SI Staff
Thursday August 6th, 2015

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 2:

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NFL gut-punches: NFC teams | AFC teams

• New York Islanders: May 8, 1979; Stanley Cup Semifinals, Game 6—Rangers 2, Islanders 1

In the context of their intense rivalry with the Rangers, this monumental upset was a bitterly disappointing loss for the Islanders and their fans. Viewed through the prism of what followed—the Isles’ four straight Stanley Cups and NHL record 19 consecutive playoff series wins—the impact feels diminished, but in the immediate aftermath there were no guarantees of greatness, only pain and growing doubt.

The Islanders were regarded as Cup champs-in-waiting, but by the 1979 playoffs they’d been branded as underachievers. After reaching the third round in ’75, ’76 and ’77, New York stumbled against the Maple Leafs in the ’78 quarterfinals. Now the Islanders were coming off their first Presidents’ Trophy (51-15-14, 116 points) and had the NHL’s top offense and second-ranked defense. After a first-round bye, they swept the Blackhawks and took on the Rangers (40-29-11), who had stumbled down the stretch, going 3-8-3 before sweeping the Kings in the best-of-three first round and gaining some confidence while downing the Flyers in five games in the second.

This was the first postseason meeting between the two New York teams since the Isles’ shocking upset of the Rangers in 1975, and it was front- and back-page news in the city as crowds gathered to watch the games at satellite sites such as Long Island’s Roosevelt Raceway and Manhattan’s Felt Forum. The big stage amplified the prideful emotion the teams and their fans felt, and the rivalry had been spiced that season by Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin’s check on Ulf Nilsson that sidelined the Rangers center with a knee injury and turned Potvin into an arch-villain. (It also gave rise to the infamous “Potvin sucks!” chant that still echoes at MSG today.) The Isles in particular were eager to upstage the Rangers, who overshadowed them in the metropolitan area and whose fans regularly invaded the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The eagerness turned to annoyance after the Blueshirts’ grabbed a stunning 4–1 win on Long Island in Game 1.

NHL's worst gut-punch losses: Maple Leafs, Blues and Flames

It was soon clear that the Isles were in trouble. The Rangers stifled their Trio Grande line of sniper Mike Bossy (NHL-leading 69 goals), scoring champion Bryan Trottier (134 points, but only two in this series) and burly winger Clark Gillies (91 points), as well as their power play (31.15% regular season efficiency), which went 1 for 20 in the series. The Islanders also played like they were feeling the pressure of being the heavy favorites, something their goalie, Chico Resch, referred to as “Newton’s law of tight-ivity.”

After losing Game 5 at home 4–3 on a late third period goal by Anders Hedberg, the Isles were in a 3–2 series hole and heading to hostile Madison Square Garden. In an agonizing Game 6, Bossy finally broke through in the first period for his first goal and point of the series, but the Rangers put the clamps on New York’s offense and scored twice in 3:42 of the second. During the frenzied third period, the swarming Blueshirts allowed only three shots and held on for a 2–1 win that left the MSG crowd of 17,372 delirious in a blizzard of confetti. For the Isles and their despondent fans there was little solace in watching the Rangers lose to the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final.

Though this loss ultimately helped galvanize the Islanders to become a versatile and mentally tough dynasty, it seemed at the time like a harbinger of bad things to come. They started the following season 9-13-4 and attracted choruses of boos from the faithful. “There's no question that our awful start is a carry-over from last year’s playoff loss to the Rangers,” forward Bob Bourne told SI. Luckily for their fans, the Islanders got over it. — John Rolfe

• Columbus Blue Jackets: April 28, 2014; Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 6—Penguins 4, Blue Jackets 3

Gut-punch losses are fairly new territory for fans in Columbus. Years of ineptitude or mediocrity, not to mention only two postseason appearances in the franchise’s 14 seasons, will ensure that. But the young Jackets were on the rise in 2014 and giving fans their second taste of playoff fever. Facing Sidney Crosby and heavily favored Pittsburgh in the first round, Columbus showed that it could hang with the big boys. But the Blue Jackets also taught their fans what a torturous playoff loss looks and feels like.

The seeds of many tough postseason defeats are often sewn a few games prior—with an emotional win. Take Game 4 of this series. Down 3–2, Columbus was staring at an impossible 3–1 series deficit. Heart-and-soul player Brandon Dubinsky changed that by scoring with only 22.5 seconds left in the third period to force overtime. Then, just 2:49 into the extra session, Nick Foligno scored to give the Jackets their first home playoff win in franchise history.

The emotion and excitement didn’t last long. Columbus lost Game 5 in Pittsburgh 3–1. And in Game 6 at home, the Jackets quickly deflated any hope by falling behind 4–0 as the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin rang up a hat trick. But in a five-minute stretch of the third period, Columbus and its fans suddenly came alive. Fedor Tyutin scored a shorthanded goal at 10:21. Artem Anisimov scored on the power play at 13:54. Foligno lit the lamp at 15:13 to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 4–3.

Nationwide Arena was a cauldron of noise, with the crowd on its feet. The Penguins were reeling and a decisive Game 7 seemed more than possible. “I felt, with four and half minutes to go, when we got the third goal, that anything could happen,” Jackets coach Todd Richards later said. “Anything. And the way the game was going, you could feel the energy. Our bench had some life. My thought was, it was going to happen.”

With six skaters on the ice in the final two minutes, Columbus pressed the attack but couldn’t crack Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who made a game-saving deflection of a Dubinsky shot with 35 seconds to go. The Blue Jackets showed a ton of fortitude in coming back to win Games 2 and 4, but coming so close in Game 6 only made the loss harder to swallow when the Columbus was riddled by injuries and missed the playoffs the following season. — Jeremy Fuchs 

• Dallas Stars: April 27, 2014; Western Conference Quarterfinals, Game 6—Ducks 5, Stars 4 (OT)

It figures that a team from Southern California would haunt the dreams of Dallas fans. What’s surprising is that it turned out to be Anaheim.

For years, the Kings have used the Stars like their own personal Washington Generals, hanging a string of soul-crushing defeats on Dallas. Remember that 6–5 OT loss back in 2007 in which the Stars somehow blew a 4–0 lead with just over seven minutes to go? Tough to find a gut-punch any more epic than that—it led to the dismissal of GM Doug Armstrong just days later—but this one does the trick.

Pesky Stars were giving the favored Ducks everything they could handle in a first-round series that veered from spirited to downright nasty by the time Game 6 rolled around. Needing a win to send it back to Anaheim for Game 7, the Stars rode a near perfect effort, and two breakaway goals from defenseman Trevor Daley, to a 4–2 lead late in the third period.

With three minutes to go, Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau pulled goalie Jonas Hiller (who had replaced Frederik Andersen after the rookie allowed four goals on 12 shots) and Anaheim went to work. Nick Bonino drew the Ducks within one on a soft short-side goal, setting the stage for Devante Smith-Pelly to tie it up on a goalmouth scramble with 25.9 seconds to go. In those final frantic minutes, Anaheim out-attempted Dallas 17–0.

Although Smith-Pelly’s goal was just the equalizer, the refs may as well have called the game right there. The Stars, their spirits broken, laid back in OT, waiting for the inevitable dagger. Bonino delivered it on the Ducks’ first shot, 2:47 into extra time, to end Dallas’s season.

Sometimes hockey’s cruel,” Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said. “It was cruel, really cruel, to a group of guys that worked as hard as they possibly could.” —Allan Muir

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