The 2022 playoffs have delivered a level of entertainment that hockey fans have been dreaming of, with dominating performances by forwards on multiple teams. Where this year’s stars will rank in the history books remains to be seen, but with all the current playoff excitement, now is a good time to look back through the years and recognize some top NHL forward playoff performances by decade. For the sake of consistency, we are only going to consider the decades since the expansion draft.
Top NHL Forward Playoff Performances by Decade
The 1970s: Reggie Leach – 1976
The Philadelphia Flyers were a powerhouse in the 1970s, with the Broad Street Bullies winning Stanley Cups in both 1974 and 1975. The team had a chance for a three-peat in 1976 but were stymied by the Montreal Canadiens who swept them in the Cup Final.
Despite the Habs victory, it was Flyers star Reggie Leach who ended up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP. That year he scored 19 goals in 16 games, setting the current playoff record for most goals in a single playoff season (it was matched by Jari Kurri in 1985, though he did it in 18 games).
Honorable Mention – Guy Lafleur – 1977 (9-17-26 in 14 games)
The 1980s: Wayne Gretzky – 1985
Considering the offensive juggernaut that was the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, it’s no surprise that the top performance of the decade would come from Gretzky. The Great One had many notable performances during the years of the Oiler’s dynasty years, but he put on a show for the ages in the 1985 playoffs.
That year, he led the team to their second consecutive Stanley Cup victory while putting up 47 points (17 goals, 30 assists) in just 18 games – a whopping 2.61 points per game. Both the total and the rate are playoff records that still stand to this day. He was deservedly awarded his first Conn Smythe Trophy that year.
The 1990s: Mario Lemieux – 1992
Mario the Magnificent was electric in the 1990s. He led the Pittsburgh Penguins to back-to-back championships in 1990-91 and 1991-92. In reality, you could make an argument that Mario in either of those years could be chosen as the best of the 1990s (he won the Conn Smythe in both playoffs), but 1992 gets the nod because he did it with a broken hand.
He suffered the injury after a slash by Adam Graves in game two of the second-round series against the Rangers. Though many people thought this might mean the end of the Penguins in the playoffs that year, he returned just six games later scoring two goals and an assist. In total, he recorded 16 goals and 34 points in only 15 playoff games.
The 2000s: Evgeni Malkin – 2009
The 2000s were a turbulent time for the NHL with the 2004-05 lockout and the beginning of the salary cap era. It also marked the beginning of a new generation of hockey superstars. Evgeni Malkin is one of those players.
Though he had already shown himself to be a superstar during the early years of his career, it was the 2009 playoffs that cemented his place in hockey history. Malkin exploded for 14 goals and 22 assists in 24 playoff games, leading the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup since 1992 and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the process. His 36 points were the most since Gretzky scored 40 in 1993.
The 2010s: Evgeny Kuznetsov – 2018
For years, the Washington Capitals had had the reputation of being an incredible regular-season team who couldn’t deliver in the playoffs. In the 2017-2018 season, they were finally able to shake off that label. They defeated the Vegas Golden Knights to win their very first Stanley Cup.
Though Alex Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy, it was Evgeny Kuznetsov who led the team with 32 points, including 8 in the Cup Final series. This is especially impressive because he was forced to leave game two of the final after suffering an upper-body injury. He returned the very next game recording a goal and an assist. He finished the playoffs with 12 goals and 20 assists.
Honorable mentions: Jonathan Toews – 2010 (7-22-29 in 22 games); Alex Ovechkin – 2018 (15-12-27 in 24 games)
In the last 30 years, the only player to have more assists in the first 4 games of a Stanley Cup Final than Evgeny Kuznetsov this year is Wayne Gretzky! https://t.co/ZIRIBZrkgf #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/c4Bw5ZI5rs
— Hockey Reference (@hockey_ref) June 7, 2018
What do you think of the list of top NHL forward playoff performances by decade? Were any notable playoff performances missed? Which ones stick out in your mind. Leave a comment below to let yourself be heard.