Monday, July 5, 2021

Each of the last 25 Stanley Cup-winning goals, ranked from worst to best

We’re officially into the final week of the NHL season, with the Stanley Cup final ending as early as tonight and no later than Sunday. And that means that this week, somebody on the Habs or Lightning is going to join a reasonably exclusive club: players that have scored Cup-winning goals.

It’s a weird group. Some Cup-winners have been become famous, or at least infamous. Others are all but forgotten, overshadowed by other moments. That seems like solid ground for a ranking, so let’s go back over the last 25 Cup-winning goals and rank them from worst to least. It’s completely subjective, of course, but it’s always fun to Remember Some Guys Goals.

We’ll be using the NHL’s definition of a game-winning goal, which is to say whichever goal put a team over what their opponent would end the game with. If you win 5-2, the third goal is the winner. If you get a shutout, the first goal is. This is a different definition that other sports use (the old game-winning RBI in baseball used to be the one that put a team ahead to stay) but it’s how the NHL has always done it. Sometimes, the game-winning goal is the most important and memorable in the game. Often, as we’re about to see, it isn’t. But it still goes into the record books.

For the most part, I want to look at each of these 25 goals on their own, without worrying too much about context. A Cup-winner that’s scored in Game 7 is obviously more dramatic than one that caps off a sweep, an overtime winner beats one scored in the first period, and one that wins the Cup for your favorite team is obviously more important than any other. We could try to do it that way, but I think it’s more fun if we just judge each goal on its own merits. How cool a play was it? How much skill was involved? How likely was it to make you shake your head, either in amazement or amusement? That’s what we’re looking for here, without too much concern for the bigger picture.

Well, mostly. There’s one goal that’s impossible to strip away from its greater context, and it’s the one you’re probably already thinking of. We might as well get that one out of the way first…

#25. 1999 – Brett Hull, Stars

To this day, virtually every hockey fan outside of Dallas is convinced that this goal shouldn’t have counted. The NHL was a few seasons into its completely awful skate-in-crease rule, and every fan had been taught that even so much as a toenail in the blue paint meant a goal wouldn’t count. Then Hull scored with his foot in the crease, and nobody even seemed to want to bother to review it.

To be fair, the NHL maintains that this goal was a good one under the rules, since Hull had possession of the puck. (Here’s a clip of the director of officiating explaining that on Hockey Night in Canada, which would be a nice thing to bring back for controversial calls these days.) The possession call is debatable, but the bigger issue is that after training fans to expect tedious reviews anytime anyone was near the crease, the NHL skipped over that this time and went straight to the Cup presentation. The whole scene left the impression that the league just didn’t have the guts to even consider overturning a Cup-winning goal when the celebration was already in full swing, and… well, yeah, you can see why people think that.

Even beyond the controversy, this is a pretty anti-climactic goal, especially given that it involves two legends in Brett Hull and Dominik Hasek. It’s just a basic rebound being shoveled home. Factor in the sour taste it leaves in so many fans’ mouths even decades later, and I can’t rank it anywhere else.

#24. 2007 – Chris Phillips, Senators Travis Moen, Ducks

The only thing keeping this out of the #25 spot is that Hull’s goal remains infamous, while this one has (mercifully) been largely forgotten. That’s good news for Phillips, since there’s a case that this moment should live alongside Scott Norwood and Bill Buckner among the all-time worst plays in sports history with a championship on the line.

Oy yoy yoy, indeed.

#23. 2017 – Patric Hornqvist, Penguins

Some games are just designed to make new hockey fans. This was not one of them. With the Cup in the building and the first repeat championship of the cap era on the line, the Predators and Penguins combined for 58 minutes of scoreless hockey. That’s OK, as long as the eventual winning goal is a good one, right? Or we could get a bank shot off the goalie’s behind. That sound you heard was remote controls clicking off all around the continent.

#22. 1996 – Uwe Krupp, Avalanche

At the time, this goal made Krupp just the third defenseman in NHL history to score an overtime Cup winner. The first two were Bill Barilko, whose goal was immortalized in song, and Bobby Orr, whose goal became arguably the most famous in NHL history. Krupp’s goal is not famous, and it will not be the subject of a hit song, unless somebody out there can think of something that rhymes with “a long distance seeing-eye goal in a boring 1-0 game to mercifully end one of the worst finals in history”.

#21. 1995 – Neal Broten, Devils

This one is a little bit of history: Four years before the Hull controversy, here’s the first Cup-winner to ever get the full review treatment. The NHL’s replay system was brand new back then, and there weren’t as many reasons for a review as we have today, but officials could take another look at goals that may have been kicked in.

I still can’t tell if this one was good or not, but how much more fun was replay review when the guys doing it were in the arena and we had a camera on them as they frantically pointed at freeze frames?

#20. 2003 – Mike Rupp, Devils

Rupp played 11 NHL seasons and scored two playoff goals. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this one was the biggest. It comes on a deflection of a Scott Niedermayer point shot. I’d give you more details, but every surviving clip of this goal seems to have been filmed on a potato.

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