The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is often the most thrilling time in the sport. Upsets are plentiful and the action is intense. The NHL playoffs might just be the best playoffs in all of sport and the first round is a big reason why. Here are the 10 best first round matchups in NHL history.
1982: Los Angeles vs. Edmonton
The 1981-82 season was dominated by The Great One. Wayne Gretzky had a storybook season for the Edmonton Oilers, shattering the NHL records for goals, (92) assists, (120) and points (212) in a season. Gretzky’s incredible performance propelled the Oilers to first place in the Smythe Division, and were considered heavy favourites in their first round series against the Los Angeles Kings. This should have been a mismatch. The Kings finished a whopping 48 points behind the Oilers in the standings. Instead, it turned out to be one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NHL.
The Kings won a wild game one by the score of 10-8. It remains the highest scoring playoff game in history.
The Oilers won game two in overtime to even the series.
Game three will forever be remembered as “The Miracle On Manchester.” It looked like the Oilers were taking over the series, as they built a commanding 5-0 lead through two periods. It was so bad that Kings owner Jerry Buss left the Fabulous Forum following the middle frame. But the Kings mounted an unbelievable comeback. Goals from Jay Wells, Doug Smith, Charlie Simmer, Mark Hardy and Steve Bozek in the third period forced overtime. Bozek’s tying goal came with just 5 seconds remaining in the third period. The overtime didn’t last long. Just 2:35 in, Smith won the faceoff, and drew it back to Daryl Evans who immediately fired a slapshot over the glove of Grant Fuhr and into the top corner. It remains the largest comeback in NHL playoff history.
The Oilers were stunned, but recovered to win game four to force a fifth and deciding game in the Alberta capital. But it was the Kings who dominated the proceedings, trouncing the Oilers 7-4 and advancing to the next round. The Edmonton media was harsh in their criticism of the young Oilers, calling them “weak-kneed wimps.” It’s a series that no Kings fan will ever forget and Oiler fans don’t want to remember.
1989: Vancouver vs. Calgary
The Calgary Flames entered the 1989 playoffs with the best record in the NHL, and prohibitive Stanley Cup favourites. The Vancouver Canucks finished 43 points behind the Flames in the Smythe Division.
Yet it was the Canucks who won game one thanks to Paul Reinhart’s overtime winner.
The series remained tight with each team trading momentum from game to game. The Canucks were playing footloose and fancy free, while the Flames looked tight and nervous. The pressure was intense in the Stampede City.
It game down to a seventh and deciding game at the Olympic Saddledome. The game was a classic as both teams were fighting for their lives. The game went into overtime as a nervous Calgary crowd looked on. The Canucks had the best scoring chances. But Mike Vernon stood on his head, robbing Tony Tanti and Petri Skriko. Vernon’s shining moment came when Stan Smyl found himself all alone on a breakaway. The Canucks captain attempted to go top shelf, but Vernon snared it with his glove, keeping the Flames alive. Finally, with just 39 seconds remaining in the overtime period, the Flames found the winning goal as Jim Peplinski’s pass was redirected off Joel Otto’s skate into the net. Hockey Night In Canada’s Bob Cole described it best. “Not a picture goal. It was centred by Peplinski. It hit a skate in front. And it’s over!” The Flames went on to win the Stanley Cup that season.
1990: Winnipeg vs. Edmonton
For years the Winnipeg Jets were continually haunted by the Edmonton Oilers. The two teams had met in the playoffs on five separate occasions, with the Oilers winning all five playoff series. In fact, the Jets had only registered one victory in 19 playoff games against the Oilers. However, things were looking different in 1990. Wayne Gretzky was no longer an Oiler, and many thought the Jets were on the rise, while the Oilers were on the decline.
The Jets took the first game 7-5, and built a 3-1 series lead, thanks to a thrilling double overtime victory in game four.
The Oilers rebounded to win game five, which setup a sixth game that proved to be the turning point.
The Oilers built a 3-0 lead early in the sixth game and looked to be in control. But the Jets fought back and tied the game early in the third period. White Noise was being felt inside the Winnipeg Arena as the fans were going crazy. But one went too crazy.
With the Jets having all the momentum, an unknown fan threw a popcorn box on the ice, halting play. It was the break the Oilers needed, as it gave them time to recuperate. Jari Kurri blasted the winning goal past Bob Essensa with just under seven minutes to play in the third period.
The Jets never recovered, going down meekly in game seven 4-1. The Oilers went on to win their fifth Stanley Cup in seven years.
1991: Edmonton vs. Calgary
The Battle of Alberta has produced some of the most memorable moments in playoff history. The most recent came in 1991, when the Oilers and Flames met in the first round. While both were considered contenders, neither were prohibitive favourites to win the Cup. Still, the hockey in this series was outstanding.
After splitting the first two games in Calgary, the Oilers won the next two in Edmonton to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
The Flames stayed alive by winning game five, which set up a crucial game six. The Oilers opened the scoring in the first period, but the Flames evened things up in the second. After a scoreless third period, the game went into overtime.
Just over 4 minutes into the overtime period, Mark Messier’s cross-ice pass was intercepted by Theoren Fleury, who broke in all alone and slid a shot through Grant Fuhr’s legs to tie the series. Fleury’s celebration was a sight to behold, as he slid across the ice of the Northlands Coliseum as the shocked Oiler faithful looked on.
Game seven proved to be just as memorable as the Flames jumped out to an early 3-0 lead. But the Oilers fought back thanks to two Esa Tikkanen goals to take the lead midway through the third period. The Flames managed to tie the game thanks to Ronnie Stern’s first ever playoff goal with just 2:10 remaining in the third period. In overtime, Tikkanen struck again as his sharp angle shot somehow eluded Mike Vernon and into the net for the series winning goal. These two franchises haven’t met in the playoffs since, which is a crying shame.
1992: Hartford vs. Montreal
This series proved to be the ultimate demise of the Hartford Whalers. But some bounces going the other way could have changed the NHL forever. Despite playing in front of small crowds at the Hartford Civic Centre, the Whalers managed to win all three games at home, the most dramatic being game six as Yvon Corriveau netted the overtime winner to force a seventh and deciding game.
The fabled Forum in Montreal was the scene for the climatic contest that was filled with thrills and spills. The Canadiens grabbed an early 2-0 lead, but the Whalers bounced back and tied the game in the second period. The third was scoreless which forced overtime. The Canadiens had some great chances in the first overtime period, but Frank Pietrangelo was brilliant in the Hartford net. In double overtime, Corriveau found himself all alone on a breakaway. His shot clearly beat Patrick Roy, but nailed the crossbar. The Habs raced right back down the ice, where Russ Courtnall’s low shot found its way past Pietrangelo for the series winner. The Whalers would never play another playoff game again, as the franchise moved to North Carolina in 1997.
1994: Vancouver vs. Calgary
The Vancouver Canucks were still smarting from their 1989 heartbreak at the hands of the Calgary Flames, and were desperate for revenge. Five years later, they would get their chance.
The Canucks sent an early message, thrashing the Flames 5-0 in the series opener.
However, that seemed to wakeup the Flames as they took the next three games, two of those in Vancouver.
Calgary looked to wrap up the series at home in game five, but Geoff Courtnall’s overtime winner sent the series back to Vancouver.
Game six also needed overtime. A too many men on the ice penalty by the Flames proved costly, as Trevor Linden scored on the ensuing power-play to tie the series, and force a seventh game.
Flames fans were nervous as game seven approached but were comforted with the fact that five years earlier, they conquered the Canucks. But history would not repeat itself.
Late in the first overtime period, the Flames broke in on a two-on-one. Theoren Fleury made a perfect pass to Robert Reichel who thought he had a sure goal. But Canucks goalie Kirk McLean slid over and made an amazing save to keep the Canucks alive. Early in double overtime, Jeff Brown’s pass sent Pavel Bure alone on a breakaway. Bure made a lovely move around Mike Vernon, slipping it home and giving the Canucks the victory. This series started an improbable run for the Canucks who made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, before falling to the New York Rangers.
1997: Edmonton vs. Dallas
After ruling the NHL in the 1980s, the Edmonton Oilers fell on hard times in the 1990s. The Oilers had missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, which made their future in Edmonton shaky. Attendance was falling and the Canadian Dollar was frightening low.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars were enjoying success for the first time since the franchise relocated from Minnesota in 1993. These two teams met in the first round in 1997, and it sparked a great rivalry that would last the next seven years.
After splitting the first two games in Dallas, the series shifted to Edmonton where fans were extremely excited in finally seeing playoff hockey return. But the Stars quashed the excitement by building a 3-0 lead. That lead would last late in the third period, where the Oilers mounted a comeback.
Doug Weight got the Oilers on the board with 4 minutes remaining. 1:44 later, Andrei Kovalenko cut the Oiler deficit to one with a power-play marker. 12 seconds later, Mike Grier tipped home a Dan McGillis point shot to tie the game. Edmonton Coliseum was rocking as the Oilers had all the momentum going into overtime. Kelly Buchberger completed the miracle with the overtime goal, giving the Oilers the series lead.
The teams then traded victories, which led to a decisive seventh game at Reunion Arena. The game turned out to be a classic as the teams engaged in a thrilling contest. In overtime, the Stars Joe Nieuwendyk had a wide open net, and a sure goal. But Curtis Joseph dove over, and robbed Nieuwendyk. The Oilers capitalized on that second life, as Todd Marchant broke in all alone and beat Andy Moog stick side to give the Oilers the upset victory. Edmonton was back and the franchise remains in the Alberta capital.
2004: Calgary vs. Vancouver
It seems whenever the Flames and Canucks face each other, the action is fantastic. 2004 might have been the best of them all. The Canucks were slight favourites, but were battling the distraction of the Todd Bertuzzi suspension after his sucker punch ended Steve Moore’s career. The Flames were in the playoffs for the first time since 1997, and were considered a sleeper by most experts.
The Flames held a 3-2 series lead heading home for the sixth game. The “C of Red” was ready to greet their heroes and the Red Mile was ready to celebrate a series victory. But the Canucks had other ideas. Vancouver jumped to a 4-0 lead midway through the second period. But the pesky Flames wouldn’t roll over and die.
Calgary scored the next 4 goals to tie the game midway through the third period. The Pengrowth Saddledome was going wild as the Flames could sense they had the Canucks on the ropes. But the Canucks held the fort and forced overtime. In fact the fort was held through two overtime periods.
Finally, in triple overtime, Brendan Morrison ended the marathon forcing a seventh game, thus silencing the Flames faithful. Game seven proved to be even more dramatic.
With the Flames clinging to a 2-1 lead late in the third period, Jarome Iginla had a chance to seal the deal as the Canucks pulled the goalie for an extra attacker. Iginla who had scored twice already, missed the net on the backhand attempt. As he tried to get back to defend the Canuck attack, Iginla tripped over a stick which gave the Canucks room. Markus Naslund drove to the net, and Matt Cooke pounced on the loose puck and flipped it home with 5.7 seconds to tie the game. However, early in overtime, Martin Gelinas banged home a rebound past Alex Auld, to give the Flames an astonishing victory. The series sparked an incredible run for the Flames who made it all the way to game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, before succumbing to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
2011: Chicago vs. Vancouver
The Chicago Blackhawks had been the Vancouver Canucks nemesis the previous two seasons. The Hawks had eliminated the Canucks in 2009 and 2010 which left some bitter feelings on Canada’s West Coast.
It looked to be different in 2011 as the Canucks came into the first round series against the Hawks as heavy favourites. Vancouver jumped out to a 3-0 series lead and looked like they would run away with the series.
But Chicago, who had won the Stanley Cup the previous season wouldn’t go away that easily. The Blackhawks fought back, chasing Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo in games four and five. Corey Schneider got the start in game six, but had to leave the game due to an injury. Luongo came in, but the Blackhawks prevailed on a Ben Smith overtime winner.
The Canucks returned home for game seven with all the pressure on the world on their embattled goalie. This game would also need overtime. Luongo came up with a huge save in the extra period as he stoned Patrick Sharp. After just five minutes into overtime, Alexandre Burrows stole a clearing attempt, and wired a shot past Corey Crawford for the series winner. Jim Hughson of Hockey Night In Canada noted: “Finally, after three seasons and 19 playoff games against Chicago. For Vancouver, it’s a wonderful day for an exorcism.”
2013: Toronto vs. Boston
The Toronto Maple Leafs were in the playoffs for the first time in 9 years, but faced a formidable opponent in the Boston Bruins. The Big Bad Bruins were two years removed from a Stanley Cup and were looking to reach the mountain top yet again. The Leafs were looking to quench the thirst of their long-suffering fans who last tasted Stanley Cup sweetness in 1967.
But it was the Bruins who took control of the series, leading 3-1 heading back to Boston.
The Leafs look doomed until goalie James Reimer started standing on his head. Reimer turned aside 43 shots as the Leafs won game five 2-1.
In game six, Reimer was outstanding yet again, making 29 saves in another 2-1 victory for the Leafs.
Game seven saw the Leafs build a 4-1 lead midway through the third period. Then an epic collapse.
The Bruins scored three times in the final ten minutes, with the equalizer coming with only 50.2 seconds remaining. Boston completed the comeback in overtime when Patrice Bergeron netted his second of the game to push the Bruins to the second round. It was more heartbreak for Leaf fans who have endured more misery than perhaps any other fan base in the NHL. Boston made it all the way to the finals but fell to Chicago in the championship series.
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