If I asked you to come up with the perfect night of NHL playoff hockey, what criteria would you go by?
Maybe you’d start with star power. In that case, you’d probably want to see that year’s MVP, or the Vezina winner, or the Norris winner, and hell why not also the Norris runner up. Maybe you’d rather just have arguably the most skilled player of all time, or the player he’d soon pass the torch to. Or you might want to see a superstar pull off something that nobody had ever done before. If you were especially greedy, maybe you’d insist on all of those guys.
Or maybe you’d skip the individual names and go for team-based storylines. You could start with a team in collapse, or an underdog chasing their first series win in forever, or a favorite facing down a decade-long drought, or one that was barely hanging on as a franchise and needed a win to survive. Maybe you’d want a long-running rivalry that had produced a constant string of playoff matchups, or a brand new one. You’d probably want the Presidents’ Trophy winners in there, and maybe the runners-up too. You’d definitely want the defending Stanley Cup champions to be involved, and also the next winner. Heck, why not the next four. You’d want drama, and overtime, and bad blood, and high stakes.
Or maybe you’d skip all of that and just insist on two words: Game 7. The best two words in playoff hockey, because it means a true winner-take-all showdown. One team survives and moves on to chase a championship, and one goes home with their hearts broken. A Game 7 is the best. Or maybe more than one.
Could I interest you in all of the above?
Good. Let’s look back on the single greatest night in the history of the NHL playoffs. Let’s head back almost exactly 30 years, to May 1, 1992, and let’s savor the chaos of something we’d never seen before, have never seen since, and probably never will again: Four separate Game 7 showdowns all happening at the same time.
Eight teams, eight stories
The 1992 playoffs almost hadn’t happened, with a player strike on April 1 marking the first work stoppage in NHL history and threatening to scrap the season. The strike lasted 10 days, pushing the playoffs back (and setting the stage for decades of lockouts to come), and the postseason officially began on April 18.
Back then, the NHL defaulted to scheduling each conference on alternating days — no weird gaps, no random back-to-backs, just the knowledge that your team would play every second night for as long as they could last. The Campbell went first in 1992, and served up four very good series. Two of those went six games, and two more went the full seven, with those two deciding games being played on April 30; the Canucks beat the Jets and the Wings outlasted the Stars. Not a bad night of hockey.
But the next night was the main event, because the Wales Conference saw all four series go the distance. That meant four Game 7s on one night. And with the Wales being the forerunner to the Eastern Conference, all four of those games were in the same time zone. Eight teams, eight seasons on the line, four winner-take-all showdowns, and all of it happening at the same time. We’d never seen it before, and we’ve never seen it since. May 1, 1992 delivered something unique in the history of the league.
There was a time when a nearly decade-long drought in Buffalo meant losing in the playoffs, not missing them altogether.
That’s the first thing you need to know about the Sabres/Bruins series. Buffalo came into it having failed to make the second round since 1983, a stretch that included six first-round exits, so the angst was palpable. They’d also faced the Bruins four times in the 1980s, and lost all four series. They needed this one, badly.
That’s not to say that the Sabres were an especially good team. They’d finished 31-37-12 for 74 points, which wasn’t much even in the pre-loser point days. It could get you into the playoffs in the 21-team era, but this team was far from a juggernaut. But they were stacked up front, boasting three future Hall of Famers in Pat LaFontaine, Dale Hawerchuk and Dave Andreychuk, plus a fourth who should be there with them in Alexander Mogilny.
LaFontaine had come over in a midseason trade with the Islanders and racked up 46 goals and 93 points in just 57 games, the kind of video game numbers that gave a team some swagger. But the blue line was unimpressive, and the goaltending duties would fall to a 25-year-old named Tom Draper who was in his first season as a quasi-starter. Still, there was hope.
The Bruins were a veteran team built to win, having lost two recent finals. They had Ray Bourque and Adam Oates — the latter being another midseason trade pickup — and the serviceable Andy Moog in net. They had a soon-to-be record-setting Joe Juneau and the cursed Glenn Murray. They’d posted a respectable 84 points, and had home ice. But they seemed vulnerable, with Cam Neely out with injury and not as much depth as you’d expect on a contender.
The series had been a see-saw affair through five games, all of them close, with the Bruins earning a 3-2 lead thanks to a pair of overtime wins and the Sabres suffering a major loss when Mogilny broke his leg in Game 2. But the tide seemed to turn in Game 6, when the Sabres jumped out to a 5-0 lead and poured in three late goals to make the final 9-3. Moog was yanked, Bourque was a minus-3, and the Aud was rocking. It started to feel like Game 7 was building to the moment when the Sabres would finally slay the dragon.
It wasn’t. Murray opened the scoring in the first, but LaFontaine tied it in the second. (The goal gave LaFontaine at least one in every game of the series, the only player to ever do that in a seven-game matchup.) The teams traded goals early in the third, setting up a nail-biting finish. And with so many stars in play, it was an unlikely hero who stepped up to decide things.
The lead would hold, despite a furious Sabres push that included an absolutely jaw-dropping robbery by Moog on the red-hot LaFontaine. The end result: Same as it always was, with the Sabres watching the Bruins celebrate another series win.
Epilogue: The nine-year streak of playoff futility would motivate the Sabres to go all-in on a blockbuster trade for a proven winner. No longer content to trust their playoff goaltending to the Tom Drapers of the world, Buffalo paid up to pry four-time Cup winner Grant Fuhr out of Toronto, and he started every game of the inevitable 1993 rematch with the Bruins. That one saw the Sabres finally break through, winning the series on the legendary May Day goal.
In that sense, you could say that the trade worked out perfectly, and maybe the pain of 1992 was even worth it in the end. (Although in hindsight, they already had a pretty decent goaltender already on the roster …)
If I told you that the Penguins met the Capitals and it went down in history as an epic collapse for one team, I bet you’d never guess which one it was that huh OK, yeah, you all got it right. It’s the Caps.
The twist here is that back in 1992, the dynamic was still mostly new. This was only the second time that the two teams had ever met in the playoffs, with the previous meeting being a fairly nondescript Penguins win in 1991. And while the Capitals had become the first team in NHL history to blow a 2-0 series lead in a best-of-five in 1985, and followed that up by being the third team to blow a 3-1 series lead in a best-of-seven in 1987, their reputation as playoff chokers hadn’t been baked into their DNA. Yet.
For their part, the Penguins came into the series a the defending Cup champions, and featured a powerhouse offense led by Mario Lemieux (131 points in 64 games) and Kevin Stevens (54 goals), plus Larry Murphy, Mark Recchi, a young Jaromir Jagr, and old Bryan Trottier, and Ron Francis. They were loaded. But they’d stumbled through the regular season, finishing 11 points back of the Capitals, who had home ice.
That paid off when the Caps took the first two games, and after splitting two in Pittsburgh, they headed back to Washington with another 3-1 lead. The Penguins came back from a second-period deficit to win Game 5, then did the same in Game 6 thanks to some Mario magic. We were off to Game 7.
The showdown featured the two highest-scoring teams in the league, so of course it would turn into a tight one, with Lemieux opening the scoring with a short-handed goal in the first and Al Iafrate knotting it early in the second. Jagr gave Pittsburgh the lead again at the midway mark, and they’d hold it the rest of the way, with Joe Mullen’s empty-netter sealing it. Francis had three assists and Murphy added another, meaning every Penguin point on the night came from a future Hall of Famer.
It was a crushing loss for the Capitals team that seemed to be on the verge of a statement. To make matters worse, the Penguins would go on to absolutely steamroll the rest of the postseason, winning 12 of their next 14 games on the way to repeating as champions. What might have been …
Epilogue: The Capitals would get some revenge with a first-round win in 1994 before losing seven straight series to the Penguins over the next 23 years. That list included blowing a 3-1 series lead again in 1995, not to mention losing to Pittsburgh in 2009, 2016 and 2017 and then watching them go on to win the Cup each time. The Caps finally broke the streak in 2018, beating the Penguins in six and winning a Cup of their own. The two teams haven’t played since because the hockey gods lost interest.
The birth of a rivalry
The 1991-92 season was the 10th in the history of the New Jersey Devils, starting with the franchise’s 1982 move from Colorado. They’d packed a lot into those 10 years, including being ethered by the game’s greatest player and making a stunning playoff run that ended in arguably the biggest controversy in NHL history. But one thing they’d never done was face the crosstown Rangers in the playoffs. Until this series.
They picked a rough year to debut the rivalry, because the 1991-92 Rangers were built to win. They’d captured the Presidents’ Trophy, and had 50 wins for the first time in franchise history. Mark Messier had arrived and put up an MVP season, while Brian Leetch had become just the fifth defenseman to ever have 100 points. They were heavy favorites heading into the series.
The Rangers took Game 1, but the Devils surprised them in the next two before New York knotted things with a road win in Game 4. The Rangers won a laugher in Game 5, but the Devils held serve in Game 6. That one ended up being the most memorable of the series, ending with a full-scale brawl that featured Scott Stevens and Tie Domi fighting on the bench. It won’t surprise you to learn that Claude Lemieux was in the middle of it all.
It set us up for a dramatic deciding game, and the narrative was clear: The mighty Rangers had to win, while the Mickey Mouse Devils were fighting to prove themselves and earn respect. And there was an extra element that seems almost unbelievable: The Rangers had yet to win a Game 7 in the 65-year history of the franchise.
The game didn’t exactly end up being a classic. The Rangers jumped out to an early lead, and were up 6-1 midway through the second. The Devils scored three straight to stir some thoughts of a collapse, but two late insurance goals salted away an 8-4 Rangers win. Little brother would have to wait to earn that respect.
By the way, you know how sometimes a blockbuster movie will end with a lingering shot of a minor character who’ll end up being crucial in the sequels? The Devils left Chris Terreri in for the entire game rather than turn to the backup, who had only played a few minutes in the series. In fairness, that kid was only 19 years old and had played just a handful of NHL games. Some fresh-faced rookie named Martin Brodeur.
Epilogue: The Rangers went on to lose to the Penguins in a series best remembered for Adam Graves breaking Mario Lemieux’s wrist. But the main event came in 1994, when the Rangers and Devils crossed paths again, this time in the conference finals. That one ended up being an all-timer, with Messier’s guarantee and Stephane Matteau’s overtime winner paving the way to New York’s first Stanley Cup since 1994. The Devils would win their first the following year.
The double-OT dagger
You knew we couldn’t call it the greatest playoff night ever if there wasn’t some sudden death.
In this case, that ends up being almost too literal. The Whalers came into this series already on life support as a franchise, with questions about the market’s ability to survive in the NHL’s evolving financial landscape. Part of the problem was the team’s track record of mediocrity or worse; they’d won just one playoff round since joining the league in 1979, while losing six series. Half of those had come at the hands of the Canadiens, including a seven-game thriller in 1986 and a 1989 sweep that ended on an ugly OT goal by Russ Courtnall.
The 1992 meeting set the stage for redemption. It certainly wasn’t a good Whalers team — with just 65 points, they weren’t just the league’s worst playoff team, but they finished behind three teams that didn’t even qualify. They barely had any star power, having traded franchise icon Ron Francis to the Penguins at the previous deadline. Only the division-based format and the incompetence of the Nordiques offered them a chance at the Habs, and they went into the series as heavy underdogs.
Losing the first two in Montreal while scoring just two goals didn’t exactly give anyone upset vibes. But the series flipped when it went to Hartford, with the Whalers taking the third and fourth games to even things up. The Habs held strong back at home in Game 5, in a game featuring some bad blood involving future Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth. But the Whalers survived with a Game 6 win in overtime, thanks to unlikely hero Yvon Corriveau.
That set the stage for the seventh game, and it didn’t take much imagination to inflate the stakes. With a win, the Whalers could finally deliver a trademark moment to their long-suffering fans, and maybe take a big step down the road to remaining viable. Lose yet again, and it could be their last chance. They’d have to face down a legend in his prime in Patrick Roy, but the Whalers had a trump card: deadline pickup Frank Pietrangelo, who’d been part of the Penguins’ Cup run the previous year. He’d started a Game 7 for those Penguins, and posted a shutout win. Coming off a 42-save performance in Game 6 against Montreal, he looked like he could be the big-game equalizer.
He was. After Montreal jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, Pietrangelo shut the door. That allowed Hartford to claw back in the second, tying the game on goals by Andrew Cassels and Geoff Sanderson, two of the most Whalers-y names imaginable. The teams stayed knotted through the third, and then through a first overtime. The Forum ghosts were starting to sweat.
With Pietrangelo crossing the 50-save mark and a franchise’s future teetering in the balance, this happened.
Courtnall again. Habs again. Heartbreak in Hartford, again.
Epilogue: While we couldn’t have imagined it at the time, this game is notable in Canadiens history for being the last win of the Pat Burns era; Montreal would go on to be swept by the Bruins in Round 2, paving the way for Burns to jump to Toronto and Jacques Demers to guide the team to the 1993 Cup.
If Hartford wins that game and completes the upset, who can say what kind of playoff run they go on to, and whether that has any impact on their franchise future. We’ll never know. As it turns out, Courtnall’s goal to end the craziest night of Game 7 action the NHL had ever seen would also stand as the very last moment in Hartford Whalers playoff history. They’d never return to the postseason, and the team moved to Carolina in 1997.
(Top photo of Rangers vs. Devils Game 7 of the 1992 playoffs: Bill Kostroun / AP Photo)