The 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs, the championship of the National Hockey League (NHL) began on April 16, 1996. The sixteen teams that qualified, eight from each conference, played best-of-seven series for conference quarterfinals, semifinals and championships, and then the conference champions played a best-of-seven series for the Stanley Cup. These playoffs are noted as being the first playoffs in which all Canadian teams were eliminated after the first round. The New Jersey Devils who had won the cup the year before missed these playoffs. This was the first time that both Florida teams made it to the playoffs.
(2) Colorado Avalanche vs. (7) Vancouver Canucks
This was the first playoff series between these two teams. This series marked the first appearance of a team representing Colorado in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 18 years. The most recent team to represent Colorado prior to this was the Colorado Rockies who lost in the Preliminary round in 1978.
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (4) Florida Panthers
This was the first and to date only playoff series between these two teams. This was the third conference final appearance for Pittsburgh and first since defeating Boston in four games in 1992. Florida made their first appearance in a conference final since entering the league as an expansion team in 1993.
Despite being outshot 33–25 in game one the Panthers came out on top with an impressive 5–1 win. Florida goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck made 32 saves and Florida forward Tom Fitzgerald scored twice. The Penguins wanting to avoid going down two games to none against the Panthers came out with a better effort in game two and won the game 3–2 and evened the series at one game each. In game three the Panthers fired an incredible 61 shots on Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso and it paid off as the Panthers won 5–2 to take a 2–1 series lead, Florida forward Stu Barnes scored twice. Going into the third period of game four the Penguins trailed 1–0, Pittsburgh tied the score on Brad Lauer's goal with 11:03 remaining in regulation. Bryan Smolinski scored the go ahead goal with 3:31 to go to give the Penguins a 2–1 lead. Pittsburgh hung on to win the game 2–1 and tie the series at two games apiece. In game five the Penguins shut out the Panthers 3–0, Tom Barrasso stopped all 28 Florida shots he faced.
Leading the series three games to two Pittsburgh looked to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals in game six. The Penguins led 2–1 in the second period but the Panthers scored three of the next four goals and edged the Penguins 4–3 to tie the series at 3–3. In game seven Florida got a 1–0 lead on Mike Hough's goal at 13:13 of the first period. After a scoreless second period Pittsburgh tied the game on Petr Nedved's power-play goal at 1:23 of the third period. The Panthers regained the lead on Tom Fitzgerald's bizarre 58-foot slapshot at 6:18 and got an insurance goal from Johan Garpenlov at 17:23. Florida hung on to win the game 3–1 and the series four games to three, John Vanbiesbrouck made 39 saves in the victory.
(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (2) Colorado Avalanche
This was the first playoff series between these two teams. This was the fourth conference final appearance for Detroit and second in consecutive years as the Red Wings defeated Chicago in five games the year before. Colorado made their third conference final appearance in franchise history and first since losing to Philadelphia in six games in 1985 when the team was known as the Quebec Nordiques.
Game one was a hard-fought battle, the score was tied at two in the first overtime period when Mike Keane scored at 17:31 to give Colorado a 3–2 win. The Avalanche won game two by a score of 3–0, Colorado goaltender Patrick Roy stopped all 35 shots he faced. Down two games to none the Red Wings played solidly in game three. Detroit defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Vladimir Konstantinov combined to score three goals (including a shorthanded goal by Konstantinov) and Detroit won 6–4. In game four the Red Wings outshot the Avalanche 31–17 but lost the game 4–2, thanks to 29 saves made by Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy.
Detroit played with desperation and determination in game five. Inspired by Vladimir Konstantinov's big body check on Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux the Red Wings went on to win 5–2. The Red Wings victory forced a sixth game back in Colorado. Game six became famous in the history of the Red Wings-Avalanche rivalry. At 14:07 of the first period Detroit forward Kris Draper was down along the half-boards at center ice when Colorado forward Claude Lemieux checked Draper's head from behind into the edge of the bench. The hit sent Draper to the hospital with a broken jaw and a shattered cheek and orbital bone, which required surgery and stitches. Draper did not return to play until the middle of the 1996–97 season. While Lemieux was assessed a five minute major penalty and a game misconduct match penalty for the hit, the Avalanche went on to win the game 4–1 and completed the upset. The controversial hit on Draper by Lemieux was a catalyst (along with a rough hit by Kozlov on Foote in game 3) for the Detroit-Colorado rivalry that lasted for years.
Since the formation of the NHL in 1917 this was the only time to date that both teams competing in the Stanley Cup Finals made their first appearance.
This was the first and to date only playoff series between these two teams. Colorado made their first finals appearance in their first season since moving to Denver, the only team to ever do so, while Florida made their first finals appearance in just their third season of existence.