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The debate is on. After Detroit won the 2002 Stanley Cup in wire-to-wire fashion, many people are saying that this year’s Red Wings team may be the best ever. However, it might not even be the best Red Wings team ever. Here are my picks, keeping in mind that I selected teams that led the regular season in points and backed it up with a Cup victory. I especially favored teams that bounced back from losing in a Cup-defending season to win again the following year. Finally, I picked only one team from a stretch of repeat victories, such as the five-time champion Canadiens in the ‘50s, the four-in-a row Islanders from the ‘80s and Canadiens of the ‘70s. Suffice it to say that in those cases specifically -- like this list in general -- differentiating from among the greats is hardly an exact science.


OK, call me biased. I saw this team up close and personal more than I needed, as my 0-6-3 record against the Oilers of the mid-'80s ably attests. This team came back from the disappointment of putting the puck in its own net in the 1986 divisional playoffs against rival Calgary, which scuttled an opportunity to defend its titles from '84 and '85. This incarnation added important character players in Craig MacTavish, Esa Tikkanen and Marty McSorley to the cast of stars from the earlier back-to-back Cup teams that included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier -- returning to 100-point form for the first time in three seasons -- Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog. For good measure, Kent Nilsson and Reijo Ruotsalainen returned from Europe in time for the playoffs, just in case the power play needed a boost. Yeah, right.


The ’52 team rebounded with another 100-point season after being upended in the semifinals the previous spring. It was the last time the "Production Line" of Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Sid Abel all finished in the top 10 in scoring. The difference for this team, however, was goaltender Terry Sawchuk. He won the first of his two successive Vezina Trophies, setting the stage for his miraculous playoff run. Sawchuk surrendered only five goals in the postseason as the Red Wings won the eight games it took at the time to secure the Stanley Cup. Detroit dominated, sweeping the defending champion Toronto Maple Leafs and then doing likewise to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals. That postseason run of eight straight wins gave rise to the local tradition of throwing octopus on the ice at the outset of the postseason -- the eight legs representing the required victories at the time to net Lord Stanley’s prize.


This team had an unparalleled focus when the league as a whole seemed lost. In the midst of winning four straight Stanley Cups, the ’77 Canadiens lost only eight of 80 regular-season games. They scored 206 goals more than they allowed. Guy Lafleur -- “the Flower” -- was in full bloom, leading the league in scoring for the second season in a row. He registered 136 points, the highest total of his career. Goaltender Ken Dryden’s stoic concentration was at its zenith, and the trio of Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe remain the best top three assembled on any blueline. During the muddled mess of the era that included ill-fated expansion and WHA defection, the 1977 Canadiens stood out as the shining example of the NHL, embodying all of the league’s best attributes.


The 1956 Canadiens began their unprecedented string of five Stanley Cup titles in a row. Links to the past included Rocket Richard and the captain of the 1944 and '46 teams, Butch Bouchard. The ’56 championship was the last for Bouchard, but the season marked firsts for many others. Jean Beliveau led the NHL in scoring for the only time in his illustrious career, and goaltender Jacques Plante won the Vezina Trophy for the first of his five straight honors. Maybe the most significant link the '56 Canadiens had to the title teams of the mid-'40s was head coach Toe Blake. He was a teammate of Bouchard’s and Richard’s on the 1944 and '46 teams. The 1956 championship was Blake’s first of eight behind the bench for the Habs, a record long thought untouchable until Detroit's Scotty Bowman won his ninth Cup as a coach this year.


The ’82 Islanders won their third of four straight titles, amassing 118 points in the regular season, which is still the franchise record. Mike Bossy posted his second straight 60-plus goal season, registering 147 points in all, the highest single-season total ever tallied by an Islander. Centerman Bryan Trottier had 129 points, 50 of them goals, the only season he reached the 50-goal plateau. Add defenseman Denis Potvin and goaltender Billy Smith to the mix and the Isles had stars at every position. But what set this team apart was possibly the best supporting cast ever, consisting of Bob Nystrom, John Tonelli, Clark Gillies, Bob Bourne, Butch Goring and the Sutter brothers, Brent and Duane. Also of note, this Islanders team had three Europeans on the roster -- Stefan Persson, Anders Kallur and Tomas Jonsson -- the most to that point on a championship team.


Fast forward 20 years and the European influences are fully developed. Goaltender Dominik Hasek became the first netminder born and trained overseas to lead his team to the Stanley Cup. Nicklas Lidstrom became the first non-North American to garner the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP. This Red Wings team stands out because its supporting cast consisted of future Hall of Famers embracing lesser and different roles in order to win a championship, many for the first time. They were an oddity in that they banded together for one reason -- to satisfy many personal goals -- not to be confused with individual agendas. Bringing the whole high-profile, big-budget experiment together was Bowman, winning his record–setting ninth Cup as a bench boss and then announcing his retirement. Even Bowman seemed to sense that this team -- their moment and accomplishment -- was going to be nearly impossible to duplicate.


The 2001 Avalanche also had a galvanizing theme: crown Ray Bourque champion. Whereas the 2002 Red Wings relied on using four lines and six defensemen extensively throughout, the earnestness of Colorado’s stars defined its quest. Joe Sakic was the picture of passion and persistence from training camp through the finals. He won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, the oldest first-time winner in history. Couple the captain’s consistent excellence with the reinvigorated puck stopping of Patrick Roy and it was easy to tell early on that the Avs were intent on winning it all. If there was any doubt at all, they added defenseman Rob Blake in a trade at the deadline, giving them an incomparable 1-2 punch on the blueline. Roy posted career-best numbers in the regular season and postseason, while Sakic followed up his regular season by leading all playoff performers in scoring. Their season was in a word, heroic.


The Broad Street bullies bashed their way onto the NHL scene in 1974 with a ferocious formula that allowed them dominate the game for two seasons. The Flyers became the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup, prevailing in a mere six seasons from their inception. Again, though, it was the brutal manner in which they rose to the pinnacle that gained them notoriety. Unrestrained intimidation tactics epitomized their approach. Captain Bobby Clarke’s toothless, gaping grin perfectly captured the raw emotion and real energy of this rogue collection. Making it all stand up, literally and figuratively, was the textbook goaltending of Bernie Parent. He emulated the strict standup style espoused by pioneer Jacques Plante to perfection. Parent’s artistry, along with his teammates’ antics, left an indelible mark on the NHL as a time when a team of outlaw outcasts ran roughshod and ruled the roost.


Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr combined to form one of the most potent offensive tandems of all time. Making them unique was that Orr, the defenseman, was the more active and mobile of the pair, while Esposito seemed rooted in the slot, an immovable scoring machine. In 1970, Orr became the first defenseman to lead the NHL in scoring. They won the Stanley Cup over the expansion St. Louis Blues in a sweep. They were upset in 1971 by the Montreal Canadiens and an unknown goaltender out of Cornell University, Ken Dryden. While the 1971 team may have been the most dominant of any Bruins squad, they failed to do what the ’72 team did -- win the Stanley Cup. They had to defeat a very tough New York Rangers team in the finals as well, because of a realigned playoff format. In fact, despite keeping the core players together for a few more seasons, the 1972 Cup winner remains the last championship team for the Bruins.


This team restored the glory to the bleu, blanc et rouge of Les Habitants. It was their first championship in 13 years. Leading the way was Bill Durnan in goal, topping the league in goals against for the first time, something he would do six times over the next seven seasons. Pacing the attack was veteran centerman Elmer Lach, flanked by a flashy young winger named Maurice Richard. They supplied the offense, but defense carried this team. The ’44 Canadiens surrendered 65 fewer goals than the next best defensive team in the league -- in 50 games. More mind boggling is the fact that the ’44 Habs lost only five games all season. Maybe this team supplied the inspiration for Blake’s defensive philosophy that would characterize his legendary coaching career. It would stand to reason, as he was a member of this championship team, his first title in the NHL.

Darren Eliot, a former NHL goaltender, is a hockey analyst for CNNSI.com.

 


 
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