10 Best Performances in NHL Playoff History

Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers smiles during the Molson Canadien Heritage Classic (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers smiles during the Molson Canadien Heritage Classic. | Dave Sandford/Getty Images

NHL teams are on the journey toward the ultimate prize in hockey, the Stanley Cup. During the tournament, the odds are good that at least one player will perform in a manner that makes fans take note and wonder, “Is this one of the greatest performances in Stanley Cup Playoff history?” Thus, we put together a list of the top 10 performances in NHL playoff history, so you can compare this year’s standout players to the best who ever were.

This list of players includes goalies, forwards, and defensemen. You have Hall of Famers and players who can only enter the Hall if they purchase a ticket. Some competed in an era when it only took eight wins to attain the Cup, and others are from the current era when it takes a more onerous 16 games to lift Lord Stanley’s prize. Some won the Cup, while others fell painfully short. What they all have in common is that they were spectacular on the ice during their pursuit of the prize. These are the 10 best performance in NHL playoff history.

10. Bobby Orr, 1970

On their way to winning the 1970 Stanley Cup, the Boston Bruins lost a total of two games. They experienced both of those losses to the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. After that six-game series, the Bruins swept the Chicago Black Hawks and St. Louis Blues, and the Cup was theirs.

Orr, a defenseman who remains one of the best skaters the game has ever seen, scored 20 points (nine G, 11 A) during the Bruins’ run to the Cup, with the biggest goal being the Cup-winning goal against the Blues — a goal captured as one of the most iconic photographs in NHL history. Orr received the Conn Smythe Trophy that season.

9. J.S. Giguere, 2003

Sometimes a player does everything he possibly can to help his team, and yet he will still fall short of winning the ultimate prize. That happened to Mighty Ducks of Anaheim goalkeeper J.S. Giguere during the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs. In the opening round, the Ducks drew the defending champion Detroit Red Wings, and despite being outshot 171 to 120, the Ducks swept the Wings in four games.

Giguere allowed just six goals that series for a save percentage of .965. Then, the Ducks defeated the Dallas Stars in six games in the next round, with Giguere posting a .936 save percentage. Next up: the Minnesota Wild. The Wild went the way of the Red Wings, as the Ducks swept them in four games, with Giguere throwing three shutouts and posting an incredible .992 save percentage, allowing only one goal (in Game 4).

Sweeping the Wild earned the Ducks a shot at the New Jersey Devils. The Ducks took the Devils to seven games, but they could not get the best of them, losing Game 7 by a score of 3-0. For his performance, Giguere took home the Conn Smythe award. If you want to see what winning the Conn Smythe means to a player who fell short of winning the Stanley Cup, look at Giguere’s face as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hands him the award.

8. Ron Hextall, 1987

Ron Hextall was a rookie in 1987, yet he played well enough in net to get the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately, the team faced the Edmonton Oilers dynasty team during the Cup-clinching series. Hextall won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie in his rookie season and also won the Conn Smythe Trophy in his losing effort — but it wasn’t for a lack of skill or heart.

During the series, Wayne Gretzky of the Oilers said that Hextall was, “probably the best goaltender I’ve ever played against.” Hextall was also one of the most intimidating goalies ever, freely swinging his stick at opposing players. He was also not afraid to drop the gloves if need be. Hextall was an inspiration to his city and his team and remains one of the most beloved players in Flyers history

7. Mark Messier, 1994

The thing most people remember about the New York Rangers’ Mark Messier during the 1994 playoffs was “The Guarantee.” You know the one, with his team down three games to two against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Final, Messier guaranteed that the Rangers would win. Not only did they prevail, but they won 4-2 after falling behind 2-0, with Messier scoring the last three goals of that game.

While the guarantee was awesome, it was only one piece of Messier’s play during the Rangers’ run to the team’s first Stanley Cup win since 1940. With Messier holding the Cup high, his final stats read 30 points (12G, 18A). Messier may not have had the most points during the playoffs that year, but it’s hard to imagine the Rangers winning without the play of their captain.

6. Ken Dryden, 1971

In 1971, Ken Dryden had played just six regular season games in net for the Montreal Canadiens. However, when the playoffs started, Dryden stood in net for one of the most storied franchises in NHL history. No pressure, kid. In the first round, the Canadiens met the Boston Bruins, a team that had won 57 games that season, when seasons were only 78 games and overtime games could still end in a tie.

Despite the odds being against him, Dryden backstopped his team to a 4-3 series win. The team then downed the Minnesota North Stars in six games before getting the best of the Chicago Black Hawks in seven games to capture the Cup. Dryden finished the playoffs with a .914 save percentage and became the first rookie player to ever win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

5. Maurice Richard, 1951

In 1951, a team needed eight wins to get the Stanley Cup. When the Montreal Canadiens accomplished this feat during that year, they were led by the incomparable Maurice “Rocket” Richard. The Canadiens went six games in their first series, downing the Detroit Red Wings. In the Cup Final, Montreal got the best of the Toronto Maple Leafs, besting them in five games. During the 11 games that the Canadiens played that year, Richard scored 13 points (9G, 4A), with three of those goals being overtime game-winners, including one goal in the fourth overtime period.

4. Mario Lemieux, 1991

Mario Lemieux had a rough go of it during the 1991 NHL season, missing 54 regular season games due to a back injury. But when he was on the ice, he was a scoring machine, notching 45 points (19G, 26A) in 26 games. Luckily for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Lemieux was healthy for each of the 23 playoff games.

In those playoff games, Lemieux scored 44 points (16G, 28A) while leading the team to a win over the Minnesota North Stars in the Stanley Cup Final. His 44 points were 10 points higher than the second-highest scorer, Mark Recchi. Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy for his efforts — and he won the award again the next year as the Penguins captured a second consecutive Stanley Cup.

3. Terry Sawchuk, 1952

Back in the original six era, the playoffs were not as lengthy as they are today. There were just two rounds, and in 1952 the Detroit Red Wings made it through them without losing a single game. In the semi-final they swept the Toronto Maple Leafs in four games, with goalie Terry Sawchuk surrendering zero goals in the first two games of the series.

The Red Wings met the Montreal Canadiens in the Cup Final, and Sawchuk again pitched two shutouts, this time in Games 3 and 4. All told, Sawchuk gave up only five goals, earning himself a .977 save percentage.

2. Patrick Roy, 1993

Patrick Roy won four Stanley Cups during his NHL career, two each as the goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche. At least three of those Cup-winning series could have made this list, but for this exercise, we will limit him to just one, the 1993 Stanley Cup run with the Montreal Canadiens.

The Canadiens started the 1993 playoffs in a 2-0 hole to the Quebec Nordiques. Montreal would win the next four games, with two of those wins coming in overtime. Little did the team know that those two overtime wins would set the stage for the rest of the playoff run. The Canadiens swept the Buffalo Sabres in their next series, winning three of those games in overtime. After that, they moved on to play the New York Islanders, who they knocked out of the playoffs in five games, with two more wins coming in overtime.

In the Stanley Cup Final, against the Los Angeles Kings, the Canadiens lost Game 1, but came back to win the next three games in overtime, giving them a record 10 straight overtime wins in the playoffs. They would close out the series in Game 5 for the Cup win. Out of the 16 wins they needed to earn the Cup, the Canadiens had gone to overtime 10 times and won each of those games, a mind-boggling feat. Roy was named the Conn Smythe winner for his play in the net.

1. Wayne Gretzky, 1985

The Edmonton Oilers didn’t really have a rough go of it during the 1985 Stanley Cup Playoffs. All told they lost three games during their run to the Cup and two of those came in the Western Conference Finals when the Chicago Blackhawks managed to take them to six games, and in that series the only games that were relatively close were the games the Oilers lost.

In the games they won against Chicago, the Oilers scored 36 goals to Chicago’s 12. Leading the charge for the Oilers was Wayne Gretzky, who scored 47 points (17G, 30A) during the Oilers run to the Cup, outscoring the No. 2 scorer, Paul Coffey, by 10 points. Gretzky’s play that year won him the first of two Conn Smythe trophies.

Statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com.