Seven weeks ago, players on 16 teams dreamed of a chance to take their places in history as Stanley Cup champions.
And now we’re down to two.
While the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning look ahead to Game 1 of the Cup finals, which gets underway Wednesday night at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CNC, TVA), we thought we’d take a look back at the top 10 moments that have defined this postseason so far.
Got a favorite that we’ve overlooked? Make your case in the comment section below.
10. Mark Stone returns from broken wrist
Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban’s two-hander to the forearm of the Senators’ rookie in the opener of their first-round series might have been the cheapest shot of the playoffs. It also left the key Ottawa forward with a fractured wrist, an injury that typically takes four to six weeks to heal. Stone, however, defied medical advice and returned for Game 2. Though incapable of shooting the puck as effectively as he had down the stretch, he made his presence felt in the contest by setting up both goals in a game the Sens eventually lost 3–2.
9. Joel Ward’s buzzer beater against Rangers
The Capitals winger scored dramatically with 1.3 seconds left to give Washington a shocking 2–1 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 1 of their second-round series. A controversial hit on Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle by Caps center Nicklas Backstrom freed the puck behind New York's net. The Rangers, expecting a penalty call, stopped playing long enough for Alex Ovechkin to corral the biscuit and and snap it out front to Ward, who was charging to the net. Ward banged the puck past Henrik Lundqvist for the winning tally with just 1.3 seconds left on the clock. After the goal was confirmed by replay, Ovechkin kissed Ward on the cheek. "Big goal," offered Washington coach Barry Trotz, who was a bit more reserved.
8. Petr Mrazek's stop on Brian Boyle
This was the ultimate desperation save. Red Wings goalie Mrazek, fooled badly by Boyle’s initial head fake, moved to his left, leaving the right side of the net wide open. Boyle sent a wrister toward the gaping cage and seemed to have a sure goal until Mrazek flung his paddle back in desperation. Somehow he got of piece of Boyle’s shot, sending it skittering toward the corner. The Bolts got the last laugh though, grinding out a 5–2 win in Game 6.
7. Jonathan Toews pots two to tie in final two minutes
Forget Captain Serious. Maybe it’s time to start calling Toews Captain Clutch. Down 4–2 with less than two minutes remaining in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, Toews scored twice in a 1:12 span to force the contest into extra time. The first was a beauty, a snipe from the top of the circle. The second was a Hail Mary attempt that got the bounce it needed to sneak past Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen. Both goals reminded everyone that Toews is a remarkable leader capable of delivering when his team needs him the most.
6. Emerson Etem's one-on-two goal
The prettiest goal of the playoffs so far, AINEC. The speedy winger drove into Winnipeg’s zone alone with two defenders between himself and goalie Ondrej Pavelec. After undressing Jacob Trouba with a filthy toe drag, Etem dodged a sliding block attempt by Ben Chiarot and then lifted an unstoppable backhand into the top corner. His highlight goal tied Game 4 at one in the first period, sending the Ducks on their way to an eventual 5–2 win and sweep of their first round series.
5. Tyler Johnson’s buzzer beater
Just like the Rangers, the Canadiens learned the hard way about the importance of playing to the final horn. With time running out in Game 3, the Habs appeared content to see the contest that they’d dominated extend into overtime. The Lightning decided to end it in 60. Winger Ondrej Palat fed the puck to defenseman Victor Hedman, who drove deep into the Montreal zone. Just as time was about to expire, he sent a sweet cross-crease pass to the unattended Johnson, who tapped it into the yawning net with 1.1 seconds remaining to give the Bolts a 2–1 victory.
4. Scott Darling's save on Ryan Ellis
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville called it “one of the greatest relief performances you'll ever see.” Stepping in for starter Corey Crawford after the Hawks had fallen behind 3-0 in the opener of their first round series against the Predators, Darling stopped all 42 shots he faced, including 23 in extra time, to lead Chicago to a stunning 4–3 win in double OT. The highlight of the night was this outstanding stop. Darling was dead to rights when Ellis got the puck in the low slot, but flung himself left to right and jammed his foot against the post, denying a sure goal.
3. Andrew Shaw’s heads-up play
For a moment there in Game 2 of the Western finals, it looked like Shaw had scored one of the greatest goals in playoff history. The feisty winger was parked in front of Frederik Andersen when a rebound popped high in the air off the Anaheim goaltender. Boxed in, Shaw reacted the only way he could: by leaping into the air and heading the puck soccer style into the net at 8:47 of the second overtime period. But as athletic as Shaw was, the goal call on the ice was overturned by the NHL War Room, which cited Rule 78.5 (i) that calls for the disallowing of a goal when “the puck has been directed, batted or thrown into the net by an attacking player other than with a stick.” Still awesome though, right? And the Blackhawks eventually beat the Ducks, 3–2, on a legal tally by Marcus Kruger at 16:12 of the third OT.
2. Anaheim’s three goals in 37 seconds
Further proof that a hockey game’s never over until it’s over. The Ducks appeared dead in the water after Toews and Brent Seabrook had staked the Hawks to a 3–1 third period lead in Game 4 of the Western finals. Then Ryan Kesler cut the lead to one, Matt Beleskey tied it up and Corey Perry staked the Ducks to a lead, all in a 37-second span that was the second-fastest outburst in playoff history. You’ve never heard the United Center so quiet.
1. Duncan Keith dominates Game 6 of the West finals
No telling yet who’ll win the Conn Smythe Trophy, but this was the game that made Keith the clear favorite. At a point in the series when (almost) everyone assumed he’d start feeling the effects of Anaheim’s physical assault, the Blackhawks star led his team back from the brink of elimination with an unforgettable performance. He set up each of Chicago’s first three goals but made his biggest play in the defensive end, sweeping aside a Clayton Stoner shot just before it crossed the goal line after squeaking through Corey Crawford’s pads and securing the Blackhawks’ 5-2 win over the Ducks. “He's a freak,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said after the game.
The numbers game
• The Stanley Cup finals will be the first ever postseason meeting between the Lightning and the Blackhawks. Five playoff series so far have featured teams that had not previously faced each other in postseason play.
• Neither the Blackhawks nor the Lightning have held a lead in games for more than one-third of their total playing time during this postseason (Chicago: 31.1%; Tampa Bay: 29.8%). The Lightning have have actually trailed in playoff games for more total time (33.8%) than they have been ahead.
• More than half of this year's postseason games (50 of 83, 60.2%) have been tied or within a goal entering the final five minutes of regulation. More than a third (29 of 83, 34.9%) have featured a comeback win, including six by multiple goals. Thirteen of those comebacks occurred in the third period, and eight go-ahead goals have been scored in the final five minutes of regulation, including four in the last 60 seconds.
• This is the story of a man who started out wanting to be a lawyer and ended up coaching a Stanley Cup finalist.
• Will a salary cap crunch put an end to Chicago's incredible run as one of the league's best? Don't bet on it, writes Elliotte Friedman in this week's 30 Thoughts column.
• Two years ago, Kyle Wellwood nearly died in a freak on-ice accident during an AHL game. This morning, he’s a Memorial Cup champion. Again.
• This long-form piece on a Stanley Cup winner who left the NHL to become the player he always wanted to be is one of the best things you'll read this month. Promise.