Every fan must endure bitter defeat from time to time, but when it comes to choosing the most painful loss ever suffered by a team there are many factors to consider: the expectations, the opponent, the stakes. Blowout losses hurt, but it’s the close ones—the ones that got away, or the ones that were decided by fickle fate—that are often the most memorable.
This series revisits each NHL franchise’s worst gut-punch defeats. Here’s Part 3:
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• Arizona Coyotes: May 22, 2012; Western Conference Finals, Game 5—Kings 4, Coyotes 3 (OT)
Without doubt, Arizona (then Phoenix) was one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 postseason, having eliminated the Blackhawks and the Predators to reach the Western Conference finals. It was the deepest playoff run in the franchise’s history, including its years in Winnipeg (1979 to ’96). A trip to the Stanley Cup Final suddenly seemed possible. All the Coyotes had to do was get past Los Angeles, their Pacific Division rival.
The Kings were a bit of a surprise, too. After sneaking into the playoffs as the eighth seed, they took care of the Canucks in five games and then swept the Blues out of the second round. L.A. would prove to be a juggernaut, winning 16 of their 20 postseason games (.800 winning percentage) that year, but Phoenix believed that the Kings could be beaten.
Unfortunately, the Coyotes dropped the first two games of the series at home and quickly found themselves in a 3–0 series hole. In Game 4 at Staples Center, two goals from captain Shane Doan and a masterful 36-save shutout by Mike Smith staved off elimination. Phoenix returned home hoping to reverse the tide in Game 5. As a crowd of 17,148 towel-waving fans chanted, “Beat L.A.!” Taylor Pyatt got the Coyotes on the board at 4:20 of the first period, but L.A. countered with Anze Kopitar’s short-handed goal at 11:13. A thrilling see-saw battle was on. In the second period, Marc-Antoine Pouliot put Phoenix in front again at the 6:23 mark only to have the Kings draw even on Drew Doughty’s tally at 11:06. Then, just 2:37 later, Mike Richards scored to make it 3–2, giving L.A. its first lead of the game. Keith Yandle tied it with 3:37 left in regulation to force yet another overtime, the seventh of the playoffs for the tenacious Coyotes.
Phoenix had two great chances to win—a 5-on-3 for 1:42 of the third period and a power play in overtime—but the Kings’ penalty-killers were up to the task. Doughty in particular made a spectacular flat-out play to thwart a two-on-one by Pyatt and Daymond Langkow. The Coyotes’ season finally ended at 17:42 of OT when Dustin Penner got a lucky bounce and scored off a rebound moments after Phoenix defenseman Michal Rozsival had been helped off the ice after taking a knee-to-knee shot from L.A.’s Dustin Brown. The Coyotes’ bench was in an uproar but no penalty was called. You be the judge:
When the game ended Smith and Doan were both assessed game misconduct penalties for protesting.
“I have been knocked out in the first round a lot and you think it is going to feel better when you get to the next round,” Doan said. “But I don’t care when you get knocked out. It feels awful and you don’t want to be a part of it and you wish you could keep going.”
The Kings, of course, moved on to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1993 and defeated the Devils in six games. The Coyotes have not been back to the playoffs, and their fans have been subjected to more uncertainty about the team’s future. Winning the series, or at least the game, would have made the last few years at least a little easier to take. —William Grigsby, editor of the Coyotes site Howlin’ Hockey
• Detroit Red Wings: April 18, 1942; Stanley Cup Final, Game 7—Maple Leafs 3, Red Wings 1
Congrats, Detroit. Only one NHL team has ever blown a three games to none lead in a Stanley Cup Final, and for that your gut punch goes down as the most excruciating and demoralizing in hockey history.
The 1942 Red Wings weren’t a particularly strong side. They won just 19 of 48 games and finished fifth in the seven-team NHL. But the curious playoff system worked in their favor. Detroit knocked off the sixth-place Canadiens in the first round before sweeping a two-game set against the Bruins to punch its ticket to the Final and a meeting with Toronto.
The Wings, who were led by Don Grosso, Sid Abel and Johnny Mowers, won the first three games. And with a 3–2 third period lead in Game 4, they looked like they had the Leafs on the ropes ... until Syl Apps and Nick Metz scored a pair of late goals to secure a crucial 4–3 win that kept Toronto alive.
After that crusher the wheels came off for Detroit. The Red Wings dropped the next two games, 9–3 and 3–0, which meant that they had to play the decisive Game 7 on the road.
Detroit took a 1–0 lead on Syd Howe’s goal early in the second period and nursed the margin until midway through the third when the Maple Leafs’ Sweeney Schriner scored to tie it up. A Pete Langelle goal gave Toronto the lead moments later and Schriner scored the dagger late in the frame to clinch a 3–1 win and seal an ignominious spot in history for the Wings.
— Allan Muir
• Ottawa Senators: March 15, 2014—Canadiens 5, Senators 4 (OT)
Ottawa fans have been fairly lucky with their team’s performance during the past decade and a half. The Senators have only missed the playoffs three times in the past 15 seasons. They made an appearance in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final and have played beyond the first round on four other occasions. But their fans have also witnessed their fair share of brutal performances. Most think of Game 5 of the ’07 Cup final as a prime example, with Chris Phillips accidentally putting the puck in his own net to help the Ducks win not only the game by a commanding score of 6–2, but the Stanley Cup as well. I think, however,that something a little more recent is the real gut punch.
On March 15, 2014, Ottawa was still fighting for a playoff spot, just five points out of the last wild-card berth with 17 games left in the regular season. That night at the Bell Centre in Montreal, they played Canadiens, who had recently become their biggest rival largely due to their meeting in the first round of the previous season’s playoffs. (The Maple Leafs are a more natural rival for the Senators, but in the previous eight or nine seasons there had been a distinct lack of meaningful games between the two teams.)
After Montreal grabbed a quick 1–0 lead thanks to a Daniel Briere goal less than a minute into the game, Ottawa dominated for the next 50 minutes. Goals by Jason Spezza, Zack Smith, Ales Hemsky and Clarke MacArthur gave the Sens a commanding 4–1 lead with just over three minutes left on the clock.
Then they completely fell apart.
The Habs’ Lars Eller and Brian Gionta scored within 1:30 of each other, bringing Montreal within one with 2:04 remaining. Ottawa desperately defended its lead, but Kyle Turris was called for tripping. On the ensuing power play a pass from Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban found David Desharnais in time to tie the game with 0.3 seconds on the clock. Just over a minute into the extra frame, Montreal defenseman Francis Bouillon scored the winning goal—his first goal of the season and first in more than a year—by digging the puck free from goalie Robin Lehner, who thought he had frozen it.
The Senators were furious at the refs. “The puck is covered at the end, no call,” MacArthur groused to the Ottawa Sun. “It’s tough, we’re fighting for our lives right now, it’s hard not to get emotional. We put ourselves in a bad spot, we gave them a little life, but at the same time it’s tough enough playing a hockey team along with everyone else in the building.… That’s a tough loss for our team right now.”
Ottawa never recovered. The Sens dropped their next four games and seven of their next 11 (three of their four wins during the slide were in shootouts), ultimately falling five points shy of a playoff berth. —Charlie Arsenault, writer for the Senators blog Senshot