a classic. But the game itself certainly was, and the fact that it came in the middle of the two teams combining for five Cups in six years only adds to the drama. If anything, there’s a good case to be made that this game should rank even higher. Maybe it will some day; for now, it’s still too recent to really settle into a consensus place in history.
No. 2: Ranger vs. Devils, 1994
There are two things about this game that every hockey fan remembers: Mark Messier’s guaranteed win in Game 6 that set the stage for a seventh game back at MSG, and the immortal overtime goal that ended it.
That’s more than enough to get the game onto our list. But what a lot of hockey fans (at least those outside of New York and New Jersey) may not remember is a third moment: The Devils actually sent the game into overtime with a dramatic goal with just seconds left on the clock. That moment stunned the MSG crowd – you can actually hear a handful of fans screaming in horror when it goes in – and turned what seemed like a dramatic 1-0 Rangers win into a gut-wrenching double overtime marathon.
In the end, Devils fans may wish the game had just ended in regulation; at least they wouldn’t have to go through life feeling violently ill every time Matteau’s name is mentioned. But the fact that the Rangers went on to win the Cup that season while the Devils captured three of their own over the next eight years ensures that this game has a place in history.
No. 1: Canadiens vs. Bruins, 1979
Most games can be summed up by a goal, or maybe a big save or game-changing hit. This one is remembered for a penalty: Too many men.
That’s the call that may well have cost Don Cherry and the Bruins a Stanley Cup. The 1979 Prince of Wales final saw the 115-point Canadiens hosting the 100-point Bruins, with a Rangers team Cherry later called “a piece of cake” waiting in the final. The game featured arguably the greatest rivalry of the modern era, the Bruins were trying to drive a stake through a Montreal dynasty, and it was all played out at the most famous arena in the world.
Other than that, not much going on here.
And yet, somehow, the game itself lived up to expectations and beyond. The two teams delivered a back-and-forth game, one the Bruins were leading 3-1 through two periods. The Canadiens stormed back to tie it, but Rick Middleton’s goal with four minutes left in the third gave Boston the lead. As the clock ticked down, it looked like Cherry’s Bruins were really going to pull it off, ending the Habs’ streak of Cup wins and silencing the Forum faithful.
And then, this.
Every fan knows the next three moments. The Bruins get caught for too-many-men. Guy Lafleur ties it on the ensuing power play. And Yvon Lambert tips one past Gilles Gilbert to win it.
The Canadiens went on to roll over the Rangers, winning the Stanley Cup in five games. The game marked perhaps the greatest moment in the rivalry’s history, and set Cherry on the road to a colorful broadcasting career. And it tops our list as the most memorable Game 7 in NHL conference final history.
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.