SI Staff
Monday August 10th, 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 is Part 4:

Leafs, Blues, Flames | Isles, Jackets, Stars | Coyotes, Red Wings, Senators | Bruins, Predators, Oilers | Rangers, Canucks, Devils | Canadiens, Lightning, Ducks | Capitals, Sabres, Flyers | Blackhawks, Jets, Penguins | Kings, Avalanche, Panthers

NFL gut-punches: NFC teams | AFC teams

 San Jose Sharks: April 30, 2014; Western Conference Quarterfinals, Game 7—Kings 5, Sharks 1

The franchise that has come to symbolize postseason failure has suffered more than its share of low blows and disappointments through the years, but there’s one that hurt just a little bit more than the rest: the Game 7 loss to Los Angeles in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs.

It’s not just the freshness of the wound that makes the defeat sting so much. It’s that it never should have gotten to that point. San Jose had been dominant in the first three games of the series, taking Games 1 and 2 at home by a combined score of 13–5, then seizing control at Staples Center with a 4–3 OT win in Game 3. But the Kings stormed back, taking the next three games to force Game 7 at the SAP Center.

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Despite having home ice advantage, the series had taken such a turn that it felt like it was only a matter of time before disaster struck for coach Todd McLellan’s Sharks. Even after defenseman Matt Irwin scored the game’s opening goal 28 seconds into the second period—the first time that San Jose had opened the scoring since Game 1—the Sharks still played more like they were afraid to lose than they wanted to win.

That attitude seemed to catch up to them when Drew Doughty evened it up for L.A. four minutes later. But then the officials handed San Jose a glorious chance: three consecutive power play opportunities, after the Kings’ Marian Gaborik (8:13), Dwight King (11:43) and Trevor Lewis (16:08) were each sent off for hooking. During one agonizing sequence Patrick Marleau put a shot on net that required video replay, but it was ruled no goal. And when Lewis exited the box with just under two minutes left in the period, you could sense the life draining out of the Sharks.

It didn’t take Los Angeles long to capitalize. Just 31 seconds after Lewis’ penalty expired, Anze Kopitar gave the Kings the lead. L.A. then scored three unanswered goals in the third period to claim a 5–1 victory and become just the fourth team in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup playoff series after having lost the first three games.

And if blowing a series in historic fashion wasn’t bad enough, it also was the second year in a row that San Jose had been eliminated in Game 7 by its most bitter rival.

“Every year you lose is pretty low, but this one is a type of series that will rip your heart out,” Logan Couture said. “It hurts. It's going to be a long summer thinking about this one and what we let slip away.”

Said MacLellan: “This is as low as it’s been for me, and for the players that have been together for the six years that I’ve been here.” — Allan Muir

• Carolina Hurricanes: April 9, 2011—Lightning 6, Hurricanes 2

For the fans of a franchise that arrived in Raleigh, N.C., from Hartford in 1997 with only one playoff series victory to its name in 18 years, every spring of postseason contention has been treated like found money. So there was a numbing inevitability to Carolina playing the role of the Washington Generals in getting swept by the star-studded Penguins in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals. Same goes for the Hurricanes’ classic Game 3 triple-overtime loss in the 2002 Stanley Cup Final to a Red Wings team loaded with Hall of Famers—a defeat that proved to be the death knell for a deep playoff run that had helped galvanize Raleigh’s green fan base.

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But the biggest fear for fans of this small-market organization is that it somehow exhausted a lifetime’s supply of good fortune by winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 at the expense of a league that had been shell-shocked by the year-long ’04–05 lockout. For that particular, and always present, cocktail of anguish and dread, there’s no topping the final game of the ’10–11 season.

Needing only a win to pass the Rangers for the No. 8 seed in the East, Carolina hosted a Tampa Bay team that had already clinched its own playoff spot and had nothing to play for. The season finale marked the 74th game of what had been a career year for goalie Cam Ward, who never got a night off in the final month of the season while going 9-2-1 and dragging the Hurricanes back into contention.

But with everything on the line on the last night of the regular season, Ward yielded a fluky rebound goal that was punched home by Dominic Moore in the opening minutes, got beaten badly by a Vincent Lecavalier breakaway and then watched helplessly as Steven Stamkos scored on the counterattack to give the Lightning a 3–0 lead just over halfway through the first period.

Carolina’s punchless 6–2 loss spoiled Jeff Skinner’s infectiously terrific Calder Trophy campaign, Eric Staal’s most recent (and final?) 30-goal season, and Ward’s brilliant stretch run. As the Hurricanes stumbled through the final two periods of their high-stakes no-show, it was hard not to feel as if the charm of the team’s decade of intermittent springtime magic—one that had endeared an entire region to pro hockey—was wearing off. — Eric Single

Minnesota Wild: May 13, 2014; Western Conference Semifinals, Game 6—Blackhawks 2, Wild 1 (OT)

Minnesota, as one of the NHL’s newer franchises, has had few opportunities—six to be exact—to make any real noise in the postseason in the last 15 years. Probably the most optimistic that fans in the state of 10,000 lakes have been was during the Wild’s playoff run in 2014. That’s taking into consideration their highly improbable postseason trek in ’03, their third year of existence. In those playoffs, they clawed back into two series and eliminated the Avalanche and the Canucks, two powerhouse teams, in seven games each before being swept by the Ducks in the conference finals.

The 2014 playoffs were reminiscent of the first run, when guys like Richard Park and Andrew Brunette played hero for Minnesota. And as in ’03, the most unlikely of players shone bright in the first round against Colorado. Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter both etched their names in Wild history for their dramatic overtime winners in Games 3 and 7 against the Avs.

Not only were fans looking forward to a rematch with Chicago in round 2, but Minnesota’s players and coaches were pleased with both their game and their focus after having to continuously come from behind to win in the opening round. Having won their first playoff series in a decade, the Wild had their eyes set on the team that had disposed of them in six games in the 2013 conference quarterfinals.

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The Hawks took Games 1 and 2 at home and quickly backed Minnesota into a corner, forcing the Wild to do what they’d done against the Avalanche: play their hearts out at home. Minnesota was up to the challenge and won Games 3 and 4 at XCel Energy Center to turn the series into a best of three. But winning in Chicago proved to be a huge task. The Blackhawks were 5–0 at the United Center to that point in the playoffs, and 17–2 in the past two postseasons. In Game 5, Chicago erased Minnesota’s early 1–0 lead and won 2–1 on goals by Bryan Bickell and Jonathan Toews, plus some stellar goaltending by Corey Crawford. The Wild returned home to St. Paul to face a do-or-die Game 6.

Enter Patrick Kane.

Minnesota put everything it had into this game. After Kris Versteeg of the Blackhawks and Erik Haula of the Wild traded goals, Mikael Granlund, Justin Fontaine and Niederreiter had great opportunities to give Minnesota the lead but the contest remained stalemated at 1-1 until midway through the overtime period.

It all ended for the Wild when a seemingly harmless dump-in from center ice by Chicago’s Brent Seabrook took a crazy bounce off of the end boards (an all too familiar sight at Xcel) and popped out in front of Ilya Bryzgalov’s net. Surprised by the puck's appearance, Bryzgalov hesitated a bit while looking to go out after it before realizing that two Blackhawks were closer to it. The first, Peter Regin, was tied up by defenseman Ryan Suter and overskated the puck, leaving Mr. Showtime himself one on one with Bryzgalov.

Kane backhanded the puck top shelf. At first it was hard for the crowd to tell whether or not the shot had gone in. But the Chicago bench knew, as did Kane. He pointed to the puck as he circled the net and microphones caught him shouting, “That went in!” And so the series, and Minnesota’s fate, was sealed.

Had the Wild taken the series to a Game 7 who knows what could have happened? But failed breakaways, whiffs and shots off goalposts had prevented it from happening. What makes the loss so hard to bear is the fact that Minnesota got a third postseason crack at the Hawks in 2015 and were again outplayed by Kane and Crawford in a 4–0 series sweep. — Jon Nomland, writer for the blog Gone Puck Wild

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