The NHL has been blessed with a rich, storied history that includes amazing playoff series, remarkable dynasties and eternal champions. Every season, since helmet-less players' hair blew through the breeze and goalies wore masks that are now associated with slasher films, the ultimate goal of every team has been to get their name engraved into the Stanley Cup, forever etching themselves on the list of the eternally great.
To have your name on hockey's most coveted trophy, arguably the grandest award in all of North American sports, requires a great deal of skill, grit, tenacity and even a few missing teeth. Yet every year, the NHL Playoffs yield brand-new takers to the challenge, ready to sacrifice almost anything for that coveted imprint on monumental metal. It means that much.
But, to win the Finals, you have to get there first.
While the Stanley Cup Finals are hockey's closest equivalent to a Super Bowl, the Conference Finals are the necessary stepping stone in today's NHL. Formerly known as the Prince of Wales and Clarence Campbell Conferences, hockey's two-conference alignment simplified in 1994, renaming to the modern Eastern and Western Conferences.
Hockey has had numerous great series, but nothing compares to the mutual ire and pressure that combine to mark the Conference Finals. This is the series that marks the first championships of the hockey season, and it is fueled by familiarity and often contempt.
Following two grueling rounds of hockey against conference rivals (and possibly division foes), the Conference Finals can be as compelling as the championship round itself. The opponents are more familiar being from the same conference, the emotions can be even more intense having already played your opponent four to six times, and every player knows they are the last step on a journey that leads to the Finals of their beloved craft.
Unfortunately, the Conference Finals have been over quickly in each of the last few seasons. The Eastern Conference has seen a four-game and five-game rotation for four years (won most recently by Pennsylvania's Penguins and Flyers, respectively). The Western Conference hasn't seen a sixth game in its ultimate series in three seasons.
With both championships beginning this weekend, this seems like a great time to take a look back at the 10 best finals series since the inception of the current conferences. While the NHL's history spans back to days long before television, most fans are intimately familiar with the current Eastern and Western Conference format that the NHL adopted in 1994.
This countdown compiles series from the Eastern and Western Finals specifically.
While I'd love to have narrowed it down to 10 series that clearly stood out amongst the rest, there were a couple of best-of-seven's that missed the cut by the edge of a skate. Both series see Buffalo on the losing edge. Ironically, a city that usually finds itself on the outside looking in sees two heartbreaking losses miss the cut.
- 2006 EASTERN FINALS: Hurricanes Defeat Sabres 4-3
2006 marked the return of the NHL playoffs following the strike of hockey's 2004-05 season. While fans debated whether the Hurricanes and Sabres were popular enough to reestablish attention on the NHL, the two teams competed in a classic series.
Neither had great preseason expectation, but anchored by goaltenders Cam Ward (Carolina) and Ryan Miller (Buffalo), both franchises ignored naysayers who focused on Canada's Edmonton Oilers in the Western Finals.
Buffalo won the first game, while Carolina's 16-4 shot edge in the second period of Game 2 resulted in a 4-3 victory. The series shifted to Buffalo, where the Sabres broke the tie with their own 4-3 win. Carolina finally attained the dominant performance many expected with a 4-0 shutout.
The pivotal fifth game didn't come as easily to the Hurricanes, who had only one shot in the final period of regulation but won in overtime. Danny Briere scored in overtime of Game 6 to send the series to a seventh game, both teams going tic for tac. The Sabres lead headed to the third period, but Carolina's three-goal third period propelled them to the Cup Finals.
- 1998 EASTERN FINALS: Capitals Defeat Sabres 4-2
While the Dominik Hasek was earning his nickname as the "Dominator" in Buffalo, the Capitals were in the midst of a Cinderella postseason. Hasek had won Olympic gold earlier in that year for the Czech Republic, and he was hoping to win another championship. His play in net made the Sabres a threat to anybody they played.
It was Washington who would continue their fortuitious rise to the Finals, winning three games in overtime in the series. Up 3-1, the Caps lost, but they rebounded to win Game 6 (their third overtime victory) 3-2.
Hasek's great play was not enough as the Sabres couldn't score critical goals late in games. Joe Juneau sealed the fate of Buffalo, a community that came tantalizingly close to championships in the '90s, but whose Bills and Sabres left them to deal with heartache again and again.
Detroit attained a measure of revenge for Colorado's 1996 victory against them that saw Kris Draper viciously injured in deciding Game 6 (later on this list). Colorado took Game 1 at home, 2-1, but Detroit tied the series before coming home.
The Red Wings dominated in Detroit, answering with their own 2-1 win, followed by a 6-0 shallacking that was never competitive. Colorado answered with thier own blowout home victory, 6-0, to force a seventh game.
In the end, Detroit would dominate again at home, winning 3-1. While the encore series didn't hold as much drama and intrigue as its predecessor, the series is noteworthy for being the follow-up to the classic 1996 series that sparked the rivalry and Detroit's revenge.
2007 WESTERN FINALS: Ducks Defeat Red Wings 4-2
Dominik Hasek was largely considered the most elite goalie in the world for a large portion of his career. He had never won a championship, and in his twilight, he came to Detroit in search of an elusive Stanley Cup. He would accomplish the feat in 2002, and this was another opportunity to add to his collection of accomplishments.
The Anaheim Ducks were a roster filled with talent that had lost Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 in 2003 to New Jersey. At the time, they were the Mighty Ducks, but the franchise had since grown up both in tone and age. J.S. Giguere, affectionately "Jiggy," and teammates Chris Pronger and Teemu Selanne had their eyes set on the Stanley Cup for the second time in the decade. In their way was a young, talented Red Wings squad every bit capable of winning the prize themselves.
Detroit won at home 2-1 and looked to take a commanding lead entering overtime of Game 2. The Ducks dug deep and flew back to California tied with the Wings.
Game 3 saw Detroit continue to appear as the better team, dominating 5-0. In Game 4, Anaheim saw good fortune manifest itself into a 3-1 lead, but the Red Wings rallied. It appeared as though Detroit would be relentless and unbeatable, until Ryan Getzlav scored to give Anaheim the lead. The Ducks would again tie the series despite Detroit's clear edge in performance.
Game 5 was the turning point. Detroit felt they would have a more commanding lead of the series, and it appeared as though everything was going to script again. With a 1-0 lead late, the Ducks entered the Detroit zone with under a minute to play.
Anaheim flung the puck to the net from an odd angle, and the puck bounced off Nick Lidstrom's stick. As the biscuit fluttered over Hasek's glove and into the net, an improbably overtime became imminent. Teemu Selanne would score the game winner to give Anaheim an improbable series lead.
With the momentum of a 3-2 series edge, the Ducks controlled Game 6. A Detroit rally made the score closer than it should have been, but Anaheim won the series, followed by the Cup.
1999 WESTERN FINALS: Stars Defeat Avalanche 4-3
In consecutive seasons, the Detroit Red Wings had defeated the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals. Three years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic and the Avs were determined to get back. In their way was the fastest-rising team in hockey, the Stars, led by Ed Belfour, Mike Modano and Brett Hull.
In fact, there were countless other current and rising stars (no pun intended) on the two rosters, making the finals in the mid-to-late '90s in the West a veritable who's who of the icy NHL pantheon.
In Game 1, Peter Forsberg silenced Reunion Arena in Dallas, scoring with just over five minutes remaining and giving Colorado a 2-1 victory.
Game 2, Joe Nieuwendyk and the Stars dominated but secured a close 3-2 victory. Dallas led in ice time in the offensive zone and shots 45-19.
After a 3-0 shutout by Dallas in Colorado, it seemed as through the Stars were going to put an avalanche on the Avalanche when Brett Hull tied Game 4. Rookie Chris Drury was the hero, however, scoring in overtime to tie the series. Patrick Roy made 43 saves.
The Avalanche won a shootout, 7-5, in Dallas. The pendulum of momentum was swinging violently, and the Stars would have to win both remaining games to prove themselves as the NHL's elite team.
They did just that, dominating both final game by scores of 4-1. While Colorado proved they were game, the Stars were certainly the elite team in the West at the turn of the century as they would go on to win another seven-game series in 2000 (later in the list).
2000 EASTERN FINALS: Devils Defeat Flyers 4-3
The New Jersey Devils started the new century by becoming the first-ever team to rally from a 3-1 deficit in a conference championship series of any kind. After falling in Game 5, Flyers' goalie Brian Boucher said words that made perfect sense at the time: "We don't want to get too down here. We are still up 3-2."
Flyers star Eric Lindros had been plagued by injuries in the years leading up to this opportunity at hockey's summit. He would return for an emotional Game 6 between the two clubs. It appeared that he scored late in the second period to break a 0-0 stalemate, but replays showed that time had expired in the period.
As such, Game 6 remained tied in Jersey until Claude Lemieux and Alex Mogilny "broke the ice" and gave the Devils a 2-0 lead. With Brodeur's fantastic play in net, it must have seemed like a 10-0 deficit in Philadelphia, who understood the minute that second goal crossed the goal line that Game 7 would be played in a couple of days. It was Lindros himself that scored a lone tally that cut the lead to 2-1.
Game 7 was tied 1-1 when Eric Lindros was hurt again. Taken off of the ice, the proverbial "air in the balloon" slowly started to leak. The Devils won Game 7, completing the largest comeback ever in a conference series. While an injury to a player is never a desired result in hockey, the fact is the emotional aspect of the final game tilted entirely to New Jersey when Scott Stevens hit Lindros, whose comeback and subsequent injury was simply symbolic of the series.
And fans wonder why Sidney Crosby takes his time to return. Watch the video! Granted, that hit can happen to anyone, but if your head takes on that kind of trauma too soon following a prior concussion, your career is practically over.
Even more importantly, Martin Brodeur shook off a slow start in goal for New Jersey and gave up only three goals in Games 5 through 7.
2004 EASTERN FINALS: Lightning Defeat Flyers 4-3
The Flyers were looking to send Keith Primeau and Brad Richards to the Finals, while Jeremy Roenick had dreams of returning for another shot at the Cup.
Tampa Bay's captain Dave Andreychuck was in his 22nd season and had yet to enjoy the coveted comforts of a champion's glow. That was about to change.
After the Lightning won Game 1 3-1, it seemed as though the Flyers would have to scrape for every goal in the series. After all, Tampa goalie Nikolai Khabibulin had a 1.00 goals against average in the playoffs to that point.
So, naturally, the Flyers won the second game 6-2, sending the series back to Philadelphia tied.
In Game 3, Tampa Bay, led by upstarts Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lacavalier, avenged a home loss by defeating the Flyers on their home ice, 4-1. However, the Flyers answered, and a Keith Primeau short-handed goal in the second period proved to be the game winner, 3-2.
With the series tied, Brad Richards would do great damage to his future club, scoring two goals and propelling the Lightning to a 4-2 victory and 3-2 series lead.
Trailing for much of Game 6, you couldn't blame a Flyers' fan for being nervous, but Philadelphia continuously battled back, tying the game 4-4 in regulation. Simon Gagne scored the winning goal in overtime to complete a comeback and take the series to a Game 7.
In the deciding game, Tampa Bay won 2-1. Brad Richards would score the opening goal, proving a true Flyers antagonist for the second time in three games. Jeremy Roenick, hopeful for another opportunity to hoist hockey's most coveted prize, told reporters he felt "sick to his stomach" following the loss. Tampa Bay would win their first and (to date) only Stanley Cup shortly thereafter.
History tends to skew our perceptions. We feel like what we recall is what was expected all along, and we forget just how certain we are about results that never come to fruition. It seems crystal clear now: the Giants defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. I hear fans who tell me that they were so certain it was going to happen, but I'd imagine 90 percent of those people thought it could happen, hoped it would happen but didn't say a thing about it, believing it wouldn't happen.
For the 1995-96 Florida Panthers, the entire playoffs were a study in expectations that were shattered by the time a series was over. The upstart panthers and their goalie John Vanbiesbrouck upset Boston in the first round, despite their having the higher seeding. Then, they upset the top-seeded Flyers.
Philadelphia was long considered Pittsburgh's lone hurdle toward a third Stanley Cup Finals. Therefore, when the horn sounded in Game 6 of the Florida-Philadelphia series, hockey fans had already pegged a classic Penguins-Red Wings or Penguins-Avalanche finale.
History may gloss over these expectations, but in the summer of 1996, only the Florida Panthers and their fans had any expectations of beating the heavily favored Penguins. After all, Pittsburgh was loaded: Lemieux, Francis, Nedved, Jagr—a veritable gallery of Eastern Conference All-Stars.
When the Panthers won Game 1, it was a shock to the system for many, but the Penguins bounced back to win Game 2. The fluky Panthers had their fun, and now Pittsburgh would take control of the series in sunny Florida.
Florida stunned the Penguins again, firing 61 shots on goal en route to a 5-2 victory. Future Penguin Stu Barnes tallied two goals.
In Game 4, the Pens battled back from a late 1-0 deficit, scoring two goals in the final 10 minutes of the game to tie the series.
To script, Tom Barrasso recorded a shutout in Game 5, answering the Panthers' 61-shot barrage in Florida and giving the Pens a 3-2 series edge. Pittsburgh won 3-0.
From this point, Florida had mustered its best effort only to trail the series. Hockey had the Panthers crossed off the list of remaining contenders in crimson red ink. So, when Pittsburgh blew a 2-1 lead in Game 6 and lost 4-3, many fans had to suddenly wonder if the "cats" were going to do it again—upset a conference heavyweight in dramatic fashion.
They did. In the third period of a 1-1 game, Tom Fitzgerald fired a 58-foot slapshot to give Florida the lead. With minutes to go, Johan Gapenlov fired a shot toward the net that was deflected straight into the air. Barrasso was attempting to locate the puck when it bounced off of his back and into the net, sending the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Finals.
1996 WESTERN FINALS: Avalanche over Red Wings 4-2
You all know goalie Chris Osgood. He's that guy in net for the Red Wings who riddled the Penguins in 2008 and then narrowly lost the Stanley Cup to that same Pittsburgh team in 2009.
Well...he was also the Red Wings goalie in 1996. That's amazing in itself, but perhaps not as amazing as the rivalry that was sparked in this classic 1996 final.
While the Red Wings would get retribution with a six-game series win in the playoffs in 1997 (a series of dominant performances and blowout wins, I'm sure Wings fans were incredibly satisfied), nothing would intensify a heated rivalry over a five-year span (before or after) like the magnitude and events of this epic six-game series.
While other series ahead of it on this list were decided by smaller margins or closer games, no playoff series in recent history has evoked such passion, as evidenced by the resulting brawl of 1997 that took place a little less than a year after this series ended (see video).
Detroit's path to the conference final was already epic. To reach this series, Detroit had to rally from a 3-2 deficit, following three straight losses to their division rivals, the St. Louis Blues. This was not just any Blues team. This Blues team was a favorite by many to win the West by upset, with Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull commanding respect. After a win in Game 6, the Wings shut down the Blues and their stars, winning 1-0 to take the series in seven games.
While the Red Wings were favored to defeat Colorado, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and goalie Patrick Roy had other ideas. However, it was Colorado's Claude Lemieux that would leave the most lasting impression with Detroit in the months to follow.
Colorado rockets out of the gates, winning both of the first two games in Joe Louis Areana, including a 35-save shutout by Patrick Roy in Game 2. While experts believed Detroit dictated most of the play at home, everyone agreed the Red Wings were in great trouble heading to Colorado for Game 3.
Desperate for a victory, Detroit won Game 3 in Colorado 6-4, buoyed by strong performances by Nick Lidstrom and Vlad Konstantinov on the offensive ice. The Wings woudl continue to dominate ice time and shots in Game 4, but instead of a tied series (or Detroit lead), Patrick Roy returned to his dominant ways, and Colorado truly took away a victory from Detroit. The Avalanche had a commanding 3-1 series lead.
The Wings stayed alive at home, and in spite of the Avalanche's 3-2 series edge, Detroit felt they had played the better series. A win in Colorado, where they had played well days before, would force a Game 7. The reality was that the Avs played their best game of the series and won 4-1. It was an event within the game that would ultimately turn the rivalry into a brawl.
Vulnerable along the center ice boards, Claude Lemieux hit Detroit's Kris Draper with a vicious shot. The result was a broken orbital bone, injured jaw, concussion and several stitches. Kris Draper would miss nearly half of the 1996-97 season. Detroit held the events close to heart, and they would get retribution in the following season and subsequent playoffs.
While the 2001 domination over the Lemieux and Jagr-led Penguins may have been the height of the Devils' defensive trap style, New Jersey still had enough left in the tank after their domination of the late and early centuries to have one last journey to the Stanley Cup Finals.
To get there, they would have to fend off the Ottawa Senators, a team with sizzling offensive talent that will likely be underrated in the annals of history for not winning the Stanley Cup. People forget how dominant and talented the early 2000s Senators were, a roster loaded with talent. Their roster included Marian Hossa, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher, Chris Phillips and defenseman Zdeno Chara all in their youth or prime. This was a roster to be reckoned with!
Nevertheless, Jersey and goalie Martin Brodeur were not going to be denied. This series and the subsequent Finals were the Devils' last great hurrah of an era of dominance for the franchise.
The Senators won Game 1 in overtime, but the Devils responded. Not wanting to go back home down 2-0, New Jersey dominated the second game, winning 4-1.
In Game 3, Ottawa could not figure out the zone trap or goalie Martin Brodeur, and they lost a 1-0 stalemate. This was a fate that so many teams knew too well. The win kept the Devils record perfect at home in the playoffs.
It Ottawa were to have a chance in the series, they knew that they would have to snap the Devils' dominant home win-streak. At 7-0, New Jersey seemed invincible on home ice. The third period of Game 4 continued to prove this superiority over the opposition, as the Devils struck three times behind goalie Ray Emery and won 5-2.
Suddenly, after taking the first game, the Senators trailed the series 3-1. Only the Devils themselves had rallied back to win a series from such huge odds against, rallying to defeat the Flyers in 2000. Ottawa put in a gritty effort at home and won Game 5 by a 3-1 margin.
However, it wouldn't be worth anything if they couldn't blemish the Devils' 8-0 record at home in the playoffs. The Devs and Martin Brodeur were defensively dominant as always, but the Senators hung in tough. Regulartion ended with a 1-1 tie.
In a cathartic moment, Chris Phillips snapped a shot past Brodeur in overtime, and the series was tied! Ottawa had rallied from their series deficit, would play on home ice in Game 7, and prevented New Jersey from ending their season with another home victory. Karma seemed to be playing cards: could fate now be taking back the rally it afforded Jersey earlier in the decade?
New Jersey proved fate had no say in the matter. In Ottawa, Sens fans were raucous, with an opportunity to win and play for the Stanley Cup. With Anaheim's sweep in the West, the winner of this game would host the Cup Finals and be the clear favorite to win.
The Devils would win the game 3-2 on a goal with only 2:14 left in regulation. In perhaps the final moment of glory for Brodeur and the Devils, they would win the Stanley Cup. It would require all of their home dominance, with the home team winning all seven games in the next round. New Jersey finished with a 12-1 home record, blemished by a lone overtime goal. They celebrated with the Stanley Cup following a 4-0 home-showing in the Finals and a 3-0 Game 7 win.
2002 WESTERN FINALS: Red Wings over Avalanche 4-3
Detroit and Colorado became the NHL's most vicious modern rivalry without question in the mid-'90s, and the hatred and animosity continued to boil over into the new century. While some of the faces changed, most things stayed the same in the two cities.
Championship aspirations. (Colorado was the defending champion.)
And hatred for each other.
The first four games went exactly as fans dreamed, with both great rivals splitting their home stanzas, matching each other blow for blow. Both won close games at home and dropped overtime decisions to their rivals in dramatic fashion. The series was back and forth, close with every game, reaching a crescendo with each new drop of the puck.
Game 5 in Detroit was largely considered by fans and experts to be the critical game in the series. A Detroit victory would give them an expected series edge on home ice, while a victory by the Avs would give them a clear opportunity to upset their rivals at home in Game 6. Detroit battled back after falling behind 1-0.
The game, fittingly, went to overtime, and it would be the last shot of the night that would create a huge edge in the 2002 Western Finals. Colorado won the game, a second victory for the team in overtime at Joe Louis Arena. It was also the firth straight game in which Colorado scored the first goal of the game.
In Game 6, the Avalanche were prepared for a celebration. With Patrick Roy in net, they had every reason to feel optimistic. Surely, he would steal one of the next two games if necessary. Detroit scored first in the game in remarkable fashion. Roy made a diving save and lifted his glove in the air to add emphasis.
There was no doubt that this was an effort to showboat. The puck flew out of his glove and into the net. With an opportunity to finish the series at home, this could not be allowed to happen, yet the veteran goalie changed the course of the series with that one, unprofessional (and it was!) gesture.
I realize that if that doesn't happen, it's overlooked, but there's a deeper reality to the events: when you do that type of thing, especially facing your own net, you take on that chance, and if something goes awry, you take the blame.
It can be said the Avs offense is to blame for being shutout, but the entire game was a defensive battle waiting for a goaltender to blink. Patrick Roy blinked in the most offensive way possible. It wasn't ever more deadly a momentum shift, after having a chance to wrap up the series at home, than in the Game 7 the Avs wanted to avoid.
Detroit took a 4-0 lead in the first period, and after going up 6-0, Patrick Roy was chased from the net. The smallest of margins and a critical error—sometimes, that is all it takes.
2000 WESTERN FINALS: Stars over Avalanche 4-3
The Avalanche were a dominant team in the 1990s and early 2000s, evidenced by the number of times they appear on this countdown. They won a number of series in dominating fashion, but they lost a number of heartbreakers as well.
The 1999-00 Colorado Avalanche were looking to avenge a loss to the Dallas Stars in the prior playoffs. A loss to Dallas would mark the third time in four seasons that Colorado's year ended in the Western Conference Championship round.
Meanwhile, the Stars were the defending champions. They had a dominating roster, the consensus best player of the time in Mike Modano, and a dominating goaltender playing his best hockey in Ed "The Eagle" Belfour. Captain Darien Hatcher led the detmined club in their quest to win consecutive Cups. A repeat of their prior performance over Colorado would send them to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Game 1 began in similar fashion to the prior playoff series, with Colorado taking a 1-0 series lead. Patrick Roy recorded a 24-save shutout in the 2-0 win.
In Game 2, Mike Modano's two-goal performance was the catalyst for a 3-2 Stars victory. Dallas desperately needed to win to avoid a 2-0 deficit heading to the Mile High City.
Game 3 led many fans to believe the this was the Avs' year, as Roy recorded his second shutout of the series, another 2-0 Colorado win.
With a chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, Mike Modano again rallied himself, tallying three assists in a 4-1 Dallas victory. They carried this momentum into a Game 5 overtime victory, where Joe Nieuwendyk gave the Stars a 3-2 series edge despite Colorado's heavy shot advantage. While it wasn't a shutout, Ed Belfour played perhaps his finest game to that point in the series in net for Dallas.
While it would be easy for Colorado to be downtrodden after such an opportunity, with both a home game and overtime game, to take the series lead, they played like champions in Game 6. The Avalanche shut the door on the Stars, winning 2-1 and forcing a deciding game in Texas.
The Stars came out firing on all cylinders in Game 7, and they left the ice in the second period with a commanding 3-0 lead. If the issue was settled, nobody told Colorado, who played the third period for both vengeance and pride. The Avalanche cut the lead to 3-2, and they were commanding the offensive ice late in the game.
With Dallas unable to clear the puck from their zone, the Avalanche continued to fire the puck at Ed Belfour, who turned away chance after chance being fired off of mighty Colorado sticks. In the waning seconds, Ray Borque, who had yet to win a Stanley Cup in his long career, fired a shot from atop the key. It rang off of the post to the right of Belfour, sending the piercing sound of rubber and metal through the Dallas crowd's hearts. It was that close to being tied, yet the Stars hung on to win the game and the series.
Dallas would lose to New Jersey in a classic series in double overtime of Game 6.
1994 EASTERN FINALS: Rangers over Devils 4-3
A series that featured six overtime sessions in seven games comprised of three games that went into double overtime was a classic showdown between Eastern powers, divisional rivals and two great goaltenders (Mike Richter and Martin Brodeur) in their youth.
The Rangers had picked up Mark Messier of Edmonton fame to couple with Adam Graves and Brian Leetch, while New Jersey boasted a young, defensive lineup led by Scott Niedermayer, hard-hitting Scott Stevens, soon-to-be infamous Claude Lemieux and snipers Stephane Richer and John MacLean.
New York was desperately seeking a championship for its hungry fans, while the Devils looked to turn the page fully from the organization that was once dubbed by Wayne Gretzky as "a Mickey Mouse outfit." It was the one public relations faux pas that Gretzky still regrets, but who could blame him following a 13-4 win over the horrendous squad?
Fast-fowarding 10 years changed a lot, and the two division foes embarked in an epic seven-game battle.
New Jersey won Game 1 in Madison Square Garden in double overtime, but the Rangers responded with a dominant 4-0 win in Game 2. Round 1 of the goaltending battle between Richter and Brodeur would go narrowly to Richter, albeit the series saw no edge heading to New Jersey.
The Rangers got a measure of revenge, winning Game 3 in double overtime just as the Devils had in New York. Nevertheless, Martin Brodeur showed his first glimpses of true dominance in the series in Game 4, allowing only one goal in a 4-1 win.
Tied at 1-1, the series shifted back to New York. The Rangers continued to look helpless against the unique Jersey defense and outstanding goaltending of Martin Brodeur, losing 4-1 again and trailing the series 3-2.
At this point, the NY Times exploded with glee as Mark Messier delivered every sports jounalist's dream, a guarantee of victory in Game 6 and the series. Enter: classic moment.
Trailing 2-1 entering the third period, the Rangers had scored only three goals in the prior eight periods. Messier scored a hat trick himself in the third period in New Jersey and the Devils lost critical Game 6, 4-2.
Game 7 was for all of the marbles. Both teams showed flashes of brilliance and vulnerability. The Madison Square Garden crowd got to feel the highest of highs and lowest of lows in the deciding game. A shutout bid by the Rangers' Mike Richter was ruined when the Devils tied the game with 7.7 seconds remaining.
Nevertheless, the Big Apple crowd exploded when Stephane Matteau scored in double overtime (the third double overtime in the series) to send New York to the Finals. The puck got beneath Brodeur, through his pads and into the net.
Messier's guarantee would be answered as New York won the Stanley Cup against Vancouver in another classic seven-game battle.