Greenberg ranks five decades of Cup memories

Tuesday, 06.25.2013 / 4:13 PM
Jay Greenberg  - Special to

Jay Greenberg has covered hockey for parts of five decades, covering the expansion Kansas City Scouts and the Philadelphia Flyers as a beat writer, as well as writing for Sports Illustrated, The Hockey News, The Toronto Sun and New York Post. He authored the book Full Spectrum, a history of the Flyers' first 30 years, while another book, Gordie Howe's Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey, co-authored with Mark Howe, will be published in October. This fall, during Hockey Hall of Fame induction weekend in Toronto, Greenberg will receive the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for excellence in hockey journalism, presented by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. To celebrate a life in hockey, asked Greenberg to rate his top 20 moments from the Stanley Cup Playoffs during his illustrious career.

Regrets? I have a few, even after being lucky enough to cover every Stanley Cup Final but two between 1976 and 2003, then three more since.

Forced against my will as a general sports columnist to cover basketball come spring, I only was able to watch pieces of the grand wars between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche on television. And in the salary-cap era, this old dynasty lover fears he never again will see a Final rematch like Detroit and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09. I wanted badly to be there.

My problem is that I have seen enough to realize that I never will see enough. So when asked by to rank my greatest playoff memories, I only wanted to know: How many? We decided on 20. Here they are:

1. In 19 years as a general columnist after 17 years on the hockey beat, I did World Series, Super Bowls, Olympics and the Buffalo Bills' miracle comeback. And still the single most dramatic event I ever covered ended with Yvon Lambert's Game 7 overtime goal that put the Montreal Canadiens into the 1979 Stanley Cup Final. The plot had built over three years with a Canadiens sweep over the Boston Bruins in the 1977 Final, then a six-game triumph over Boston in the 1978 Final. In a semifinal series this time, the Bruins got it to Game 7, which they led 3-1 early in the third period, then 4-3 when Rick Middleton beat Ken Dryden with just 3:59 to go.

Then it happened. The Bruins messed up a line change, put too many men on the ice and Guy Lafleur, the best player in the game, strapped the dynasty to his back. On the power play, he went almost the length of the ice to nail a bullet from the top of the circle to Gilles Gilbert's stick side with 1:14 remaining.

The Bruins finally had them, and then they didn't, both because of a hideous, ironic twist and a three-time champion's resolve not to let go of the rope. The Canadiens of that era, who would go on to beat the Rangers in the 1979 Final for a fourth-straight Cup, were the best team I've ever seen, and those Bruins of the Don Cherry era may have been the best never to win. I have been to my share of funerals, and the visitor's locker room at the Forum that night still was the saddest place I ever have been.

2. I have never seen a team under more pressure rise as magnificently as did the Edmonton Oilers to finally put away the Philadelphia Flyers in 1987 in Game 7 of the best Final I ever saw. A year after the dynasty was interrupted by Steve Smith's goal into his own net, and just three days after the Flyers had come from two goals down to win Game 6, the Oilers, after falling behind early on a two-man advantage goal, cranked up what Flyers defenseman Mark Howe says today is the best game he had ever seen an opponent play. Even so, with six future Hall of Famers against one (Howe), the score was 2-1 with less than three minutes to go when Glenn Anderson beat a brilliant Ron Hextall to put the series away.

3. Still, the above probably was only the fourth best game of that series. The Flyers, minus four-time 50-goal scorer Tim Kerr, were down 3-0, 3-1 and 2-0 in the games they won, evidence of just how hard they were to kill in that Game 7. Even people who were at Philadelphia's 1-0 Cup clincher over the Bruins in 1974, the franchise's first title, swear the Spectrum never was louder than when J.J. Daigneault bounced one in from the point past Grant Fuhr to put the Flyers in the lead in Game 6. When you see a video of that goal, the picture jumps. That's how much the building was shaking.

4. Of course, the Spectrum didn't have that high ceiling like Madison Square Garden's to diffuse 54 years of primal scream therapy on the 1994 night the New York Rangers finally got it done. "Now I can die in peace," read a fan's sign, which said it better than I did in 800 or so words. On deadline, there is not time to actually take in the great moments you are sitting down to describe, but I distinctly remember thinking how fortunate I was to be there for one of the most longed-for events in the game's history.

5. Then again, it is hard to separate that one from Game 7 of the preceding series against the New Jersey Devils. Never been in a more stressed-out place than The Garden that night, and that was just before Valeri Zelepukin's tying goal with seven seconds remaining took it to the level of excruciating. Stephane Matteau wrapped the puck around in double overtime to wrap up the second-best series we ever saw, and, for the winning team, probably the most cathartic.

6. In time will come the perspective to properly rank two goals in 17 seconds within the final 1:16 to win a Stanley Cup. But first I have to fully believe what I saw on Monday night. It was the most stunning ending ever, probably, because of a hugely clutch performance by Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who was coming off a blow to the head in the preceding game and had struggled for much of these four rounds besides. This will get bigger in time if the Blackhawks, the first to win two Cups in the cap era, capture more to become an iconic team. Did I tell you I love those dynasties?

7. Bob Nystrom's overtime goal in 1980 that started one for the New York Islanders came courtesy of one of the most clutch goal-scorers in playoff history, off a smart criss-cross with John Tonelli to culminate a game that had everything, including the notorious missed offside on the Islanders' second goal, and a two-goal third period rally by the Flyers.

After going a mind-boggling 35 straight games without a loss during the regular season, those Flyers will go to their graves believing the Cup was their destiny if they had gotten the series back to the Spectrum for Game 7. But their defense was in tatters and they couldn't stop the Islanders' power play. It was New York's time.

8. Wayne Gretzky scored 122 postseason goals, and once had seven points in a playoff game. But the best I ever saw him, in the most pressure-packed situation, was in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Final when his hat trick for the Los Angeles Kings beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 at Maple Leaf Gardens.

After scoring the winner in overtime in Game 6 in Los Angeles, Gretzky opened the scoring, answered after the Leafs had scored twice to tie the game, then purposely banked in what proved to be the winner off Dave Ellet's skate, a triumph of will over Doug Gilmour and a tremendously willful Leaf team.

9. The greatest single-game playoff performance I ever saw from an individual was Mario Lemieux in Game 5 of the Patrick Division Final against the Flyers in 1989. Lemieux had hurt his neck in Game 4, and after considerable speculation that he wasn't going to play, he skated like a man possessed onto the ice of a wired Civic Arena. By the end of the first period, he had a hat trick on the way to a five-goal, eight-point night, in a wild 10-7 win for the Penguins.

10. The second best individual playoff game I ever saw was by Mark Messier in Game 4 of the 1990 Western Conference Final in Chicago. Messier ran over every Blackhawk in his path on the way to two goals and two assists that erased a 2-1 series deficit. The Oilers lost only one playoff game thereafter to win their only Cup without Gretzky.

11. Messier's legendary guarantee, followed by his Game 6 hat trick at the Meadowlands to keep the Rangers alive in 1994, was opportunistic and magical. Four years after his demonic Chicago Stadium performance, Messier wasn't quite the same physical specimen, only the same magnificent leader. Do not let any revisionist tell you the media put words in Messier's mouth or overdramatized a simple statement of confidence in his team. I was directly in front of him when he volunteered what he obviously had come to the practice rink prepared to say: "We will win this game."

12. Covered my share of marathons, endlessly heroic struggles ended by Pat LaFontaine and Petr Klima -- and sorry they aren't higher on my list because when fatigue sets in, understandably, the level of play slows down. I wasn't at Philadelphia-Pittsburgh in the 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinals. But in the end, that was the best epic one we ever saw, both because it went even longer than those other two -- 92:01 of overtime -- and because Keith Primeau had such a remarkable burst of energy to rifle one by Ron Tugnutt to end it.

13. If 1979 didn't convince me there were ghosts in the rafters of the Forum, I became a believer in 1993, when the Kings, seemingly destined to win a championship in the Gretzky era, clobbered the Canadiens in Game 1 and had them shut down in Game 2 until the final seconds, when Guy Carbonneau spotted Marty McSorley's illegal banana blade. The Canadiens scored on the power play to tie the game, beginning a run of three straight overtime wins and wrapped it up in five, producing my scariest Stanley Cup memory, seeing all the busted glass on Ste-Catherine Street on the way back to my hotel.

14. With the possible exception of Gretzky getting his first crack at the Islanders in 1983, no series had the buildup of the Canadiens' rescue of the Holy Grail from the heathens, the Flyers, in 1976. But the contrasts of styles and the Flyers' villainy made this a watershed series for sport.

Neither Bernie Parent nor Rick MacLeish were able to play, but five Hall of Famers -- Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe and Ken Dryden -- couldn't stop Reggie Leach from scoring five goals in the most intensely-contested sweep we ever saw. Total margin of the Canadiens' victory: five goals.

15. The only players who haven't fantasized about completing a career with a Stanley Cup-winning goal are the ones who don't think they are good enough to dare dream about it. In 1989, for the Calgary Flames at the Montreal Forum, Lanny MacDonald was the only star I knew who actually lived the dream.

Even the Forum ghosts, allowing for McDonald's inevitable election into the Hockey Hall of Fame, must have thought it pretty cool, because they allowed it to happen.

"The most peaceful feeling I ever have known in hockey," McDonald said. "There was no weight to it. You could carry that forever and I think we will."

16. It was only a first-round series in 1984. But early in the playoffs were the only chances Herb Brooks' innovative and inspired Rangers teams had at the Islander dynasty. Ken Morrow's overtime goal in 1984 -- after Don Maloney had tied the decisive fifth game with just 39 seconds remaining -- epitomized both the headache the Rangers received banging their heads against the Islander brick wall for three straight springs, and the Islanders' refusal to lose through 19 consecutive playoff series. That remains the best team record there is in the NHL record book, another way of saying it is the most unbreakable.

17. Only three times in history, in any sport, has a team rallied from down 3-0 to win a series, so it must be awfully hard to do. By the proverbial one shift at a time, Simon Gagne's Flyers came all the way back in 2010 against the Bruins, rallying from a 3-0 score in Game 7 at Boston besides.

18. Neither, it seemed, would the Devils, even with the most loaded of their three Cup teams, in Game 5 of the 2000 Final. That one went three overtimes before Mike Modano won it for Dallas, and Game 6 went two extra periods before Jason Arnott won the Cup. Rarely do you see a champion dethroned in the Cup Final, and the Devils, who had rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference Final against the Flyers, had to be awfully good to do it.

19. Maxime Talbot, Everyman, scored two in the first period of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final for the Penguins, who made it stand up for the only road victory in the series by either team, enabling Pittsburgh to avenge its 2008 loss to Detroit.

20. It was all up the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane to celebrate his Cup winner in 2010 in Philly, because nobody else saw it. Rumor is it went right through Flyers goalie Michael Leighton.

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