The question everyone might be asking around work water coolers this morning has to be: Are the Vegas Golden Knights for real?
After a record season for an expansion team and the caliber of hockey they are playing, this could be an historic year in Nevada.
That is, this Vegas team is looking like a true Stanley Cup contender with every passing game. We won’t be surprised — not now at least — if they win it all.
But, would an improbable sip of Lord Stanley’s mug qualify the expansion upstarts as one of the greatest NHL championship teams of all time? We’ll get back to that in a year if they were to win and repeat.
In the last 50 years — post-expansion that is — it has become more and more difficult to win a Stanley Cup or three, what with all the new teams added and the dilution of the available superstars pool.
Not that it was easy to claim a title in the “Original Six” days, but back then they didn’t have to endure four punishing rounds of hockey to get there, much less an 80-82 game schedule.
Here are 15 teams from the last 50 years (since 1968) who we consider “greatest” champions (in chronological order).
15. Boston Bruins – 1970
In 1970, the powerful Boston Bruins wrapped a great 76-game season in the recently expanded NHL by tying Chicago for first place with 99 points. These were the big, bad Bruins of the Bobby Orr era. Orr, a future Hall of Famer, led the NHL in scoring for the first of two times in his career and won the third of eight straight Norris Trophies. He wasn’t a one-man team, either, as the roster also featured Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and Gerry Cheevers, all future HHOF inductees. In the 1970 playoffs, the Bruins made mincemeat of their first two opponents, taking down the New York Rangers in six games and then sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks 4-0 in the semi-finals. Their Stanley Cup finals opponent, the St. Louis Blues, were making their third straight appearance in the finals (impressive considering they were in the league just three years). The Bruins, on a mission, pelted St. Louis goalies including Glenn Hall for 16 goals, winning games 1-3 by counts of 6-1, 6-2 and 4-1. The Blues, backs against the wall, put a better fight in game 4, taking a short lived lead in the third before Boston tied it late to send the game to overtime. Enter Orr. Just 40 seconds in, Orr and Derek Sanderson executed a perfect give-and-go passing play, with Orr depositing the puck behind Hall and then being sent flying in the air in that iconic photograph.
14. Philadelphia Flyers – 1975
If one team epitomized the brand of hockey played during the roaring 1970s, it was the Philadelphia Flyers, aka the “Broad Street Bullies.” Make no mistake, though, that what was usually branded a band of thugs actually had a lot of talented players on its roster. This Flyers team had snipers like Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and Reggie Leach, who skated alongside hard-nosed enforcers such as Moose Dupont and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz (who had 472 penalty minutes in ’74-75). The defending champion Flyers topped the table in 1974-75 with 113 points in an 18-team NHL. They and three other division winners sat out as eight other clubs battled in a three-game preliminary series. The Flyers drew the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs in the quarter-finals, breezing through in four games (including two shutouts). In the semis, they faced an up-and-coming New York Islanders team. They jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, only to have the Islanders storm back to tie it. Philly avoided an embarrassing and historic collapse by winning game 7 by a count of 4-1. In the only final between 1965 and 1979 not to feature Boston or Montreal, the Flyers and Buffalo Sabres fought the good fight despite fog and and a lone bat flying around in game 3. In then end, the Flyers prevailed by beating the Sabres in a hard fought six-game series.
13. Montreal Canadiens – 1977
When the Philadelphia Flyers won the 1975 cup, no other team other than Montreal would win one until 1980. For the second time in their illustrious history, the Habs won five straight championships. In that quintet of titles, none stood out more than that of 1977. That season, Montreal finished with the greatest regular season record ever at 60-8-12 (W-L-T), good for a whopping 132 points. The Canadiens waltzed through the quarter-finals against St. Louis, beating the Blues in four straight and outscoring them 19-4. Regular season scoring champion Guy Lafleur had 12 points. The semi-finals were against the ever-improving New York Islanders, who gave Montreal everything they had, but still lost 4-2. Great two-way forward Bob Gainey was the hero in that series, scoring both goals in game 6 as Montreal emerged victorious, 2-1. That six-game set hardened the Habs resolve entering the finals against Boston. It wouldn’t be close, as Conn Smythe winner Lafleur recorded nine points in a four-game sweep for Montreal’s third title in a row.
12. New York Islanders – 1982
After years of watching Montreal dismantle the competition in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the New York Islanders — also Habs victims — finally broke through and won a title in 1980. It was followed by another improbable run in 1981 and during the 1981-82 season the Isles cemented their status as ‘dynastic.’ That year, they posted their best record ever, winning 54, losing just 16 and tying 10 for 118 points and first place overall. Mike Bossy was top scorer on that team, firing 64 goals and adding 83 assists for a career high 147 points. They needed all five games of the first round to push aside a determined Pittsburgh team, setting up a thrilling match-up with the rival Rangers. While Bryan Trottier and Bossy recorded 10 and eight points apiece, unsung Bob Bourne was the hero of the series, netting five goals, including two in the series deciding game 6. Once past the pesky Rangers, the Islanders made short work of Quebec in the semi-finals (4-0) and Vancouver in the finals, also via a 4-0 sweep. Bossy won the Conn Smythe, with a playoff leading 17 goals (as well as 10 assists).
11. Edmonton Oilers – 1984
It should have been a five-year championship run for the ridiculously good Oilers teams of the 80s, if not for the hiccup in 1986. The Oilers in the early 1980s were very good, but couldn’t get past the outstanding New York Islanders who beat them in the 1983 Stanley Cup final. The next year, the Wayne Gretzky led Oilers established team records for wins (57) and points (119) en route to another long post-season. The Great One was tops in goals (87) assists (118) and points (205) in yet another Ross and Hart Trophy winning season. Riding shotgun were Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr. Edmonton dispatched Winnipeg in three straight in the first round, but butted heads with hated foe Calgary in the division finals. In that clash of Titans, the Oilers prevailed in seven games, with Edmonton erasing a 4-3 Flames lead in game 7 with four unanswered markers to win it. They whipped the old Minnesota North Stars in four straight to set up a re-match with the Islanders. It wasn’t even close, as the Oilers started their own dynasty by winning the finals in five. Gretzky and Messier, the Conn Smythe winner, were both superb throughout.
10. Pittsburgh Penguins – 1992
Like Wayne Gretzky before him, generational talent Mario ‘Le Magnifique’ Lemieux had to suffer in silence as he accumulated scoring titles and a MVP award, but no Stanley Cup championships. In 1991, after an injury shortened season, Lemieux finally led the Penguins to the Promised Land, leading all players with 44 points as Pittsburgh won its first ever championship. Collectively, the team didn’t have an outstanding season in 1991-92, but with six future Hall of Famers (and a surefire seventh in Jaromir Jagr) in the line-up, this might have been one of the greatest collections of players ever. Even though they weren’t by far the best team in the league that season, the toughest series the Penguins would have was the first one against Washington. The Capitals gave Pittsburgh a scare, winning the first two games handily and by game 4 holding a 3-1 lead. Lemieux, however, put his team on his back, scoring seven of his series leading 17 points in the last two games to complete a comeback. After beating the Rangers in six, the Penguins cruised through the semi-finals and the final, whipping both Boston and Chicago in series sweeps. Lemieux won his second straight Conn Smythe, leading all scorers with 34 point in only 15 games.
9. New York Rangers – 1994
We’re calling these Rangers one of the greatest championship teams of the last 50 years not because they were necessarily the most star-studded, but how they went about busting a decades old drought. What the Rangers, who hadn’t won a Stanley Cup in 54 years, had that season was a load of championship experience, from Mark Messier to Adam Graves, Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, Jeff Beukeboom and Glenn Anderson. The Blueshirts finished first overall and drew the Islanders in the first round, who they sent packing in four straight. Their second round opponent, Washington, weren’t much better, taking New York to just five games before succumbing. Then, in a hard-fought seven-game series with the New Jersey Devils, came Mark Messier’s “guarantee.” With his team down 3-2 in the series, Messier guaranteed his team would win in New Jersey and send the series back to Manhattan. With the Devils up 2-1 entering the third in that pivotal game, Messier scored a natural hat trick to stun New Jersey. The Rangers went on to win game 7 by a count of 2-1 in overtime. The Canucks weren’t an easy mark in the finals, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the series. In one of the more memorable game 7’s ever, Messier’s powerplay goal late in the second stood up as the winner in a 3-2 victory.
8. New Jersey Devils – 1995
It must have been a bitter, bitter pill to swallow, losing to the hated Rangers after Mark Messier’s big guarantee in the spring of 1994. The Devils, who combined plenty of toughness (Scott Stevens), emerging talent (Scott Niedermayer), great goaltending (Martin Brodeur) and grit (Claude Lemieux) had plenty of time to think about that series loss too, as the 1994-95 season was shortened due to a lockout. Once the smoke from that cleared, the abbreviated season saw the Devils get 52 points in 48 games and get back to the playoffs. Brodeur and the Devils were too much for the Boston Bruins in the first round, winning it in five and Brodeur posting three shutouts. Brodeur and Claude Lemieux easily handled the still formidable Pittsburgh Penguins (who had that other Lemieux, Mario) in the second round, with Brodeur limiting the high-flying Pens to just eight goals in five games and Claude Lemieux scoring six times. The Devils needed six games to oust Eric Lindros and the Philadelphia Flyers in the semi-finals, before facing a veteran Detroit Red Wings team in the final. No problem, the Devils won in four straight to claim their first Stanley Cup and Claude Lemieux captured Conn Smythe honors.
7. Detroit Red Wings – 1998
The Wings had the dubious distinction of having one of the best seasons ever in 1995-96, compiling 62 wins and 131 points, only to lose to eventual champion Colorado in the Stanley Cup semi-finals. Steve Yzerman and the boys, though, turned all that disgrace into a championship in 1997 and in 1997-98 they were again a formidable force. They finished third overall with 103 points and featured great players in Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Larry Murphy, Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov and Chris Osgood, among others. The Wings march to their second consecutive championship was laborious, as they needed six games to get by Phoenix, St. Louis and finally Dallas to reach the final against Washington. The underdog Capitals were no match. Little known Red Wing Doug Brown scored four times in four games, including two in game 4 as Detroit won 4-1 to secure the repeat. Stevie Y won the Conn Smythe, with 24 points in 22 games.
6. Colorado Avalanche – 2001
From the time they moved to Denver from Quebec City in 1995 until the end of the 2000-01 season, the Avalanche battled Detroit and Dallas for being the class of the Western Conference and won two titles in that span. In 1999 and 2000, the Avs lost to Dallas in the Conference finals, so in the spring of 2001 they were itching for another shot at hockey’s holy grail. They had topped the NHL with 118 points and were heavy favorites going in, featuring Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, Milan Hejduk and Patrick Roy. Colorado blew by Vancouver in the first round, getting four goals each from Sakic and Chris Drury in four games. Luc Robitaille and the L.A. Kings provided a sterner test in the second round, extending the Avs to seven games. They needed five to subdue St. Louis in the semi-finals, setting up a classic match-up with powerful New Jersey. In one of the best finals ever staged, the two teams see-sawed victories until the Devils held a 3-2 edge. Roy, though, registered his second shutout of the series in a 4-0 games six win and then stopped 25 of 26 in game 7 as Colorado beat Jersey 3-1. He was easily named Conn Smythe winner.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning – 2004
The Lightning spent many years in the playoff wilderness after joining the NHL in 1992. They made the post-season just once in their first 10 seasons and then went two rounds deep in 2003. The next season, the Bolts finished second overall and boasted a very highly skilled squad fronted by Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Nikolai Khabibulin in net. The Bolts needed just one game over minimum to beat the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens in the first two rounds. The road was studded with potholes thereafter, especially in the semis against Philadelphia. Up 3-2 in the series and playing in Philadelphia, the Lightning could have put the Flyers away, leading 4-3 with less than two minutes left in the third. But the Flyers tied it and won in OT, forcing game 7. They battled and won game 7, sending them to their first final ever against Calgary. It, too, would prove to be yet another seven-game classic. The teams traded shutouts during games three and four of the low-scoring series, tying it up at 2-2. Calgary won in overtime in Tampa in game 5 and looked to be in the driver’s seat for game 6. But, St. Louis scored in double OT to win it for Tampa in game 6 and the Bolts finished the big comeback by winning 2-1 at home.
4. Anaheim Ducks – 2007
Like any expansion team, the former Mighty Ducks of Anaheim struggled to find their footing in the NHL. In their first nine seasons they played in three post-season series and won all of four games. Then, in 2003, they made a surprise trip to the Stanley Cup finals, dropping a hotly contest seven-game series to the New Jersey Devils. The Ducks then missed the playoffs, endured a full season locked out and lost to Edmonton in the 2006 Western Conference finals. In 2006-07, everything seemed to come together for them. Veteran hands Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger led a team with promising young stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the roster. Jean-Sebastian Giguere, the goaltending hero and Conn Smythe winner in 2003, was still manning the pipes. Anaheim drew Minnesota in the first round and took them out in five, ditto the Vancouver Canucks in the second round. A veteran laden Detroit Red Wings team, with plenty of Stanley Cup rings to go around, took a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference final, but were no match for a fired up Ducks squad that won the next three straight. The Ottawa Senators weren’t quite up to the task in the finals, as Perry and Getzlaf combined for four goals and 10 points to help pace the first-time champs.
3. Los Angeles Kings – 2012
Since the inception of the new playoff format, no eighth seeded team, other than the Los Angeles Kings, has went on to win a Stanley Cup. For that reason alone we are ranking this Kings team as one of the greatest champions (and they proved it was no fluke, winning again in 2014). L.A. was hardly chopped liver in 2012, recording 95 points to grab the last playoff spot in the west. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty were just coming into their own, veterans such as Justin Williams provided playoff leadership and relative newcomers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were scoring wild cards. In net, Jonathan Quick had few peers. The Kings, who got four goals from Dustin Brown, shocked the 2011 Stanley Cup finalist and Presidents Trophy winning Vancouver in the first round, winning it in five games. Brown and Kopitar both registered six points as L.A. swept aside St. Louis in four, which preceded a relatively easy five-game set with Phoenix. In the finals, the Kings were faced with the prospect of shutting down Ilya Kovalchuk and a good New Jersey Devils team. But, that is what they did, limiting Kovalchuk to a single goal in six games, while Conn Smythe winner Quick recorded a shutout and allowed all of seven goals to backstop the Kings to their first title.
2. Chicago Blackhawks – 2015
Two teams have won six of the last nine Stanley Cups, meaning that there were potentially two dynasties. The Chicago Blackhawks, one of them, have faded since winning the last of three in 2015. Led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the Hawks won the franchise’s first title in 49 years in 2010, beating Philadelphia in the finals. Three years later, after a lockout shortened season, they clipped the 2011 champion Boston Bruins in the final. Fast forward to 2015 and the aging Blackhawks core was facing stiff competition from St. Louis, Nashville and Anaheim in the west. As the third seed in the Central, they had to face second seed Nashville, but beat them out in six games to move on. Kane zapped the hapless Minnesota Wild for five goals as the Blackhawks won in a sweep. The deep and talented Ducks were directly in Chicago’s path to a third title and put up one hell of a fight. After Chicago won game four in double OT to knot the series at 2-2, the Ducks returned the favor and won game 5 in OT (5-4). Undaunted, Chicago easily won games six and seven to move on. Tampa, which rode the hot goaltending of Ben Bishop to reach the finals, actually grabbed a 2-1 series lead. However, Corey Crawford stymied the Bolts attack, limiting it to just two goals over the next three games, including a 2-0 shutout in game 6 as the Hawks won it all again.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins – 2017
In the new NHL with its 31 teams, anyone who can win back-to-back should be considered a dynasty. One would have thought that after back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 (loss to Detroit) and 2009 (win over Detroit) that Sidney Crosby and the gang would roll to a couple more titles. However, the Holy Grail of Hockey is elusive and for six playoff seasons Pittsburgh underwhelmed despite the presence of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. They won just four playoff series total and bowed meekly to the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. The Pens found their form again in 2016, winning it all with Crosby copping the Conn Smythe. With no repeat winner since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings, it didn’t seem that the Penguins would have a shot at repeating. They finished third in the Metropolitan, but beat second place Columbus in five games, before sending Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals to yet another early defeat, winning in seven. The surprising Ottawa Senators gave Pittsburgh fits in the east final, especially by winning game 6 to square the series after getting drubbed 7-0 in game five. Chris Kunitz sent Pittsburgh to the final by scoring in double OT in game 7. Nashville gamely fought in the final, but eventually fell easily in six, getting shut out in games 5 and 6.