1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs: A Format Change, Seven-Game Thrillers & A Ranger Cup
The 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs marked a change in the NHL’s postseason format. The league had been using a division-based structure, where the top four teams in each division automatically qualified and played amongst each other to get to the conference finals. The changes of 1994 moved the league to a conference-based format, along the lines of the NBA, and ensured there would be more fluidity among matchups.
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Whether it was by design or coincidence, the changes worked out well in the first year, with several good, seven-game series, leading up to a seven-game battle in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The upsets the NHL is notable for got started in the Western Conference. The San Jose Sharks upset the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings and league MVP Sergei Federov in seven games. The Vancouver Canucks did the same to the two-seed Calgary Flames.
There weren’t bracket-altering shocks in the East, but there were still a pair of Game 7s in the first round. The New Jersey Devils, seeded #3, and just getting established a serious power in the league with a young goaltender named Martin Brodeur, were pushed to the limit by the Buffalo Sabres before surviving. The Boston Bruins got a rare leg up on their archrival, the Montreal Canadiens, winning a Game 7 in the Garden.
The dramatics cooled a bit in the second round. The Toronto Maple Leafs, then in the Western Conference, had a seven-game test from San Jose before winning, but no other series went the distance. The New Jersey-Boston series was still a good one, tied after four games, before the Devils stepped up in Games 5 & 6 to advance. New York and Vancouver each advanced in five games.
Vancouver continued its strong play with a five-game series win over Toronto to secure the Western Conference, but both the Eastern Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals were seven-game thrillers.
New York was pushed to the brink against New Jersey in Game 6, prompting Ranger leader Mark Messier to famously guarantee a win. He backed it up with a hat trick that kept the series alive. New York and New Jersey then staged a dramatic overtime game before the Rangers won.
It looked like the Stanley Cup Finals would be over in short order when New York took three of the first four from Vancouver. But the Canucks rallied for two wins and forced a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers, with the leadership of Messier and the play of Conn Smythe Award winner David Leetch, finally clinched their first Cup in 54 years.
You can read more about the entire story of the 1994 New York Rangers. They were the survivors and champions of an exciting 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs that ushered the league into a new era.