Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Ranking all 50 Stanley Cup finals of the expansion era

Through four games, the 2019 Stanley Cup final has been … well, pretty great, actually. It’s featured some big hits, highlight-reel goals, interesting storylines and at least a little bit of bad blood (along with some real blood). Three of the four games weren’t decided until the final moments, including an overtime, the first in the final since 2016. We’ve also seen a lopsided blowout and a few ugly moments, so it hasn’t exactly reached instant classic status yet. But we’re only four games in with at least two more to go and if we get two or three more good games then the 2019 final has a chance to be remembered as one of the better ones in recent memory.

But while we wait to see how this series turns out, let’s spend some time looking back on the ones that came before. There have been exactly 50 Stanley Cup finals in the NHL’s post-expansion history, dating back to 1968. And today, we’re going to rank them all, from worst to best.

Now clearly, this is a subjective exercise. Your view of what makes a series great may not match mine, and it goes without saying that the “best” final will be whichever one your favorite team won. But I think there are certain things that fans tend to look for in a great Cup final. You want fun teams and plenty of stars, with at least a few interesting subplots. Longer series are generally better, and ones that go seven are the best of all, especially if there are a few overtimes along the way. And there should be some sort of signature moment that still resonates, even for fans who weren’t around to see the series play out at the time.

Can we come up with a list everyone will agree on? No, of course not, but that’s half the fun. And at the very least, today’s post will force an answer to the age-old question: Is Sean actually capable of writing an entire post that doesn’t include at least a few sections about the Maple Leafs?

We’ve got 51 years and 50 finals to work through, so let’s start from the bottom. In our case, that means going way back…

#50 – Canadiens over Blues (1969)

#49 – Canadiens over Blues (1968)

The Canadiens were the league’s best team. The Blues were the only one of the six expansion teams that could tie their skates properly. If that strikes you as a recipe for an anticlimactic series, well, you have more foresight than the NHL did. The league’s poorly thought-out playoff format ensured the final would be a massive mismatch, and the Canadiens rolled to a sweep both times. The 1968 series at least included a couple of overtime games, so we’ll nudge it ahead of 1969 in the race for last place.

#48 – Avalanche over Panthers (1996)

This one could have been so good. It looked like we’d get the Avs and the Penguins in a final that would have been stacked with Hall of Famers and high-flying offenses. Instead, the Panthers pulled off an Eastern Conference final upset, then got swept by the Avalanche.

To make matters worse, it was a matchup between a recent expansion team that was so boring you couldn’t even get behind them as a fun underdog and a Colorado team everyone hated at the moment because of Claude Lemieux. One of the games was 8-1, and the series ended on a triple-overtime 1-0 game that set the perfect tone for the Dead Puck era to come.

#47 – Red Wings over Capitals (1998)

#46 – Devils over Red Wings (1995)

That Panthers/Avs series was one of four straight 1990s finals that ended in a sweep, and only one of them was especially interesting. I’m not sure I remember anything at all from the 1998 final apart from the emotional Cup handoff to Vladimir Konstantinov. And the most memorable moment of the 1995 series was probably furious New Jersey fans absolutely ethering Gary Bettman on live TV.

#45 – Oilers over Bruins (1988)

#44 – Islanders over Canucks (1982)

#43 – Canadiens over Rangers (1979)

#42 – Islanders over North Stars (1981)

#41 – Oilers over Flyers (1985)

Is the NHL age of parity a good thing? It’s been a topic of debate in recent years. The NHL thinks it’s great; others (including me) aren’t so sure. Isn’t there something to be said for a good-old-fashioned dynasty?

Sure there is. But as these series remind us, often the thing to be said is “don’t bother watching the final, because the powerhouse team is just going to roll to an easy win.” Watching a heavy favorite cruise to a four- or five-game rout isn’t all that entertaining, which is why all five of these series end up in our bottom-10. The 1988 series deserves a special mention, as it featured an embarrassing power failure that caused one of the games to be wiped out and made the Oilers the only team to ever sweep a five-game final.

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