The NHL Playoffs are widely considered the toughest road for any professional sports team to achieve glory. The task is daunting, and no matter where a team is seeded, they’ve shown the ability to surprise. Each of the teams on this list demonstrated similar attributes for playoff success; a stellar net minder, a noble captain, fearless defensemen, and some even made deadline trades to position themselves for their deep cup run.
The Montreal Canadiens had their eyes on Cup 25 and seemed like they might even get a chance to seize it, but once golden boy Carey Price was knocked out, the likelihood of that coming to fruition plummeted. The Habs’ safe-haven on the ice suddenly became its worst nightmare. Two goaltending problems suddenly came to light in Montreal. One was the absence of Price, and the other was the superb play of the man standing 200-feet away in the Rangers goal. While several factors determine a cup-winning team, unfortunately for Montreal, the quality of goaltending is right at the top.
We’re inching towards the 2014 Stanley Cup finals, so let’s take a stroll down memory and check out the best recent NHL Champions.
5 Carolina Hurricanes - 2006
When hockey returned after a yearlong lockout, pundits had the Hurricanes finishing dead last in the Southeast division. Instead, they shocked the world and hoisted Lord Stanley.
Carolina lost its opening two home games of the 2006 playoffs to the Montreal Canadiens. Its starting goaltender Martin Gerber won 38 games in the regular season, but struggled to play at that level under the bright lights of the playoffs. Luckily for the Hurricanes, they had a rookie who was ready to take the world by storm waiting in the wings.
Cam Ward flipped the entire series around, helping Carolina win the next four over the Canadiens. The Hurricanes rode the momentum of the Ward train to get by the Devils in six in round two, and a tough competitor in the Buffalo Sabres in the conference finals in seven games.
The Oilers fought hard in the Finals, but Carolina's advantage between the pipes proved to be the deciding factor. Ward became the first rookie goaltender since Patrick Roy in 1986 to win the Stanley Cup. He was the eventual Conn Smythe trophy winner as well. Like Brady stepping in for Bledsoe, where would Ward be had Gerber not struggled out of the gate in the 2006 postseason?
The ‘Canes were loaded; 21 year-old Eric Staal was scratching the surface of stardom and leading their second line. He burst onto the scene with 45 goals and 100 points in the regular season, career highs that stand to this day. The current captain of the Hurricanes, Staal, had a 15-game point streak that spanned from round one against Montreal till the Eastern Conference Finals against Buffalo. Their defensive corps didn’t have any big names, but heck, the way Ward was playing, Carolina barely needed any help in front of him.
And, despite not winning the Conn Smythe trophy, 'Canes captain Rod Brind'Amour was the heart and soul of the team. In College, his trainers locked the doors of the gym to prevent him from overworking during the night—the definition of gym rat. He embodied character and hard work, and helped bring the best out in each player, even veterans like Recchi and Weight. Oh captain, my captain.
4 Chicago Blackhawks – 2013
Thanks to another NHL lockout, the regular season was shortened from its usual 82 games to 48. Of those 48, Chicago won 36, losing only seven times in regulation. It also started the season with points in each of its first 24 games, the longest streak to start a season in league history.
The shortened season meant several back-to-backs, and Ray Emery initially outshined Corey Crawford. However, like they say, it’s not about who starts, it’s about who finishes. Emery started the 2013 campaign with a 12-0 record, and became the first goaltender in NHL history to win at least ten straight games to start a season. However, in the playoffs, it was all Corey Crawford. And winning the Cup certainly qualifies as finishing.
Down 3-1 to the Red Wings in the second round, the ‘Hawks stared the decade’s perennial powerhouse right in the face, a crucial moment that would decide whether or not they were ready to start a dynasty of their own. Chicago rallied to win the next three games and punch its ticket to familiar territory, the Western Conference Finals. The Kings didn’t present much of a challenge; a Patrick Kane hat trick later, and Chicago handedly dropped them in five games.
Game one of the Stanley Cup Finals with Boston set the tone for the entire series. Chicago needed three overtime periods to close the deal but they eventually did. And with a chance to close out the series in game six, down 2-1 with less than two minutes to play in the third, the ‘Hawks equalized and grabbed the lead in just 17 seconds, winning the Cup in regulation. Chicago became just the eighth team in league history to win the Presidents’ Trophy and Stanley Cup in the same season.
Led by Toews and Kane, who each averaged over a point a game in the regular season, the Blackhawks have mimicked the Wings by building their own dynasty. They’re still alive in 2014, and looking for their third cup in the last five years.
3 New Jersey Devils – 2000/2003
The New Jersey Devils met their Stanley Cup aspirations three times during the Brodeur-Stevens-Niedermayer era in '95, 2000 and 2003. New Jersey had the most feared blue line in the league, and a legend in goal. Stevens and Daneyko struck fear into any opponent, Niedermayer was the savvy, reliable puck mover and a stranger to wrong decisions, while Rafalaski was the avant-garde offensive-minded defenseman playing ahead of his time.
The Devils threw a pair of rookies into the mix, and the move paid huge dividends for the 2000 season, and years to come. Rafalski joined Stevens and Niedermayer on the blue line in move that made the rich, richer. Meanwhile, Scott Gomez posted 70 points in his debut campaign, earning the Calder Trophy. The Devils big test came in the Eastern Conference Finals when it had to, and did overcome a 3-1 series deficit to defeat its division rivals, the number one seeded Philadelphia Flyers. In the Finals, New Jersey ousted the defending Cup Champion Dallas Stars with a double-overtime winning goal in game six, and had karma do the same the following season, when it lost to Colorado.
In 2003 New Jersey was just as potent; it was able to overcome the Conn Smythe winning performance of Ducks goaltender J.S. Giguère in the Stanley Cup Finals. Imagine how well an opposing goaltender would have to play to snatch a Conn Smythe away from Martin Brodeur as the loser of a Finals series. Brodeur even recorded seven shutouts during the 2003 playoffs and was still outshined by Giguère. Though, Marty had the last laugh when he raised his third Stanley Cup.
2 Colorado Avalanche - 2001
This year in hockey was all about Colorado. In February it hosted the All-Star game at the Pepsi Center, and in June it hoisted the Stanley Cup.
In the regular season, Colorado won the Presidents' Trophy and had four forwards with over 76 points, including its captain Joe Sakic, who lit the lamp 54 times (franchise record) and notched a total of 118 points. And yes, that was enough to capture the Hart Trophy in 2001.
The Avs exhibited every necessary trait for playoff success from the aforementioned list. Roy played some of the best hockey of his illustrious career, Sakic was the ultimate captain and the Avs even acquired 40-year old, cup-less defenseman Ray Bourque the previous season to help secure their championship. Despite no longer wearing Bruins colours, all of Boston was pulling for Bourque as though he was still one of their own. After 22 years, Bourque’s cup dream was realized. For some, it’s the greatest moment in hockey history.
Colorado enjoyed a fairly smooth ride to the finals, going 12-4 in rounds one through three. Though, like a rollercoaster, the ride has its peaks and valleys. Their journey ended with an uphill climb, a rendezvous with the defending Cup Champion New Jersey Devils. The 2001 Stanley Cup final went the distance. It was the first cup final since 1994 that required seven games to decide a victor, and the first since 1989 that saw the top seeds in each conference meet.
Young forward Alex Tanguay registered 77 points in just his second NHL season. If pundits and fans still didn’t know who he was before the cup final they surely found out. Tanguay instantly became a household name after notching two goals in game 7, including the cup-clincher.
Roy Brodeur, and his Avs blew the Devils away, which is why they finish ahead of them on the list.
1 Detroit Red Wings - 2002
This group was stacked from top to bottom; future Hall of Fame names like Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille up front, Nik Lidstrom and Chris Chelios on the blue line, and Dominik Hasek between the pipes. With so many household names on one roster, team success is rarely achieved, but this group gelled exceptionally well together. The Red Wings may not have made a blockbuster move during the deadline, but they definitely made a splash in the summer by acquiring Dominik Hasek to provide stability in goal.
The Red Wings faced their only big test in the Western Conference Final against the second team on the list, the defending champion Avalanche. In game seven, Detroit laid the hammer down on Colorado winning 7-0, and Patrick Roy was pulled midway through the second period. Fitting that their future cornerstone, 22-year old rookie Pavel Datsyuk capped off the win with the seventh and final goal of the game.
Once Detroit moved past the Avs, it was smooth sailing in the Finals. The "cardiac" 'Canes made an improbable run to the Cup Finals but Detroit was far superior. Hurricanes captain Ron Francis scored on Dominik Hasek in overtime of game one, but the Wings reeled off four straight wins en route to another championship. It was Detroit’s third cup in six years; legendary Head Coach Scotty Bowman's ninth, soaring past Toe Blake for the most all-time.
Detroit’s ability to discover late-round talent in the NHL draft has allowed its dynasty to continue to live on even after the likes of Yzerman and Shanahan retired. Seventh round pick Henrik Zetterberg and sixth round pick Pavel Datsyuk, are the cornerstones of the current Wings.