NHL's worst gut-punch losses: Kings, Avalanche and Panthers
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 most bitter loss. Here is Part 10:
MORE: Leafs, Blues, Flames | Islanders, Blue Jackets, Stars | Coyotes, Red Wings, Senators | Sharks, Hurricanes, Wild | Bruins, Predators, Oilers | Rangers, Canucks, Devils | Canadiens, Lightning, Ducks | Capitals, Sabres, Flyers | Blackhawks, Jets, Penguins
• Los Angeles Kings: June 7, 1993; Stanley Cup Final, Game 4—Canadiens 3, Kings 2 (OT)
During my junior year of high school, I asked my pre-calculus teacher about the most torturous loss in the history of the Kings. Mr. Douglas was a devoted but tortured fan who had been attending their games since he was a kid. He and his dad witnessed Marcel Dionne and the “Triple Crown Line” of the early 1980s and the arrival of Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton in ‘88, but the franchise’s history was largely forgettable. That’s why the 1993 Stanley Cup Final, even after the Kings’ two championships since 2012, still resonates with their longtime fans.
“The Roy wink,” Mr. Douglas said of Game 4. “It’s not even close.”
The Kings’ appearance in the ’93 Final was a surprise to say the least. They allowed more goals than they scored during the course of the season, Gretzky battled nagging injuries that kept him out for more than two months, and they had to overcome a 3-1 series deficit against the Flames to survive the first round. But anchored by future Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille (who scored 63 goals that season), trusty veterans like Jari Kurri, Tony Granato and Paul Coffey, and the brilliant Great One (when he was healthy), the Kings made a dark-horse run under rookie head coach Barry Melrose to advance to the final round for the first time.
And then they ran into Patrick Roy, the exceptional Canadiens goaltender.
With Gretzky putting up four points, the Kings handily won Game 1 by a score of 4-1, but Roy and the Habs defense stiffened and L.A. lost Games 2, 3 and 4 by one goal. All of those losses were in overtime and all were painful. In Game 2, they were foiled by the curve of defenseman Marty McSorley’s stick, which was ruled illegal by officials after Canadiens coach Jacques Demers demanded that it be checked. (Montreal scored the tying goal on the ensuing power play with under a minute left in regulation and went on to win 3–2.) In Game 3, the Kings battled back from 3–0 deficit but officials missed a blatant coverage of the puck by Canadiens captain Guy Carbonneau with 12 seconds remaining, which would have given L.A. a penalty shot. The officials later admitted their mistake, but the damage was done. The game went to OT and the Kings lost, 4–3. Then in Game 4, Roy stuck in the dagger.
The Kings’ strength was their offense. Gretzky’s transcendent abilities energized the entire unit and even modestly talented wingers compiled unforeseen goal totals. Tomas Sandstrom, a crafty Finnish sniper who produced his best years in L.A., saw chance after chance, seven shots in all, come to naught in Game 4. Among the highlights (or lowlights if you’re a Kings fan) was Roy snagging a Sandstrom backhand after surrendering a fortuitous rebound, kicking a well-placed slap shot from above the right circle away with his left pad, and swiping another backhand away from the left post.
Another opportunity for the Kings came in overtime. With the score 2–2, Robitaille fired a shot that Roy snared before Sandstrom, who was positioned to finish the game with a backhand from the edge of the crease, could touch the puck. And then he winked at Sandstrom in a famously cocky gesture.
“When the cameras caught that, I knew the Kings weren’t scoring,” Mr. Douglas said.
The Canadiens would win Game 4 on a John LeClair goal and roll to an easy 4–1 home victory in Game 5 to capture their 24th Stanley Cup. The Kings wouldn’t return to the Final until the 2012, when they won it for the first time in their 45-year history. But that triumph doesn’t make the memory of 1993 any less bitter.
“Roy was the best clutch goalie to ever play,” Mr. Douglas said. “All the Kings needed was one goal in each of those three games and maybe they win the Cup. But Roy made every stop in overtime. He was literally unbeatable.” — Gabriel Baumgaertner
• Colorado Avalanche: May 31, 2002; Western Conference Finals, Game 7—Red Wings 7, Avalanche 0
The Avalanche and Red Wings, two bitter rivals, met for the fifth time in seven postseasons in 2002, and like so many other meetings between them, the series was a classic.
With their Western Finals series knotted at two games apiece, the Avs earned a 2–1 overtime victory in Detroit in Game 5. The defending Stanley Cup champions then had a chance to oust the Wings on home ice in Game 6. Instead, Detroit blanked Colorado 2–0, forcing a return to Detroit for Game 7. The series finale would prove to be an utter disaster for the Avs.
Tomas Holmstrom got the scoring underway less than two minutes into the game by redirecting a snapshot past goalie Patrick Roy, and the goals didn't stop. Sergei Federov and Luc Robitaille scored within the next 10 minutes and Holmstrom added another to make the score 4–0 by the end of the first period.
It got worse for Colorado.
Brett Hull scored his eighth goal of the postseason early in the second period, and Fredrik Olausson added a power play tally to make it 6–0 after two periods. Roy was mercifully pulled after Olausson’s goal and the Red Wings added one more in the third courtesy of rookie Pavel Datsyuk to lock up the Western Conference title.
Avs captain Joe Sakic agreed: “We have no excuses.” — Stanley Kay
• Florida Panthers: June 10, 1996; Stanley Cup Final, Game 4—Avalanche 1, Panthers 0 (3 OT)
The Panthers haven’t had much success during their 22 seasons in the NHL, so the 1995-96 season was an anomaly. In only Florida’s third season, the Panthers won the Eastern Conference and advanced to their lone Stanley Cup Final apearance.
The “Rat Pack”, so nicknamed for winger Scott Mellanby famously killing a rat in the team’s locker room with a stick he later used to score two goals that night, knocked out the Bruins and Flyers in the first two rounds of the postseason before avoiding elimination twice in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Penguins. Game 7 of that series was a 3-1 victory on the road that filled the Panthers and their fans with the hope that their magical run would end with the Cup.
In the final, Florida met the Avalanche, who had acquired goalie Patrick Roy earlier that season and were also shooting for their first championship. From the start, the series was an obvious mismatch: The Avs dominated the Panthers in Colorado, earning 3–1 and 8–1 victories in Games 1 and 2, respectively. Game 3 was closer, but the Panthers still fell 3–2 at home. It seemed inevitable that the Avs would be hoisting the Cup but the Panthers still made Game 4 as painful as possible for their fans.
Panthers goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, who made 55 saves that night, and his Colorado counterpart Patrick Roy (63) were both heroic in net. After three periods, neither team had scored. Two overtimes were played without a goal. Then, in the third OT, Uwe Krupp finally broke through with an unassisted goal at 4:31 to win the Cup.
Even though the series wasn’t really in doubt, that loss was still a heartbreaker for fans who were hoping their Panthers would extend the series at least another game or two. The pain of the elimination defeat has only worsened over the years. The 'Cats have made the postseason tournamet only three times since that season, never advancing past the first round. Despite the bitter end, though, the Rat Pack lives on in Panthers lore as the franchise’s zenith. — Stanley Kay