By the time the 1986 NHL playoffs rolled around, hockey fans were used to watching dynasties. The Montreal Canadiens won four straight from 1976-79. The New York Islanders did the same from 1980-83. So when the Edmonton Oilers broke through in 1984 and followed it up with a repeat Stanley Cup in 1985, one could be forgiven for the assumption that the Oilers would be next in line to win up to four in a row. Only it didn’t work out that way.
It’s not that Edmonton wasn’t a dynasty—they would eventually get four Stanley Cups, though it took to 1990. And it’s not that the 1986 edition wasn’t good enough. Wayne Gretzky won his seventh MVP award in as many seasons. Jari Kurri led the league in goals. The Oilers rolled to a league-best 56-17-7 record in the regular season.
The Calgary Flames were in the same division—the old Smythe, which was more or less the Pacific Division. The defense wasn’t great, and there was no clear offensive star—Dan Quinn’s 30 goals/42 assists were the best the Flames had, but would have made him a third or fourth option in Edmonton. But Calgary had enough team-wide balance to still be the second-most prolific offense in the NHL.
Calgary and Edmonton met in the second round, and the Flames grabbed the first game of the series and then didn’t let go, taking Games 3 & 5. Edmonton forced a Game 7 back on their home ice, but Calgary’s 3-2 upset win sent shock waves through the NHL. A dynasty had died—or at least been interrupted—prematurely. The 1986 NHL playoffs were now wide open.
The Flames beat the St. Louis Blues in the conference finals, again going seven games and this time getting a 3-2 win. Calgary wasn’t known for their defense, but they won two close, low-scoring Game 7s in the playoffs to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
On the opposite side of the bracket, a 20-year-old goalie was starting on a great NHL career. Patrick Roy would gain his greatest fame for what he did with the Colorado Avalanche in the latter part of the 1990s, but he would start his career by leading the Montreal Canadiens to a brief restoration of their glory.
Montreal had a nice regular season, but at 40-33-7, there were four teams in the Wales Conference (later re-named the Eastern Conference) better. Similarly, Roy was a promising young goalie, but with a 3.35 Goals Against Average, he wasn’t setting the world on fire.
All that changed in the postseason. Roy lifted his game to a new level, posting a 1.92 GAA throughout the four playoff rounds. Montreal got their share of breaks—all four teams ahead of them in the Wales were upset, and the Canadiens managed to get through three playoff rounds by playing inferior teams. They took advantage of the opportunity, with Roy delivering a big 2-1 overtime win in a Game 7 against the Hartford Whalers in the second round, and Montreal reached the Finals.
In a world of pure justice, Calgary would have been able to win the Stanley Cup, as the team that dethroned the dynasty. And Calgary took Game 1 of the Finals. But it proved better to have a young Patrick Roy on your side than some abstract concept of justice. After giving up five goals in Game 1, Roy took over and allowed just two goals per game the rest of the way. Montreal took each of the next four games and Roy won the Conn Smythe Award as MVP of the entire postseason.
The 1986 NHL playoffs started with expectation of an Edmonton dynasty. It ended with a temporary restoration of the Montreal lineage.