Part III -- Top teams


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If there is one overworked cliché in the sports business, it's that a team is greater than the sum of its parts. That is only true of the great teams.

For every Guy Lafleur on a championship team, there is a Bob Gainey. The quiet warrior, the worker bee whose job is only recognized when the team enjoys the ultimate success but whose importance is well-known in the dressing room from the get-go.

Nowhere else in sports is this more true than in hockey, which features the most difficult road to a championship anywhere -- four playoffs rounds, each lasting up to seven games. Great goaltending, clutch scoring, superlative defense, brilliant coaching; teams might have some of these elements, but unless they have them all, success is likely to elude them.

Teams that assemble those disparate parts, if only for a season or two, forge an identity that goes far beyond the names of the individual players who ultimately are inscribed on the side of the Stanley Cup.

It is so with the greatest teams, such as the Canadiens in the 1970s under Scotty Bowman, teams that in the middle of a four-Cup run lost only 18 games over a span of 160 regular-season games. Or Al Arbour's New York Islanders, who won an unprecedented 19 straight playoff rounds before their dynasty was derailed by an Edmonton team that would win five Cups in seven years.

In the end, it's true what they say, that there is no 'I' in team. Neither is there one in dynasty. Here, in no particular order, we take a look at some of hockey's best teams:

Montreal Canadiens (1976-77)
It's not hard to see why this Canadiens team was one of the game's best, as the 1976-77 Habs went on to win the second of four straight Stanley Cups. During the season, the Habs outscored their opponents by 2.76 goals per game. Just look at the names that were on this team. Goaltender Ken Dryden had the best season of his Hall of Fame career -- 56 games, 10 shutouts and a goals-against average of 2.14 in regular-season play, and 14 games, four shutouts and an incredible 1.56 GAA in the playoffs. Lafleur, who posted a 136-point season (56 goals and 80 assists in 80 games. Larry Robinson, who added 85 points as a defenseman. Guy Lapointe, Jacques Lemaire, Gainey and so on. All under the direction of Bowman, whose quiet stare during close contests set the tone and standard for his teams.

Montreal Canadiens (1955-60)
It's very difficult to have this list and not mention the Canadiens again, especially during this unprecedented stretch. These Montreal squads are the only ones to win five straight Stanley Cups. During the stretch, Montreal never trailed in a playoff series and never was pushed to a Game 7. During the regular season, the Habs averaged more than 40 wins per 70-game season. Except for an injury-plagued 1959 season, Maurice "The Rocket" Richard powered the Canadiens, but others -- such as Jacques Plante and Doug Harvey -- were keys to Montreal's success under legendary coach Toe Blake.

New York Islanders (1981-82)
As Denis Potvin once said, teams aren't supposed to enjoy the playoffs, it's "supposed to be work." The Islanders were one of the hardest-working teams in history and were the first American-based team to win three straight Stanley Cups, the third coming in 1981-82. That season, they posted the most wins (54), most points (118) and most goals (385) in team history. At one point during the season, the team notched a then-record 14 straight wins. The Isles also won the regular-season title, losing only 16 games, on their way to the Cup, capped by a four-game finals sweep over the Canucks. Leading the way was Mike Bossy, who at the time often was overshadowed by the game's other great scorers, Lafleur and Wayne Gretzky. Bossy posted 64 goals and 83 assists in 80 games, seconded by a 129-point season from Bryan Trottier, whose physical play looked a lot like Peter Forsberg's today. After the Cup win, Hall of Fame defenseman Potvin boldly called the Isles "the best [bleeping] team ever!"

Edmonton Oilers (1983-84)
Entering the season, the Oilers had something to prove. Despite the fact that Edmonton sported the league's best player -- Gretzky, who had quite the supporting cast -- it hadn't won the big prize and was still second-best to the Islanders. The Great One posted prolific numbers, finishing with 205 points for the season. Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier all had 100-plus showings, as well. The Oilers and Isles squared off again in the Cup finals, which took on the new 2-3-2 format that postseason. In Game 5, Andy Moog, who alternated with Grant Fuhr in the playoffs, held off a late third-period rally by the Isles. The Oilers had ended one dynasty while starting another.

Colorado Avalanche (2000-01)
From the beginning of the season, all anyone talked about was Ray Bourque's quest for a Cup. The veteran defenseman had been traded by the Bruins to the Avs the season before, but Colorado lost in the West finals in 2000. Now, Bourque had another shot, and he wouldn't have made it had it not been for the talent around him. With Bourque, newly acquired Rob Blake, goaltending stud Patrick Roy and offensive powers Joe Sakic and Forsberg, the Avs won the regular-season title (118 points). Bourque was the league's most experienced postseason player heading into the playoffs, and he dubbed the team's goal "Mission 16W," 16 wins to a Cup. The Avs cruised with relative ease to the Cup finals vs. the defending champion New Jersey Devils. The tightly contested series went to a pivotal Game 7, but Bourque was not denied. The Avs won the final game 3-1, and Bourque left the game on top.

Detroit Red Wings (2001-02)
The Red Wings were also a team looking for redemption. One of the clear favorites to win the Cup during the 2000-01 season, Detroit was upset by the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the postseason. That offseason, the Wings picked up goalie Dominik Hasek in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres, plus wingers Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull. In 2001-02, all eyes were on Hockeytown. The Wings won the Presidents' Trophy for the league's best record. Detroit started off slowly against the Canucks, falling into a 2-0 hole in the first-round series and leading some to wonder whether history would repeat itself. But the Red Wings rebounded in Game 3 behind the heroics of Hasek and a timely center-ice shot by Nicklas Lidstrom that eluded Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier. It shifted the series' momentum. After another blistering West final against the Avalanche, Detroit went on to beat Carolina for its third Cup in six seasons. Immediately after the game, Bowman announced his retirement.

New York Rangers (1993-94)
When Messier joined the Rangers in 1991, he promised he'd help end the Blueshirts' Cup curse. But it was the team of Rangers that finally brought glory back to Madison Square Garden. Backing up Messier and star defenseman Brian Leetch were many role players who were key to the Rangers' success. Sergei Zubov was the second part of the best blue-line tandem in the league with Leetch, and the Russian led the team in scoring with 12 goals and 77 assists. The Rangers also would make key acquisitions late in the season -- picking up former Oiler greats Glenn Anderson and Craig MacTavish, Brian Noonan and Stephane Matteau before the trade deadline. The season will long be remembered for Messier's guarantee in Game 6 of the East finals against the Devils, promising the Rangers would force a Game 7 and delivering with a hat trick. Matteau became a household name after his double-overtime, game-winning goal in Game 7. The Rangers would make fans sweat it out in a seven-game Cup final against the Canucks, but the Blueshirts brought the Cup home.

Boston Bruins (1971-72)
If you looked at the stats, the Bruins really should have won the Stanley Cup a season earlier, when Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, John Bucyk and Ken Hodge all had 100-plus-point seasons. But for some reason, the team was more effective in 1971-72. Boston won its third straight Eastern Division regular-season championship and the B's handily ousted Toronto and St. Louis, respectively. The Bruins ousted the Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals, as Orr scored two goals in the clinching Game 6. Orr became the first player to win two Conn Smythe trophies.

Toronto Maple Leafs (1947-48)
The season started off with the unprecedented for the Maple Leafs. Seven games into the new year, Toronto and Chicago completed what was then the biggest trade in league history. The Maple Leafs sent five players to the Blackhawks for Max Bentley and Cy Thomas. Thomas only played eight games that season, but Bentley would prove more valuable. He led the team in scoring with 23 goals and 25 assists in 59 games, helping the Leafs clinch the season's best overall record. Along with Ted Kennedy, Bentley helped propel the Leafs to their second straight Stanley Cup crown.

Philadelphia Flyers (1973-74)
Ever since league expansion awarded Philly with a franchise in 1967, the Flyers had tried to challenge the Original Six teams. This was the season Philadelphia showed its strength, literally. The team was branded the "Broad Street Bullies" after seven players tallied over 100 penalty minutes apiece during the 1973-74 season and one of them (Dave "The Hammer" Schultz) had 348 minutes. But the Flyers also had talent. Bobby Clarke was the team's best offensive threat, with 87 points in 77 games. Bernie Parent had a 1.89 goals-against average and 12 shutouts in 73 games. Just one point behind the Bruins for the best regular-season record, Philly eventually would beat Boston in six games to become the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup.

Honorable should-mentions:
• 1999-2000 New Jersey Devils: A team that could overcome every obstacle, including a historic 3-1 deficit vs. the Flyers.
• 1998-99 Dallas Stars: They allowed only 168 goals that season.
• 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins: One of the best teams not to win a Cup.