The 1987 NHL Playoffs & Three Big Game 7s

Nothing says drama in the world of sports like the phrase “Game 7.” The downside of the sports who settle their postseasons in a series format (NBA, NHL, MLB) is that you can go through some dry years, lacking in drama. Other times, the fans get their money’s worth of drama. The 1987 NHL playoffs were an example of a fan-friendly postseason. Three of the four second-round series were settled in a decisive Game 7 and all were matchups with heated geographic rivalries.  Let’s look back on those three series that culminated over two days in early May.

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The NHL playoff format was division-based, rather than conference-based in 1987, and the divisions still had their traditional names (Adams, Patrick, Norris & Smythe). While the latter division was ruled by Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers, the first three were battles.

Let’s start with the Adams Division. The Montreal Canadiens were—and are—the league’s most historic franchise, thanks to a run of ten Stanley Cups in a 15-year period from 1965-79. They were also the reigning champs this year, having won again 1986. The Canadiens were the best defensive team in hockey in 1987, with a goalie combination of Brian Hayward and a 21-year-old named Patrick Roy, a young man with a lot of great things ahead of him. Another 21-year-old right winger in Claude Lemieux was in the embryonic phrase of a great career.

It’s tough to imagine a franchise more diametrically opposite history than the Quebec Nordiques. When the Canadiens dynastic run ended in 1979, the Nordiques didn’t even exist. It was one later they joined as an expansion franchise and had never made a mark. Even their ’87 team was stylistically different. Quebec could score, with Michael Goulet leading the offense, but goaltending and defense were issues.

Montreal finished second in the Adams Division, and then swept Boston to open the playoffs. Quebec barely scraped in as the fourth-place team, but knocked off top divisional seed Hartford in six games. The Nordiques looked ready to continue the magic, going into Montreal and scoring seven goals to win the opener, then taking a 2-1 decision. Montreal came back with a rout in Game 3, and then won a pair of 3-2 games, one in overtime to take a series lead. Quebec came home for Game 6 on the brink and got its own 3-2 win. The stage was set for Game 7 on May 2.

The Patrick Division joined the Adams in the old Wales Conference, a forerunner of today’s Eastern Conference. No team had a better regular season in the Wales than the Philadelphia Flyers. They were coached by Mike Keenan, who would one day lead the archrival New York Rangers to Stanley Cup glory. The ’87 Flyers were led by 58-goal scorer Tim Kerry and a quality young goalie in Ron Hextall. The excelled on both sides of the ice and rolled to first place in the Patrick.

Professional hockey had been owned by the New York Islanders in the first half of the 1980s, as they supplanted Montreal as the NHL dynasty and won the Cup every year from 1980-83 and made the Finals in 1984. The previous two seasons had seen the Islanders come up short in the postseason, even though they still had center Bryan Trottier and forward Mike Bossy, cornerstones of the dynasty. The difference was that 36-year-old goalie Billy Smith was being phased out and replaced by young Kelly Hrudey.

It was Hrudey who got the playoff starts, as the Islanders, who finished third in the regular season, won a seven-game battle with the Washington Capitals. Philadelphia took out the Rangers in six, and then grabbed three of the first four games against the Islanders. There was no sign that this series was going to produce drama, but New York won consecutive games. It was another Game 7 scheduled for May 2.

If we go over to the West, then known as the Campbell Conference, we’d find a mediocre division in the Norris. Toronto was the fourth-place team, had made it on a tiebreaker and was still the weakest team in the entire postseason, at least based on regular season points. The Maple Leafs won the Cup in 1967, but had done nothing of consequence in the ensuing twenty years. The ’87 edition was led by Rick Vaive with 32 goals and Russ Courtnall with 44 assists. In short, the Leafs had no one of consequence.

It will surprise contemporary readers to know just how bad the Detroit Red Wings were in this span.  The team that had been the dynasty of the early 1950s and by the mid-1990s would be as consistent a championship contender as there was (and is) in hockey, was in a major drought in the 1980s. They had missed the playoffs six of the previous eight years—this in a league where 16 of 21 teams made the postseason. But ’87 produced a nice year and a run to second place in the Norris and a kid in Steve Yzerman who would one day be a key part of great teams.

The 1987 baseball season was marked by an epic race in the AL East between the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers. The hockey teams in each city that are just across the Huron River from each other set the tone in the spring. Toronto upset St. Louis in a seven-game series, while Detroit blasted Chicago in four straight. The Leafs continued their surprise run by winning the first two games on the road by a combined score of 11-4, then picked up Game 4 on their home ice. But Detroit grabbed the next two and brought the series back to Motown on May 3 for the decisive Game 7.

When it came time to play the Game 7s, Quebec’s defensive weaknesses did them in. Montreal scored five goals in the second period and advanced with a 5-3 win. Philadelphia got off to quick start with two goals and Hextall was magnificent, keeping a shutout until a meaningless goal at the end in a 5-1 win for the Flyers.

Detroit had gone back and forth on goaltenders all year between Greg Stefan and Glen Hanlon. The latter got the start in Game 7, and he was up the challenge, producing a 3-0 shutout. In more ways than one, this foreshadowed the end of the baseball season—the AL East race was settled when the Tigers beat the Blue Jays three straight to close the year, the final game being a shutout, with Frank Tanana playing the role of Glen Hanlon on the mound.

The Red Wings were up against it with Gretzky and the Oilers waiting in the conference finals and Detroit was eliminated in five games. Philadelphia beat Montreal in six games, with Hextall continuing a run that would earn him the Conn Smythe Award, given to the MVP of the entire postseason. Gretzky and Edmonton would win the Cup. But the Flyers, Canadiens and Red Wings had come through in a special two-day sequence of three Game 7s that added some juice to the 1987 NHL playoffs.