It’s simple. In hockey, there is no better sign of a tense game or bitter rivalry than when players drop their gloves and a fight breaks out. Slap shot goals are great, and a spastic goalie save will certainly make fans’ jaws fall to the floor. But when a crucial win is on the line against a terrible foe, tempers are sure to flair and punches will surely be thrown. The non-fight crowd can’t even deny it; there is nothing in hockey quite like when players start throwing haymakers.
The NHL regular season has its fair share of engaging fights (ahem, this season’s full line brawl between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks). But the most intense fisticuffs are the ones that take place in the playoffs, as teams engage in the battle for Lord Stanley’s Mug. With the stakes so high and the pressure so great, the hits will surely be harder and the chances of a smackdown will escalate. Naturally, a select few playoff scraps top the rest.
The NHL has cracked down on fighting in recent years, making the role of the fight instigator a more serious offense. Which, of course, makes these moments in league history even more incredible. Here is a look at the best NFL fights and brawls in playoff history.
8. Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins – April 15, 2012
The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs featured a whole slough of big brawls. And with bitter rivals Pittsburgh and Philadelphia facing off, it was only a matter of time before a massive fight broke out. Pittsburgh had a 7-4 in the third frame of Game 3 in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals when then-Penguin James Neal laid a dirty hit on Philly’s Sean Couturier. The hit ignited a fiery mess of flying fists that peppered the last few minutes of the already-contentious tilt.
7. Chicago Blackhawks vs. Phoenix Coyotes – April 17, 2012
Sometimes a big brawl erupts when a player lays down a nasty hit, and the opposing team takes him on. And nobody can have a discussion about nasty NHL fights without talking about Raffi Torres. He did, after all, make league history when the NHL handed him a 41-game suspension in 2015.
Torres made his mark on the playoffs fight reel when he laid a brutal blindsided hit on Chicago’s Marian Hossa. As the Blackhawk’ winger rolled on the ice in pain, his teammates dog-piled on top of Torres. Officials halted play as they battled to pull players off the heap. The fight concluded, but the hit earned Torres a 25-game suspension that kept him out of the rest of the playoffs. A couple years later, while playing for the San Jose Sharks, he exited the playoffs early again for a hit on LA Kings’ Jarrett Stoll.
6. St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks – April 14, 2012
The Sharks and Blues have played each other tough for several years. The atmosphere typically indicates that a fight is on the horizon. During the 2012 playoffs, those bad feelings bubbled over like overheated soup on the stove.
St. Louis had just shut Team Teal out 3-0 in the second game of the series to knot things up at a game a piece. A frustrated Sharks team took their frustration out on the Blues after the final buzzer sounded. Sharks’ defenseman Douglas Murray, who was common fighter, led the charge off to the side of San Jose’s goal, and multiple players jumped into the dog pile of a brawl that the refs struggled to stop.
Sharks defenseman Justin Braun, who to this day is not a common fighter, exchanged punches with Blues’ d-man Roman Polak. The two played together four seasons later when the Sharks picked up Polak ahead of their 2016 payoff run. San Jose won the Western Conference that season, defeating — drumroll, please — St. Louis.
5. Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues – April 19, 2014
No matter what professional sport you look at, teams from Chicago and St. Louis don’t play nice. So of course, the Blackhawks and the Blues — two franchises that put a heavy-hitting product on the ice in recent history — don’t particularly like each other.
The whole debacle in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs started with Chicago’s Brent Seabrook laying a massive hit on then-Blues forward David Backes. The hit knocked Backes out for a couple seconds, and his Blues teammates charged after the Blackhawks in his defense. Backes picked himself up and attempted to join the scrap, but he was clearly still in a daze and unable to fully keep his skates under him. Seabrook was ejected from the game, and later “hit” with a three-game suspension.
4. St. Louis Blues vs. Detroit Red Wings – April 12, 1991
The story goes that the St. Louis Blues were down 3-1 against the Detroit Red Wings in the 1991 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They eventually rallied to win the series and become just the eighth team to win after being down 3-1 in the series, per NHL.com. But that’s not why most folks remember this series. Most fans remember this series for the April 4, 1991 massacre.
In summary: 298 penalty minutes. Multiple ejections. An escalating brew of fisticuffs and five straight minutes of footage of players punching each other in the face and others trying to stop them, with varying degrees of failure.
3. Boston Bruins vs. New York Islanders – April 17, 1980
This exchange of unpleasantries was during the second game of the quarterfinals in the 1980 NHL playoffs, which the Islanders would win, 4-1, over the hapless Bruins. For fans of silver linings, though, there’s the fact that Terry O’Reilly definitely won this fight (although the Boston squad lost the game, 5-4, in overtime).
While the two players had three more evenly matched NHL fights over the course of the series, we must side with the DropYourGloves.com reviewers, who universally give the W to O’Reilly, describing the scene as, “A fiery, feisty, fight between these two tough guys,” and “The first of their classic playoff tilts.” One also suggests that O’Reilly falls down “as usual,” because that quickly becomes a thing with him.
2. Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens – May 21, 1978
The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens still hold claim to one of the fiercest NHL rivalries. The two teams have incited riots since 1955. For the past 60 years, they’ve exuded enmity that goes well beyond the standard fare of sports animosity, which is typically more for the fans than the actual players involved.
Arguably the best fight between the two happened all the way back in 1978, in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals. It featured Pierre Bouchard and Stan Johnathan. In the words of a user on DropYourGloves.com, “Both fighters, by the way, should be lauded for standing up like men and trading fire in a mano-a-mano, let’s-settle-this-thing manner; no post-’eighties hug-and-duck tactics here!” It’s pretty intense, that’s for sure. Check out the entire fight above.
1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens – May 14, 1987
This isn’t just the biggest fight in NHL playoffs history; it is a top moment in the history of the league. Part of the beauty is that both teams were so heavily involved. But most of the wonder comes from the fact that this massive 10-plus minute brawl took place before the tilt even started.
The whole debacle ensued at the end of pregame warmups, with most of the players already heading to their respective dressing rooms. Legendary Habs’ forward Claude Lemieux attempted to cap off his warmup the same way he did many others, by shooting a puck into the Flyers’ empty net. The gesture didn’t sit well with Philadelphia’s Ed Hospodar and Chico Resch, and Hospodar showed his dislike with his mitts. The chaotic fight pulled both teams out of their dressing rooms to join in on the team-on-team massacre.
Two things stick out most about this epic bout: First, half of the players involved aren’t in full uniform, creating an odd spectacle of exposed hockey pads. But most famously, this brawl is a league highlight because the officials gave out no penalties, since the fight occurred before opening puck drop.
It’s only fair to wonder how this brawl would have played out in the current league. With that in mind…
As previously mentioned, the rules for fighting have changed
More than likely, people would look at a pregame brawl, like the one between Montreal and Philadelphia, a bit differently nowadays. The NHL first made an effort to curb fighting in the early ’90s, with the “Instigator Rule” taking the form we know today. Even with the aforementioned playoff instances, violence in the league has notably decreased in the last 20-plus years.
With the growing knowledge of concussions, the league now takes a more serious look at hits to the head. Many in-game officials don’t let many NHL fights come to fruition, breaking players up the second they start jawing at each other.