Where does Nathan MacKinnon's wondergoal rank in NHL playoff history?

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MacKinnon's incredible Game 5 tally ranks somewhere between Nikita Kucherov and Mario Lemieux on our list of all-time electric playoff goals. (USA TODAY Sports)
MacKinnon's incredible Game 5 tally ranks somewhere between Nikita Kucherov and Mario Lemieux on our list of all-time electric playoff goals. (USA TODAY Sports)

It feels like cruel fate that Nathan MacKinnon’s jaw-dropping hat-trick goal against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday didn’t ensure a series-clinching victory for the Colorado Avalanche. MacKinnon’s tour-de-force performance was wiped out by a valiant comeback attempt from the Blues, who kept their season alive with an overtime winner from Tyler Bozak, sending the series to a sixth game.

History shouldn’t forget MacKinnon’s third goal, though, and we’re here to figure out where it ranks among the best goals in playoff history.

Now, what do we mean by best? Before we get bombarded with comments like ‘why wasn’t Bobby Orr’s 1970 Cup-winner against the Blues included, did you guys start watching hockey last week!’ let’s go through our criteria. Historical weight certainly matters for the purpose of the exercise, but we’re valuing style and highlight-reel plays over, say, Brett Hull or Jason Arnott or Patrick Kane or Alec Martinez’s Cup-winning goals. And while we love hockey history as much as anyone, the goals all count the same on the scoresheet, so this is partly subjective.

You’ve read this far, so let’s get into the good stuff.

10) Nikita Kucherov, 2020, Lightning vs. Islanders, Eastern Conference finals

Kucherov is a one-of-one talent in the modern NHL, with his lateral agility and puck tricks confounding the best defenses in the league, regularly. He’s tearing up the 2022 playoffs once again as the Lightning’s three-peat bid remains as strong as ever, but we’re turning back the clock to 2020 for one of the defining goals of their dynasty.

During a Game 1 rout of the Islanders in the Eastern Conference finals, Kucherov and Brayden Point showed off their superiority from the outset. Kucherov deftly flicks a breakout pass from Kevin Shattenkirk over to Brayden Point, creating a prime scoring chance seemingly out of nowhere. Point dishes it back to Kucherov, who taps it past Semyon Varlamov. When they’re at their best, the Lightning leave opponents feeling helpless and few goals sum it up better than this one from Kucherov.

9) Brian Leetch, 1994, Rangers vs. Devils, Eastern Conference finals

OK, so we said history is a secondary factor in our criteria, but we have to give it up for Brian Leetch. Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals is one of the league’s best games, which many remember for Stephane Matteau’s double-overtime winner and an iconic call from Rangers announcer Howie Rose. Matteau’s winner may be historically more important, but Leetch’s goal was pure artistry.

It looks pretty simple on first viewing. Leetch picks up the puck after the Rangers win the faceoff and he immediately circles the offensive zone, where he finds opportunity out of nowhere. With a perfectly timed spin-o-rama around Bill Guerin, Leetch tucks the puck past Martin Brodeur, while Scott Stevens, who picked up the man crashing the net, looks on helplessly.

Leetch would go on to become the first American to win the Conn Smythe Trophy later that summer as the Rangers knocked off the Vancouver Canucks in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.

8) Bobby Ryan, 2011, Ducks vs. Predators, first round

This is a slow burn of a golazo, which is fitting, as Ryan was never known for tremendous speed throughout his career. It looks like a pretty routine play at first as Ryan picks off an errant pass and heads up ice. However, all hell breaks loose when Ryan gets to the blue line.

Ryan dangles around David Legwand, who swipes and misses so badly that he loses his stick in the process, while Shea Weber is relegated to spectator status. And Ryan isn’t done toying with Legwand, swooping around him yet again before violently whipping a backhand past Pekka Rinne. Remarkable stuff. You wonder what kind of speech Legwand received on the bench afterwards, though.

7) Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings vs. Bruins, 2014, first round

Pavel Datysuk is the type of player both fans and coaches alike could’ve created in a lab, as he was arguably the best defensive forward of his generation, and perhaps the most electrifying too. Even when he was out of his prime, Datsyuk was prone to the spectacular, while making the defensive side of the game look more fun than it should be.

Datysuk’s range was unmatched and he seemingly pulled a loose puck from behind his back at an angle that may defy physics, before pulling it through his legs while carrying his forward momentum. My description of the play is admittedly a lot clumsier than Datysuk’s silky smooth retrieval of the puck. He cuts into the offensive zone with room to survey the ice, evades a prying Zdeno Chara, takes another second to look up before firing it past Tuukka Rask, who has to be wondering what the hell happened.

6) Steve Yzerman, Red Wings vs. Blues, 1996, second round

A booming slapshot at No. 6? Hell yeah. There’s a lot that went into the best goal of Yzerman’s decorated career, perhaps more than meets the eye initially. Wayne Gretzky — of all people — loses the puck in the neutral zone during the double overtime period in Game 7 and the Red Wings captain pounced on the opportunity. Perhaps sensing that the Blues anticipated him to merely dump the puck in, Yzerman fires a laser at unsuspecting goaltender Jon Casey and it beats him upstairs. Casey appears to fling back, as if the velocity of Yzerman’s shot sent him careening into his own goal. It’s a cool optical illusion that punctuates one of the best goals in NHL history.

The 1995-96 Red Wings were one of the best regular season teams in NHL history, posting a whopping 131 points, and Yzerman appeared poised to lead his team to their first Stanley Cup victory since 1955. Detroit would lose to Colorado in the following round but it was a mere bump in the road, as Yzerman and company would capture back-to-back Cups in 1997 and 1998.

5) Nathan MacKinnon, 2022, Avalanche vs. Blues, second round

Is this recency bias in its clearest form? Sound off in the comments, we certainly don’t think so!

In case you missed The Nathan MacKinnon show last night, we’ve got you covered. MacKinnon, who is widely considered the second-fastest player in the league after Connor McDavid, corrals the puck behind his net and takes off. He’s moving so fast that the Blues’ forwards look like they’re decelerating while failing to effectively backcheck.

Nick Leddy has no idea what to do here. Playing the man looks impossible with MacKinnon moving that quickly, and playing the puck would almost certainly result in swinging at air. But instead he’s so frozen that he gets used as a shield, getting deked out of position easily. MacKinnon pulls the puck from his backhand to his forehand, safely around Leddy and tucks it past Ville Husso for an electrifying goal. We haven’t seen an individual playoff effort like this in some time, and it’s a shame it resulted in a loss, but we’ll try to preserve his hat-trick goal for safekeeping in this piece.

4) Brad May, 1993, Sabres vs. Bruins, first round

An iconic goal with a timeless call to follow, Brad May is a folk hero in Buffalo after his 1993 first-round winner against the Boston Bruins. May scored 13 goals during the 1992-93 regular season while playing in all 82 games, and hadn’t scored in the 18 games prior to Game 4 of the series.

But that’s the beauty of hockey, it takes just one play to become a hero. Pat LaFontaine, Buffalo’s Hall of Fame captain, receives a breakout pass but trips almost immediately. While falling to the ground, LaFontaine finds May, who is cutting through the wing.

Again, it’s worth remembering that May wasn’t known for his goal-scoring at all. May was completely undeterred, swooping around a check from Don Sweeney and he wasn’t done there. Completely off-balance with one hand on his stick, May nutmegs Ray Bourque — yes, Ray Bourque — before freezing Bruins goaltender Andy Moog to secure the stunning upset.

Bourque was at the height of his powers and the Bruins were heavily favoured to win the series, but May’s highlight-reel goal secured a sweep for the Sabres. And who can forget Rick Jeanneret’s call?

MAY DAY! MAY DAY! MAY DAY!

3) Jaromir Jagr, 1992, Penguins vs. Blackhawks, Stanley Cup Finals

Jaromir Jagr has been playing for so long that it’s often difficult to remember him as a prodigy in the early 1990s, but it’s where he won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins that he did some of his finest work. Jagr’s highlight reel is seemingly endless, but he scored the best goal of his career when he was just 20 years old.

Very few players, if any, have exercised better lower-body control than Jagr, and this wondergoal from Game 1 of the 1992 Finals is a masterclass in lateral movement, stickhandling and patience.

Taking on three different Blackhawks before defeating Ed Belfour, Jagr creates a chance where few players would bother trying to deke past their opponents. The strength, speed, vision and audacity needed to pull this goal off is otherworldly, which is exactly what Jagr has proven to be throughout his still-ongoing professional career.

Bob Cole sums it up best: a good move, another good move. He’s in. Scores!

2) Darren McCarty, 1997, Red Wings vs. Flyers, Stanley Cup Finals

As part of a Red Wings dynasty that included Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Slava Fetisov and Nicklas Lidstrom, few will recall Darren McCarty immediately when discussing the glory years. McCarty was best known as an enforcer and engaging with Claude Lemieux during some heated Red Wings-Avalanche series, but he also managed to score the finest goal in franchise history and one of the best goals of all-time.

Detroit was looking to sweep the Philadelphia Flyers on home ice, and held a 1-0 lead going into the first intermission of Game 4. McCarty then rewrote history.

Yzerman and Tomas Sandstrom win a battle in the defensive zone against the walls and fire the puck out to McCarty, who slipped behind Eric Lindros for an immediate 1-on-1 chance. Perhaps the Flyers didn’t take McCarty seriously, much to their own peril, as he bolts in against Flyers defenseman Janne Niinimaa, the lone man back. McCarty, who had scored a career-best 19 goals during the regular season, sends Niinimaa sprawling with a perfect toe-drag, then circles around Ron Hextall with a slick inside-outside move, tucking the puck into the open cage.

Never did the Joe Louis Arena erupt like it did after McCarty’s goal. The combination of extraordinary skill from a grinder in an elimination game, from one of the most unlikeliest sources had the place rocking and after Lindros cut the lead to 2-1, McCarty’s goal would stand as the series winner and one of the greatest goals in the history of the postseason.

1) Mario Lemieux, 1991, Penguins vs. North Stars, Stanley Cup Finals

Lemieux provided a combination of skill, power and size the league has yet to replicate and if you never saw him play in-person, this goal against the-then Minnesota North Stars encapsulates everything The Magnificent One had to offer.

If you look at MacKinnon’s goal, the beauty of it stems from a player moving at a speed that his opponents could only dream of, while making them look silly on the grandest stage with deft stickhandling. Lemieux could do this regularly and on this goal, he embarasses the North Stars’ defensemen, putting the puck through Shawn Chambers’ legs, then retrieving it, while his partner, Neil Wilkinson, is left standing still, unable to track the Penguins’ superstar in motion.

We’re not trying to pick on poor Jon Casey here but I suppose it’s worth mentioning that his career is best known for being in net for the aforementioned Yzerman goal as well. As for Lemieux, he finished the postseason with 44 points, the second-highest individual total in postseason history, trailing only Wayne Gretzky’s 1984-85 record of 47 points.

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