The Red Wings’ playoff streak is in serious danger. At 24 consecutive seasons and counting, the Wings’ stretch of post-season appearances is the longest active streak in the big four North American pro sports leagues. But for the third year in a row, the Red Wings will have to go down to the wire to keep it alive, fending off a late challenge by the Philadelphia Flyers that threatens to finally snap the streak.
There’s an argument to be made that the Wings’ streak is the most impressive in NHL history, given the size of the league and the relentless push toward parity. But it’s not the only such streak the league has seen, or even the longest. Five other NHL teams have had playoff streaks longer than 20 consecutive seasons.
Let’s take a look back at those five teams, and how their streaks eventually ended.
1969-70 Montreal Canadiens
The streak: From 1949 to 1969, a 21-year span that included ten Stanley Cup championships.
How it ended: After winning four Cups in five years, including the 1969 title, the Habs finished the 1969-70 season with a 38-22-16 record. That left them tied with the Rangers for the final spot, leading to a wild and controversial final day of the season in which New York passed the Canadiens amid accusations of the Red Wings tanking to knock out Montreal.
What went wrong: The NHL couldn’t figure out how divisions should work in a post-expansion world.
That seems glib, but it’s hard to argue. The 1969-70 Canadiens finished the season with 92 points in 76 games. That was the fifth best record in the 12-team NHL. But it was also the fifth best record in the East Division, the one the league had put all the established Original Six teams into while giving the six expansion teams their own division. Because each division sent four teams to the playoffs, that left the 92-point Canadiens watching from home as teams like the 64-point Penguins, 60-point North Stars and 58-point Seals punched their tickets to the post-season.
The good news: The league finally began moving away from the ridiculous all-expansion division format after adding two more teams in 1970. The Canadiens immediately returned to the playoffs, won the Stanley Cup, and started a new streak.
1994-95 Montreal Canadiens
The streak: From 1971 through 1994, a total of 24 seasons.
How it ended: With an 18-23-7 finish in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season that left them just short of a playoff spot.
What went wrong: The Habs were just two years removed from winning the franchise’s 24th (and last) Stanley Cup in 1993, and hadn’t taken much of a step back in the season after, finishing with 96 points in 1994. But change was in the air heading into the 1994-95 season, with captain Guy Carbonneau dealt away over the summer. Early in the season, the team made another major move, pulling off the Mark Recchi blockbuster with the Flyers, one that cost them a young John Leclair.
On February 24, 1995, the Canadiens were a respectable 7-5-4 and riding a three-game win streak. But a humiliating 7-0 loss to the Flyers on home ice featured a LeClair hat trick and started a five-game losing skid, and the team never really recovered. They continued to dismantle the Cup-winning team by sending Kirk Muller and Mathieu Schneider to the Islanders, and that move sparked a strong April that had the Habs still tied for the final playoff spot after a win over the Lightning on April 22. That victory was their last of the season, as they closed with a five-game winless stretch and missed the playoffs by four points.
The good news: The miss essentially spelled the end for coach Jacques Demers and GM Serge Savard, who were both fired a few games into the following season. That led to the Mario Tremblay/Rejean Houle era and a low point in franchise history with the Patrick Roy debacle. But while those days aren’t remembered fondly, the Habs did return to the playoffs, and wouldn’t miss again until 1999.
And yes, it’s worth pointing out that between these two streaks, the Canadiens only missed the playoffs once in 46 seasons – and that was a very good team that only missed out because of a ridiculous division format and a controversial tie-breaker.
1996-97 Boston Bruins
The streak: From 1968 through 1996, a total of 29 seasons that stands as the all-time record, both in the NHL and in North American big four pro sports.
How it ended: With a 26-47-9 finish in 1996-97 that dropped them to dead last in the NHL.
What went wrong: The Bruins had been decent in 1995-96, finishing with 91 points. But it all fell apart in the second year of Steve Kasper’s ill-fated stint as head coach. Cam Neely retired in the offseason due to a hip condition, Ray Bourque was limited to 62 games, and the team traded disgruntled star Adam Oates to the Capitals as part of a blockbuster late-season deal. The offense sagged, but the real issue was at the other end – the Bruins finished dead last in the league with 300 goals allowed.
The good news: If you have to end a playoff streak, you may as well bottom out entirely; the last place finish allowed the Bruins to draft future Hall-of-Famer Joe Thornton. Kasper was fired in the offseason and replaced by Pat Burns, who immediately led the team back to the playoffs while earning Jack Adams honors.
1997-98 Chicago Blackhawks
The streak: From 1970 to 1997, a 28-season streak that fell one year short of the Bruins’ record.
How it ended: With a 30-39-13 record that was good for ninth place in the West.
What went wrong: After trading away franchise players Jeremy Roenick and Eddie Belfour, the Hawks had just barely snuck into the playoffs in 1997, earning the West’s final spot with pedestrian 81-point season. But the 1997-98 season started off disastrously, with a seven-game losing streak in which they were outscored 26-6. They straightened out as the season went on and were still holding down a playoff spot at the end of March, but a 1-8-1 finish saw them drop to ninth in the conference, missing the postseason by five points.
The Hawks’ biggest issue was an inability to score; they finished second last in the league in goals scored, and Tony Amonte was the only player on the roster who topped 50 points.
The good news: There wasn’t much. The 1997-98 collapse cost Craig Hartsburg his job, but replacement Dirk Graham didn’t even last a full season and a string of questionable choices like Lorne Molleken and Alpo Suhonen followed. It all led to one of the worst stretches in franchise history, as the Blackhawks would win just a single playoff game over the next decade. They wouldn’t be good again until 2008-09… at which point, of course, they became very, very good.
2005-06 St. Louis Blues
The streak: From 1980 to 2004, a total of 25 seasons.
How it ended: With a 21-46-15 record in 2005-06, the worst in the league.
What went wrong: The pre-lockout Blues had been a consistently good team, finishing first or second in the Central for six consecutive years, including a 91-point year in 2003-04. But even in that successful season, the cracks were starting to show, thanks to an aging roster (their six top scorers were all 29 or older) and a midseason slump that cost coach Joel Quenneville his job.
By the time play resumed in 2005, the new cap had forced the Blues to trade Chris Pronger to Edmonton. They bottomed out badly, finishing dead last in the league in goals scored and total points, and 28th in goals allowed. They won only one of their final 19 games.
The good news: By finishing last, they earned the first overall pick in a draft that had Jonathan Toews in it. They probably took him, right?
The Blues rebounded to a not-completely-awful 81 points in 2006-07, and spent the next five years stuck in the dreaded no-man’s land between being awful and contending. They didn’t win a playoff game until 2012, and have been a borderline member of the league’s top tier ever since.