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October 4, 2015
Worst Conference Finals Losses
by Michael Dell, Editor-in-Chief
New York's championship window pretty much opened and closed in the same season. Yeah, when the puck drops for 2012-13, the Rangers will still have Henrik Lundqvist in net and a trio of talented defenders in Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and Ryan McDonagh to go along with offensive pillars like Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, and Ryan Callahan. The cupboard’s far from bare. But this season's gonna leave a mark.
The Rangers had little room for error, playing an aggressive, physical brand of defense night in and night out. New York led the NHL with 2,419 hits, finishing more than 100 hits ahead of second-place Los Angeles (2,274). The Rangers relied heavily on sacrifice, ranking fourth with 1,338 blocked shots, which was only 26 shy of the first-place Islanders. That's a tremendous physical toll over an 82-game grind.
John Tortorella exacted a similar mental price, going to the whip early and often in demanding the sort of mindless obedience seldom seen outside dystopian regimes. Players don't so much thrive under Tortorella as survive him. He won a Stanley Cup in his fourth year with Tampa Bay, but it was downhill from there, with each subsequent season bringing the diminishing returns associated with prolonged emotional abuse. This season marked Tortorella's fourth in New York, and, like in Tampa, the team has improved each year. Except this time the suffering has gone unrewarded. How much longer before the fellas realize they could lose in the playoffs every year for a nicer coach?
For the Rangers to sustain the same level of intensity over another 82-game season and conserve enough energy for a successful Stanley Cup run would be nothing short of miraculous. A far likelier scenario would be an injury-riddled, inconsistent regular season followed by an abrupt playoff exit and a desperate coaching change amidst the swirling embers of burnt bridges.
But this year's Wales Conference Finals was an epic battle waged between two bitter rivals, bringing to mind other memorable clashes that vanquished worthy Cup contenders. Make no mistake, the Rangers were good enough to win a Cup. That can't be said about every conference finals participant. Phoenix, I'm looking in your direction.
Here are the Top 11 most significant conference finals losses since 1980.
San Jose returned to the Campbell Conference Finals in 2011 only to have Vancouver punch its ticket to Palookaville in five games.
While the Sharks restructured prior to the 2011-12 season, shipping out offensive firepower for an upgrade on defense, the team barely made the playoffs and then managed just eight goals in a five-game, first-round exit.
The Sharks' times are over. They've got dimes on their eyes. And the ink dried on the death certificate in 2010.
In 1986, a plucky St. Louis squad finished third in the Norris with a modest 37-34-9 record before upsetting Minnesota in the first round and squeaking past a terrible Toronto team in the second. Led by the one-two punch of Bernie Federko and Doug Gilmour, who tied for the team lead with 21 points in 19 playoff contests, the Blues stretched the favored Calgary Flames to the limit before dropping Game Seven, 2-1. The series highlight was a 6-5 overtime victory in Game Six that came to be known as the "Monday Night Miracle" due to the Blues rallying from a three-goal deficit with 12 minutes to play in regulation, eventually winning on a Doug Wickenheiser goal.
While unlikely to have toppled Montreal and Patrick Roy in the Finals, the 1986 Blues still stand as the franchise's last real shot at Stanley Cup glory.
It really was a wild, wild scene. Before the season started, LCS pal Matthew Barnaby told The Hockey News he and his teammates were placing bets on who would run Hasek first at training camp. The bad blood would simmer all season long, hinting at mob violence.
At least the added drama provided some excitement, because the team surrounding Hasek was a motley assortment of muckers and grinders devoid of star power, as evidenced by Barnaby leading the club in playoff scoring with seven goals and 13 points. Hasek registered a .938 save percentage and surrendered two goals or less in nine of the team's 15 postseason contests, but it still wasn't enough to get past the equally mediocre Washington Capitals, who would serve as roadkill for the Detroit Red Wings in the Finals.
Hasek's playoff performance is probably best remembered, though, for giving up a 70-footer to Joe Juneau in Game Four and then showing up to practice the next day with "Kramer" and "Swiss Cheese" taped to his jersey.
The 1998 Sabres were hardly an immortal assemblage of talent, and watching their games bordered on cruelty. But the behind-the-scenes politics and combustible personalities made their playoff run bizarrely fascinating. Kind of like “Duck Dynasty.”
The 1994 Devils had a swell roster, boasting notable names like Claude Lemieux, John MacLean, Stephane Richer, Bernie Nicholls, Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, and Viacheslav Fetisov. Youngsters Bill Guerin, Scott Niedermayer, and Martin Brodeur also promised better days ahead. And Chris Terreri, one of the NHL's last wee tiny goalies, even went 3-0 in relief of Brodeur.
Like an aging thoroughbred turned loose on the track one last time, Gretzky played some of his best hockey since the Los Angeles Cup run, posting 10 goals and 20 points in 15 postseason contests. He even bagged hat tricks against the Panthers and Flyers, making the dream of an Edmonton revival more than monkeyshines.
But even Gretzky and Messier were no match for the Legion of Doom, who squashed the Rangers in five games. It was a harsh end to each legend's postseason relevance, as neither man would ever compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs again.
But before Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg transformed the long-suffering Nordiques into a juggernaut, Quebec City witnessed seven straight postseason appearances from 1981 to 1987. The Islanders swept the Nordiques in the 1982 conference finals, but the Nords returned in 1985 squaring off with the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Nordiques once again relied on the lethal scoring of 100-point scorer Peter Stastny and 55-goal man Michel Goulet. Stastny still had his brothers Anton and Marian by his side, but persistent shoulder problems squeezed Marian, the eldest of the three brothers, out of the lineup. Dale Hunter and Brent Ashton, both 24 at the time, picked up most of the scoring slack, combining for 47 goals and 123 points in 129 games.
Quebec opened the conference finals in style, getting a 2-1 overtime win courtesy of Peter Stastny. The series would be 2-2 heading to Le Colisee for Game Five. Jean-Francois Sauve scored at 7:02 of the second to give Quebec a 1-0 lead. That's as close as the Nordiques ever got to the Stanley Cup. Joe Paterson and Murray Craven scored third-period goals to steal the game, 2-1. Rick Tocchet, Dave Poulin, and Doug Crossman provided the goals in Philly's 3-0 Game Six victory, with Pelle Lindbergh needing just 15 saves to close the series.
Game Six hinged on Poulin’s goal. Trailing 1-0, the Nordiques went on a 5-on-3 power play. Stastny and Goulet on a two-man advantage? Trouble. But Poulin stepped up and made one of the best plays in Flyers history, stealing a pass inside the Philly stripe and streaking up ice to beat Mario Gosselin over the glove. Game over.
The 1985 season was the high-water mark for Quebec hockey, and the Nordiques bowed out early the next two seasons before embarking on five straight fifth-place finishes in the Adams Division. Losing to the Flyers also prevented the Stastny Brothers from meeting Gretzky and the Oilers in the Finals, robbing hockey fans of what surely would have been a wicked cool series.
But Boston seemed ready to take the next step in 1991. Bourque had led the team in scoring with 21 goals and 94 points en route to claiming his fourth Norris Trophy in five years. A 25-year-old Cam Neely was in his prime, rampaging through defenders and converting Craig Janney's playmaking into 51 goals over 69 games to notch his second consecutive 50-goal season. And through the first two games of the Wales Conference Finals, a rematch with Messier and the Oilers seemed in the cards.
Boston jumped out to a 2-0 series lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, taking Game Two 5-4 in overtime on a Vladimir "Rosie" Ruzicka goal. Billed at the time as the Mario Lemieux of Czechoslovakia, Ruzicka had eight points in the opening two victories. Too bad for the Bruins that the Penguins still had the Mario Lemieux of Canada.
Lemieux lit the lamp in each of the next four games, posting four goals and 11 points to carry the Penguins to a six-game triumph. Boston would meet the Penguins again in 1992, eating a four-game sweep for their troubles.
The 1991 Wales Conference Finals marked the true end of the Bourque Era Bruins, a team good enough to win a Cup but not great enough to compete with the likes of Gretzky, Messier, and Lemieux.
Of course, the 1991 loss to Pittsburgh also signaled the beginning of the end for Neely, who had 15 goals through Boston's first 15 playoff games before Ulf Samuelsson derailed his career. And contrary to popular belief, the destructive open-ice collision that injured Neely in Game Three wasn't the hit that did the most damage. Samuelsson blasted Neely along the boards later in the series with a seemingly innocuous hit that caused the Charlie horse to develop, which in turn led to the thigh muscle calcification and the subsequent knee problems. But doctors still aren't certain whether Samuelsson's checks played any part in Neely's premature retirement, or whether the treatment for the rare thigh condition was the true culprit.
Either way, Neely and the Bruins were never the same after 1991, and it would be 20 long years before Boston drank from the Cup again.
After dropping Game One, the top-seeded Flyers rattled off three straight wins despite playing without Eric Lindros, who had yet to make a postseason appearance due to ongoing concussion problems and a very public spat with Bobby Clarke and team management regarding the quality of his medical care.
In response to the criticism, Clarke stripped Lindros of his captaincy. In the midst of the ongoing soap opera, the Flyers still produced an 11-4 record through Game Four of the conference finals thanks to strong showings from Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Keith Primeau, and Eric Desjardins. Youngsters Simon Gagne and Daymond Langkow chipped in with some offensive support, and Brian Boucher provided surprisingly stellar goaltending, finishing the playoffs with a 2.03 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. But the best story of all was a rejuvenated 35-year-old Rick Tocchet, who scored five goals and 11 points in his return to Philly after five forgettable seasons in Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, and Phoenix. Tocchet in a Flyers sweater? Good times, indeed.
It didn't last.
A decisive 4-1 Devils win in Game Five on Philadelphia ice -- in which the line of Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias, and Petr Sykora combined for three goals and three assists -- had Clarke and head coach Roger Neilson pounding the panic button. The Philly brain trust decided to insert Lindros into the lineup for Game Six.
With their erstwhile captain back on the ice, the Flyers battled the Devils to a 0-0 standstill through two periods until Claude Lemieux did what Claude Lemieux does, scoring 11:26 into the third to put New Jersey up, 1-0. Alexander Mogilny made it 2-0 at 16:33. Lindros, who played 14 minutes on the night, scored in the final minute to spoil the shutout.
Game Seven in Philly opened with Elias putting New Jersey in front 1-0 at 6:44 of the first. About six minutes later, Scott Stevens dropped the hammer, effectively ending Lindros' career with a titanic open-ice destruction. Tocchet rallied the Flyers in the second, tying the game with a power-play marker, but Elias delivered the death blow at 17:28 of the third, ending the Lindros Era once and for all.
Lindros’ personal conflict with Clarke and his lingering concussion symptoms forced him to sit out the next season, and he wouldn’t be traded to the Rangers until August 2001. He'd score 37 goals and 73 points in his first of three years with the Blueshirts before finishing his career with brief stops in Toronto and Dallas.
Even with the concussion woes and the abbreviated career, Lindros still ranks as one of the greatest players of his generation. He was part of two signature lines, first the Crazy Eights with Mark Recchi and Brent Fedyk and then the formidable Legion of Doom with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg.
Pretty much Solomon Grundy on skates, Lindros and the Legion of Doom made late-90s hockey something special.
And when the New York Islanders stunned the two-time defending champion Penguins in round two, the Campbell Conference was no longer playing for the right to finish second. The Stanley Cup was free for the taking.
Wayne Gretzky and Barry Melrose had led a Royal renaissance in Los Angeles, and Gretzky produced his final great postseason, dispatching both the Flames and Canucks in six games. Meanwhile, Doug Gilmour teamed with Pat Burns to manufacture a similar overhaul in Toronto, getting clutch goal-scoring from Dave Andreychuk and viable goaltending from rookie sensation Felix Potvin. The Leafs went the distance with Detroit and St. Louis to reach the conference finals for the first time since raising the Cup in 1967.
After falling behind the Kings 2-1 in the series, Toronto took the next two, winning Game Five 3-2 on a Glenn Anderson OT tally. A victory over the Kings in Game Six would send the Leafs to the Stanley Cup Finals to face the Montreal Canadiens, no doubt killing most of Canada in the process.
Wendel Clark knotted Game Six 4-4 with 1:21 left in regulation, completing a hat trick with a blistering wrist shot over Kelly Hrudey's glove. But the celebration had barely ended when Anderson boarded Rob Blake, handing the Kings a power play to start overtime.
What happened next still haunts Leaf fans and explains why Canadian hair spray sales have dropped so dramatically the past 20 years.
Gretzky controlled the power play along the right wing wall and stepped into the circle to blast a slapper. Blocked. In his desperation to recapture the bouncing puck, Gretzky cracked Gilmour in the chin with his stick, splitting the Leafs captain for eight stitches. And back then, a high-stick that drew blood meant five minutes and a game misconduct.
With Gretzky booted, the Leafs skated out the 4-on-4 and then won the game on an Andreychuk power-play goal to... no, wait. That's what should have happened.
What really happened is Kerry Fraser missed the call, Gretzky scored the power-play winner seconds later, and then the Kings stole Game Seven in Toronto behind a Gretzky hat trick.
Hard to get happy after that one.
But the Penguins did have a 30-year-old Mario Lemieux and a 23-year-old Jaromir Jagr, not to mention Ron Francis, Petr Nedved, and Tomas Sandstrom. Throw in youngsters like Markus Naslund, Glen Murray, and Bryan Smolinski, and the Pens had no problems scoring goals. The Birds ripped the net 362 times, leading the league and finishing 37 ahead of 62-win Detroit. Pittsburgh's power play converted at 25.95 percent, more than four full percentage points clear of Detroit and Colorado.
When Lemieux was at his peak in the early 90s, Jagr was still growing into his game. Injuries kept Lemieux on the shelf in 1994 and again in 1995 when Jagr won his first scoring title. The 1996 season was really the first time the duo got to play together when both men were at their best. And they left a trail of wrecked goaltenders in their wake.
Lemieux and Jagr were simply overwhelming. Jagr had the best season of his remarkable career, going for 62 goals, 87 assists, and 149 points. And he trailed Lemieux in all three categories! Mario played 70 games, 12 fewer than Jagr, and still went for 69 goals and 161 points. Francis tied Lemieux for the league lead in assists with 92 and added 27 goals to give the Pens three of the league's top four scorers. Nedved just missed the century club, recording a career-high 45 goals and 99 points. Sandstrom contributed 35 goals and 70 points in just 58 games, adding another lethal weapon to the arsenal.
The Pens opened the playoffs with a six-game win over the Capitals, rallying from an 0-2 deficit to win four straight. Nedved's quadruple-overtime winner in Game Four remains an iconic playoff moment.
After combining for a relatively quiet five goals and 19 points in the opening round, Lemieux and Jagr blitzed the Rangers for 15 goals in five games to cruise into the conference finals to face the upstart Florida Panthers.
Under coach Doug MacLean, the Panthers won 41 games on the strength of John Vanbiesbrouck's superb goaltending and a suffocating defensive style that yielded just 234 goals, a full 50 goals fewer than the Pens had surrendered. Florida made short work of the Bruins in round one and then needed six games to choke out Eric Lindros and the Legion of Doom.
No one was giving the Panthers much of a chance against Pittsburgh, and hockey pundits were drooling at the prospects of Lemieux and Jagr against either the Red Wings or Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals.
But the series may have been decided the previous round. Francis blocked a shot in Pittsburgh's 7-3 Game Five victory over the Rangers and suffered a broken left foot, knocking him out of the conference finals. Without Francis, the Pens struggled to match up against Florida's relentless clutching and grabbing, resulting in turnovers and sloppy play.
The Panthers actually outscored the Penguins 20-15 over the seven-game series, potting four or more goals three times. The Pens never scored more than three goals in any contest.
Yet a 3-0 win in Game Five had the Penguins up 3-2 in the series and looking to close things out in Miami. But the Panthers evened the series when Rob Niedermayer jammed home a rebound to break a 3-3 tie late in the third period.
The Panthers grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first period of Game Seven, converting a Zubov pass to no one in particular into a two-on-one Mike Hough goal. Pittsburgh pressed for the equalizer until the third period when Nedved took a nifty Lemieux drop pass in the slot and wired a shot past Vanbiesbrouck. There was much rejoicing.
But this was one strange series. In all my years of watching hockey, I've never seen one team score as many fluky goals as the Panthers. Keep in mind, the Cats outworked the Pens and earned all luck, but it's amazing they could even skate with so many horseshoes up their asses.
Here's basically how the series went: Lemieux and Jagr would create scoring chance after scoring chance only to have Vanbiesbrouck stone them, and then the Panthers would tackle a bunch of people and score on the resulting odd-man break, with the puck usually going in off a skate, an elbow, or some form of invisible unicorn. And with about 12 minutes to go in Game Seven, the Panthers scored the weakest of weak goals.
Tommy Fitzgerald, who as a member of the Islanders helped stun the Penguins in 1993, lugged the puck through center ice and fired a harmless slap shot on net from just inside the Penguin blue line. Tom Barrasso watched the puck, and with it his legacy as a great netminder, flutter over his left shoulder for the eventual winning goal. But in fairness to Barrasso, he was probably distracted by all the swinging butterfly nets.
The Panthers would add a third goal on yet another two-on-one to make the final 3-1.
Florida clutched and grabbed Pittsburgh into submission, holding Lemieux to just one goal and seven points and Jagr to one foal and five points over the entire series. Helio Gracie thought the grappling was excessive.
Again, Lemieux and Jagr's modest point totals weren't for a lack of effort, as they had to fight through the TSA treatment every shift. Goaltending was the difference. Ken Wregget had replaced an injured Barrasso early in the postseason and got the start in Game One, giving up five goals on 25 shots. Barrasso took over from there and managed a deceptive .932 save percentage the rest of the way, stopping everything except the incredibly soft, back-breaking goals that murder a team's confidence. Vanbiesbrouck had a .938 save percentage for the series, making even spectacular saves look routine.
Colorado made short work of Florida in the Stanley Cup Finals, sweeping the Panthers with relative ease. Even if Pittsburgh survived Florida, it's doubtful the Penguins could have defeated the Avalanche, who had decided advantages on defense, on the third and fourth lines, and in net. Now, if Francis was healthy, it could have been a different story. Either way, a Finals with Lemieux, Jagr, Sakic, Forsberg, and Roy would have been one for the ages. But instead we got Dave Lowry and a bunch of stupid rats.
Thanks, Florida. Thanks for nothin.'
The 1996 Penguins were the last of the great offensive teams. We'll never see another club with two 60-goal scorers and three 110-point producers. Forget it. Those days are solid gone. And that's why this team should be mourned.
From 1996 to 2001, the Avalanche and Red Wings combined for four Stanley Cups in six years, with each team owning a pair of banners. Along the way there were broken faces, bloody brawls, uncanny turtle impersonations, and some of the best hockey ever witnessed by man or chimp.
The Avalanche had won the Cup in 2001 and returned for an encore with Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay, Chris Drury, Rob Blake, Adam Foote, and Patrick Roy. Ray Bourque, having finally sipped from the chalice, rode into retirement, leaving behind an enormous void on the blue line and in the room. Peter Forsberg also sat out the entire regular season to recover from various injuries, including the emergency spleen removal that brought an untimely end to his 2001 postseason. Even with the hardships, the Avs won 45 games and finished first in the Northwest. Best of all, Forsberg returned for Game One of the playoffs, setting the stage for another championship run.
Detroit was determined to end Colorado's reign and busted out the checkbook, building a stacked team deserving of its own room in the Hall of Fame. The Wings added Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, and Dominik Hasek to a roster that already included Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios, and Nicklas Lidstrom. Some 23-year-old rookie named Pavel Datsyuk also played a role, studying at the knee of Igor Larionov.
As expected, the Wings and Avalanche met in the Campbell Conference Finals, with the teams trading wins over the first four contests. The Avalanche seized the advantage with a 2-1 overtime win in Game Five, getting the winner from Peter Forsberg, who would lead the playoffs in scoring with 27 points despite not reaching the Finals. But Colorado wouldn't score another goal in the series. Hasek pitched a 2-0 shutout in Game Six and then the Avalanche imploded in Game Seven at the Joe, losing 7-0 in what remains the most embarrassing end since "All in the Family."
The series swung on a colossal miscue from Roy in Game Six. With less than a minute to go in a scoreless first period, Roy lunged to his left to make a dazzling glove save on Yzerman. St. Patrick held his glove high. It would have been a defiant gesture full of swagger had, you know, the puck actually been in his glove. Shanahan barged into the crease and swatted home the loose biscuit to give Detroit the 1-0 lead. Colorado never recovered, with the weight of three straight seven-game series, a Stanley Cup, and two previous trips to the conference finals gaining terminal mass as soon as Roy's blunder found the net. Detroit went on to claim its third Stanley Cup in six years, giving the Wings eternal bragging rights over their hated adversaries.
Colorado would make two more playoff appearances before the lockout brought an official end to the once proud champion. But the dynasty truly ended with the 2002 conference finals and an inopportune Statue of Liberty play.