Ranking the Most Thrilling Stanley Cup Playoff Races in NHL History
As this lockout-shortened NHL season winds to a close, there are close and intense races for the final playoff spots in both the Eastern and Western Conferences.
With that in mind, here is a look back at the top 10 most thrilling races in Stanley Cup playoff history.
These races were close and down to the final game of the season. They involved two or sometimes more teams fighting for that last spot and are often settled by following tiebreaking formulas.
Please feel free to mention any races you feel belong on this list that were left out. There are so many to choose from, so I tried to pick very close races. If there was some historical significance to that race, that tended to make it ranked higher. If you do mention one that didn't make the list, please say why you feel it belongs.
10. 1994-95 Western Conference
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We begin with 1994-95, the last 48-game labor-shortened NHL season.
In the Western Conference, the race for the final two playoff spots went down to the wire.
The San Jose Sharks nailed down the No. 7 seed with 42 points and 19 wins while the Dallas Stars squeaked into the eighth and final playoff spot with 42 points and 17 wins.
Just missing the postseason that year were ninth-place Los Angeles with 41 points and 10th place Winnipeg with 39.
The last two playoff seeds were determined on the season's final day. The Kings lost to Chicago, 5-1, in the last game and fell to ninth place after San Jose tied Vancouver, 3-3, to jump into seventh.
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The Original Six Era lasted from 1942 to 1967. During that time, there were only six teams in the NHL and four of them made the playoffs, but that didn't stop some races for the playoffs from going down to the wire.
In 1958-59, the New York Rangers were comfortably in fourth place as the season entered its final few games. In fact, with five games left on the schedule, New York was ahead of Toronto by by seven points. But the Rangers slumped and went 1-6-0 in their final seven games while the fifth-place Toronto Maple Leafs won their last five games of the season.
In the season finale, Montreal beat the Rangers, 4-2, behind the goaltending of rookie Charlie Hodge while the Leafs overcame an early 3-0 deficit to beat Detroit, 6-4, and pass the Rangers by one point in the standings.
Toronto not only made the playoffs, it upset the Bruins in seven games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final that year where the team lost to Montreal in five games.
8. 1970 Western Division
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It looked like the Philadelphia Flyers had all but clinched the final West Division playoff spot in 1969-70 as the season headed into its final few games, but it wasn't meant to be,.
The Flyers slumped down the stretch, losing their final six games, including back-to-back 1-0 losses to St. Louis and Minnesota in their last two contests.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Seals went 3-2-2 in their last seven games to tie the Flyers in the standings with 58 points. The Seals qualified for the postseason because they had more wins than Philadelphia did.
The race actually involved three teams competing for the final two spots as the Minnesota North Stars finished third in the West with 60 points, just two points ahead of both Oakland and Philadelphia.
For what it was worth, both the Seals and the North Stars lost in the opening round of the playoffs.
7. 1996-97 Eastern Conference
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In 1996-97, four teams in the Eastern Conference were chasing the final two playoff spots.
The final two spots were eventually won by the Senators and Canadiens, who both finished the season with 77 points.
Both the Washington Capitals and Hartford Whalers fell just short and finished the season with 75 points.
It was the Senators who rallied down the stretch to claim their first playoff berth since rejoining the league in 1992. Ottawa went 10-4-2 in its final 16 games and beat Buffalo, 1-0, in the last game of the regular season to claim the final playoff berth.
The Caps made a late rally, winning their final three games of the season, but it was too little, too late.
The Whalers lost key road games to the Senators and Islanders before winning their season finale, 2-1, at the Hartford Civic Center. It was to be the last game the club ever played as the Whalers. The following fall, they moved south to become the Carolina Hurricanes.
Ottawa and Montreal both lost in the first round of the playoffs.
6. 1987-88 Patrick Division
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1987-88 was a season of firsts for the New Jersey Devils. It was the first winning season in franchise history and the first time that the team ever qualified for the playoffs.
It all came down to the final night of the regular season. The Rangers and Devils were tied in the standings for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Patrick Division.
The Rangers shutout Quebec, 3-0, which meant that the Devils were in a must-win situation in Chicago. The Blackhawks led 3-2 in the third period when John MacLean scored to tie the game and send it into overtime.
Two minutes into overtime, MacLean scored again and New Jersey was playoff bound because it finished the regular season with one more win than the Rangers.
The Devils went on a long playoff run, upsetting both the Islanders and Capitals before falling to the Bruins in a thrilling, seven-game Eastern Conference Final.
5. 1995-96 Western Conference
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The 1995-96 Western Conference playoff race was one of the closest ever. Six teams were in a very close race for the last five playoff spots in the conference.
In the end, the Maple Leafs finished fourth in the conference with 80 points, winning a tiebreaker with fifth-place St. Louis who also finished with 80 points.
Sixth place belonged to Calgary with 79 points, while Vancouver finished in seventh with 79 points but had fewer wins than the Flames.
The Winnipeg Jets grabbed the final playoff spot in the conference with 78 points by finishing the season with one more win than Anaheim, who also finished with 78 points.
It was the Jets' last season in Winnipeg as they moved to Arizona the following season to become the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Jets were eliminated by the Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs.
4. 1971-72 West Division
After the "Second Six" joined the NHL in 1967, the league was divided into two divisions, the East and West.
In 1972, the West had a crazy playoff race that went down to the final day of the season. The top four teams in each division qualified for the playoffs, and four teams were fighting for the final two spots.
It literally came down to the final seconds of the season. The Flyers needed a win or a tie in their final game of the season against Buffalo to clinch a playoff berth. Buffalo's Gerry Meehan scored on Doug Favell with just four seconds left in the game to give Buffalo a win and send the Flyers to the golf course early.
In the end, the Blues finished in third place with 67 points, followed by the Penguins and Flyers who each had 66 points. Pittsburgh ended up claiming the final playoff spot on a tiebreaker. Because the two teams split the season series, Pittsburgh won the final spot because it had scored more goals than Philadelphia. The California Golden Seals lost their final six games of the season and finished in sixth place with 60 points.
3. 2001-02 Western Conference
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Only seven points separated the third-place San Jose Sharks (99) from the ninth-place Edmonton Oilers (92) during the 2001-02 Western Conference playoff race.
The Oilers were the odd team out, finishing with 92 points, just two shy of eighth-place Vancouver.
Edmonton had traded captain Doug Weight the previous summer. The Oilers slumped badly midseason after a strong start but a late March, early April nine-game unbeaten streak (8-0-1) put them back in contention.
A 2-0 loss to archrival Calgary in the season's next-to-last game ended up costing Edmonton a playoff berth.
As for the eighth-place Canucks, they lost in the opening round of the playoffs to the Red Wings in six games.
2. 2009-10 Eastern Conference
In 2010, the race for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs came down to the final round of a shootout between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers.
The winner of the shootout qualified for the postseason; the loser hit the golf course.
The Rangers made a late run for a playoff spot, going 7-1-2 down the stretch to pull close to the Flyers. The teams played each other in the final two games of the regular season in a home-and-home series. New York took the first game at Madison Square Garden, 4-3, setting up a do-or-die regular-season finale in Philadelphia two days later.
That game went to a shootout with the winner advancing to the playoffs.
Daniel Briere opened the shootout with a goal to put the Flyers ahead early. Erik Christensen was up first for the Rangers, but goalie Brian Boucher forced him to shoot wide.
The second round opened with Mike Richards shooting, but Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist made the save. P.A. Parenteau was up next for the Rangers, and he tied the shootout by lifting the puck over Boucher's pads.
Claude Giroux opened the third round by beating Lundqvist in the five-hole and putting the Flyers up 2-1. The Rangers then needed Olli Jokinen to tie the score and keep their season alive, but Boucher got his pad on it and clinched the playoff spot for Philadelphia.
1. 1970 NHL East Division
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In 1970, the East Division of the NHL had one of the strangest and closest playoff races in NHL history.
The Rangers entered the final game of the regular season trailing Montreal by two points. But New York had to not only win its last game and have Montreal lose, but it needed to finish the season with more goals scored than the Habs to win a tiebreaker. Montreal had a five-goal advantage as the two teams started their final contests.
On April 5, 1970, the Rangers hosted the Detroit Red Wings in a matinee in desperate need of a blowout win. They came out determined and fired 65 shots on goal in a 9-5 win over Detroit. Late in the game, Rangers coach Emile Francis pulled goalie Eddie Giacomin in an attempt to score even more goals although that tactic did not work.
That night, Montreal was in Chicago. Because of the Rangers' nine-goal output earlier in the day, all the Habs needed to do to qualify for the playoffs was score five goals.
Montreal trailed 5-2 early in the third period, so it pulled goalie Rogie Vachon in an attempt to score three more times. The tactic backfired, and Chicago went on to win the game, 10-2.
The Rangers reached the playoffs while Montreal missed the postseason for the first time since 1948-49.