If the Chicago Blackhawks win the 2010 Stanley Cup – or even if the Philadelphia Flyers come back to grab the mug – this will go down as one of the most entertaining Stanley Cup Finals ever. In fact, since the NHL expanded in 1967, I would put this year’s series squarely in the top 5 of most exciting Stanley Cup Finals. Oh, over those 43 years, there have been great games, back-and-forth, seven-game series, incredible moments and goals and saves. But I’m talking about top-to-bottom, front-to-back great series with great stories and great games and great personalities. Here are my top 5 Stanley Cup Finals since 1967.
1. Edmonton v. Philadelphia, 1987. This series had absolutely everything. It had the best players in the game in Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. It had a brash rookie goaltender named Ron Hextall. The defending-champion Oilers took a three games-to-one series lead. But Mike Keenan’s Flyers were a highly motivated bunch and won Games 5 and 6. Game Four, at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, featured an over-emotional Hextall. Pretending to be Paul Bunyan, “Haxtall” treated Kent Nilsson’s legs like they were an Eastern white pine. The teams absolutely hated each other (based on a less-than-friendly ’85 Final) and it showed. It wasn’t until Oilers’ Glenn Anderson fired a long one past Hextall with 2:24 remaining in Game Seven that the series was decided. Unforgettable.
2. NY Rangers v. Vancouver, 1994. For years, Rangers’ fans had been whining about the fact that the club’s last championship had come way back in 1940. Could this be the year? The Canucks won Game One, but Mike Keenan’s Rangers stormed back with three straight wins, including two in Vancouver. Game Four featured Rangers’ netminder Mike Richter stopping Canucks’ speedster Pavel Bure on a penalty shot. But Pat Quinn’s Canucks forced a Game Seven, that featured a wild scramble at the finish. Madison Square Garden erupted and the Broadway Blueshirts had their first Cup in 54 years.
3. Chicago v. Philadelphia, 2010. I cannot think of a single thing this series hasn’t had already – and it’s only five games old! Great goaltending performances (Niemi in G2) and horrible ones (Niemi, Leighton and Boucher in G1 and G5). Chris Pronger’s big mouth – and his equally big play – until last night, perhaps. And the key to any great Stanley Cup-Playoff series – emotion. The Blackhawks’ fans…the Flyers’ fans…Philly enforcer Dan Carcillo…did I mention the fans? If it goes seven, it could move to number one on the list.
4. Montreal v. Chicago, 1971. The Canadiens were following up an opening-round shocker. They defeated the offensively stratospheric Boston Bruins – Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Wayne Cashman – in seven games. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they had super rookie Ken Dryden in goal. In the ’71 SCF, Billy Reay’s Black Hawks won the first two games at home. Then Montreal won twice at The Forum. Game Six featured Hawks’ future Hall-of-Famer Tony Esposito stopping Frank Mahovlich on a penalty-shot attempt. It came down to Game Seven and, at the original Madhouse on Madison – Chicago Stadium, Les Canadiens and Henri Richard defeated the Hawks. Dryden won the Conn Smythe. What a series!
5. NY Islanders v. Philadelphia, 1980. This was a great series for several reasons. That season, Pat Quinn’s Flyers had gone on a 35-game undefeated streak. It’s a record that still stands today. The Islanders were a group of superstars – Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies – who had never won anything. The Islanders set the tone in Game One as Potvin scored the winning goal in overtime…on a power play! Unheard of at the time. In fact, the Islanders set a Stanley Cup record with fifteen power-play goals in that series. And, of course, when a series ends with an overtime Cup-winning goal – “Bob Nystrom scores the goal! The Islanders win the Stanley Cup! – it’s an instant classic.
You may have other series in mind, but those are my five. Sure hope Game Six of Chicago/Philly lives up to the pressure we’ve just put on it.