NHL fans are starting to get a little bit spoiled when it comes to the conference finals. This year’s two matchups have featured plenty of star power, several close games, and more than a little drama. And for the third consecutive year, both series are going at least six games.
That might not sound all that impressive, but it’s actually a relatively rare situation in the modern era. Until 2014, it hadn’t happened at all in the salary cap era. And it wasn’t much more common before that. For example, it happened only once during the dynasty-packed 80s, as teams like the Islanders and Oilers (or both) could often be found cruising through a weaker opponent on their way to the final.
So today, let’s look back at some of the best conference finals, dating back to the introduction of the 16-team format in 1980. Remember, we’re looking for the best combination of two series, meaning some all-time classic series (like Leafs/Kings in 1993 and Devils/Rangers in 1994) won’t show up here because the other conference served up a dud.
Here are my picks for the five best years for the NHL’s final four:
In the East: Lightning over Rangers in seven. The Rangers were the defending conference champs and looked dominant in blowout wins in Games 4 and 6, but the Lightning went into MSG and shut them out in Games 5 and 7 to advance to the final.
And in the West: Blackhawks over Ducks in seven. Through five games, this was one of the best series in recent memory, including six extra periods of overtime hockey. Then the Hawks pulled away with dominant wins in Games 6 and 7, cementing yet another Ducks late-series collapse.
Add it all up: This is one of only two times in the history of the modern format that both conference finals went seven games, so it pretty much has to be on the list. Neither series will be remembered as an all-time classic a decade down the line, but both were very good despite somewhat anti-climactic endings.
In the East: Hurricanes over Maple Leafs in six. This was the Leafs’ fourth trip to the conference finals in a decade (and, in hindsight, their last for a very long time). The two teams combined for three overtime games, and all but one game in the series was decided by one goal. In the deciding Game 6, the Leafs tied the game on a dramatic goalmouth scramble in the dying seconds, only to lose the series on a Martin Gelinas OT winner.
And in the West: Red Wings over Avalanche in seven. The series was everything you’d expect, featuring three overtime games and a dramatic Game 6 win by the Red Wings that featured the infamous Statue of Liberty goal. That set the stage for a dramatic Game 7, the only one played between the two teams over the course of their storied rivalry. And that game was an epic dud – a 7-0 Wings win that stands as one of the worst Game 7s ever.
Add it all up: Both series provided plenty of drama, and while the Wings/Avalanche Game 7 was a bust, it was certainly memorable.