Inspiring individual efforts from players who didn't win playoff hardware

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NHL's Most Iconic Moments, No. 9: Freezing Out the Pain
Monday May 22nd, 2017

A lot of lingering glory stems from postseason success in the NHL, with near-Hall of Fame careers getting kicked up to enshrinement levels, while obvious superstars burnish their legacies with Conn Smythe trophies that seem to count for something extra beyond any and all hardware copped in the regular season. 

As a result, we often marvel all the further at the Gretzkys, Messiers, Lemieuxs, Roys, Sakics, while losing sight of amazing players who never quite reached those upper shelves of glory—at least not in terms of winning Conn Smythes—but who had inspiring runs of their own. 

Sometimes these runs were truncated by superior foes, other times they were so unexpected that it was as if they became harder to remember and in some instances they were overshadowed by what their teammates were doing at the same time. 

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But as the postseason winds down, let’s take a look at some players who ramped it up big time for playoff runs that are impressive enough, all of these years later, to make us utter a collective refrain of “Dude, really? Wow.”

5. Darryl Sittler, 1977

Sittler could explode with the best of them: consider his ten-point game from the winter of 1976. His late seventies Maple Leafs didn’t achieve a ton—outside, that is, of knocking off a stacked Islanders team in 1978—winning just a preliminary round in this campaign against the Penguins two games to one before falling in six to the Flyers. Ho-hum, right? Yes, well, indeed, but our man Mr. Sittler went for 21 points in those nine game, for one of the best point-per-game averages anyone has ever had in the postseason. 

Let’s look at it this way—20-plus points over a playoff run that ends in the Cup Final is big boy territory, 30 points is the province of the superstar and Sittler was on pace for 40 or so, if his team had been any good. 

Ironically, take this one postseason away from his resumeits and Sittler wasn’t much of a playoff performer, which was all the more disagreeable as he was usually his team’s centerpiece player. But what juggernaut days he had in the spring of 1977 for a fortnight or so.

4. Rick Middleton and Barry Pederson, 1983

These Bruins linemates led the latest Big & Bad ensemble to the best record in the league, with some people thinking they might have toppled the Islanders in their Roar Towards Four, a slogan which never made it on to a bumper sticker. The Isles took out the B’s in six games in the Conference Finals, but wow did the upstart Pederson and the veteran known as “Nifty” go off. 

Both had over thirty points in the playoffs, a virtually unheard of feat for one player without making the last round, let alone two on the same team. Pederson’s career was derailed by injuries, but look at this stat line: 52 points in 34 playoff games. 

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In the end, Middleton and Pederson notched a combined 65 points in 17 games that postseason and it speaks to how impenetrable that Islanders dynasty was at the time that no one thought the Bruins underachieved. When you lose you win? Not exactly—but sometimes when you lose with smoke coming out of the guns to the very last, people look at you like a pretty damn impressive hombre. Hombres, in this case.

3. Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, 1985

Has a team ever had a more dominant postseason than the 1985 Oilers? They went 15-3, finding their competition all but yawn-inducing, with Wayne Gretzky tallying a record 47 points, while backliner Coffey set a record of his own that it is hard to imagine a defenseman matching with 37 points, as Gretzky’s trigger man Kurri tied the playoff record with 19 goals. 

Kurri and Coffey would never win a Conn Smythe, nor should they have, but both are among the top dozen or fifteen playoff performers in the NHL’s 100 years. Hell, Coffey warranted being in that Conn Smythe discussion this year, despite Gretzky’s latest achievement of mathematical freakishness, but was probably hurt by just how loaded the Oil were. Charlie Huddy, of all people, averaged more than a point-per-game in these same playoffs, and he was Coffey’s stay-at-home defensive partner who found plenty of time of his own to venture out to the other side of the tracks, aka that fun side of the town over in Scoringville.  

Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated

2. Denis Savard, 1985

That same spring, a magician in Chicago was having playoff success that, fairly or not, we don’t really associate with his game. Savard was pure finesse and the playoffs, even during the high-flying 1980s, tended not to be. You couldn’t be more flashy than Savard, which lent an element of stylistic glibness to his game, or at least the perception thereof; he wasn’t on any of the Canada Cup teams, and he’s not some guy you think of as a postseason warrior. 

His Blackhawks, meanwhile, stood little chance of reaching the Final, despite having some fine rosters, with an overall entertaining style. They were the little engine that could that, of course, could not, and would approach the crest of the hill only to roll back down. Think of them like a lite Campbell Conference version of the contemporaneous Flyers out East. 

But in the 1985 playoffs, the Grand Duke of the Spin-o-Rama tabulated 29 points in 15 games. All of that scoring was needed to simply make Savard a +4, but don’t forget, the Oilers were on that postseason slate, and when you’re trading blasts of fire with them, your plus/minus stat line will get a little singed. But damn does two points per game through three rounds flat out cook. 

1. Doug Gilmour, 1993 

There was a time when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were both active and still both awesome, when you could claim that Doug Gilmour was the best player in the world. 

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His run—or his arguable run, if you prefer—was across two seasons, with this playoff blitz coming right in the middle. Gilmour’s Leafs were turned aside in the Conference Finals by Gretzky’s Kings in an epic series, but amazing as the Great One was in what was his final finest moment, Gilmour was better, dominating all three zones, the corners, both slots, blocking shots, lifting sticks, threading needles, caressing twine. He passed at a higher level than Gretzky as well, and when can we ever say that about anyone? 

Let’s not kid ourselves and say that you can give someone the Conn Smythe who doesn’t even make the Finals, and there was the small matter of Patrick Roy during the last round anyway, but if you want to have that argument with your buddies over a few ales, you could certainly start it with what Gilmour did in 1993. 

The 35 points in 21 games jumps out at you, but less so than the eyeball test of those 21 games, which renders mere math incidental. There’s stage presence, and there’s ice presence. No one had more of the latter than Dougie G. did for a run that was both not good enough in one way, but as good as any can get, in another. 

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