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NHL's worst gut-punch losses: Bruins, Predators and Oilers

NHL worst gut-punch losses series: Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers.
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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 5:

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

Boston Bruins: May 14, 2010; Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 7—Flyers 4, Bruins 3

In Game 7 of the 1979 Stanley Cup semifinal against the arch-rival Canadiens, the Bruins were on the wrong side of arguably the most significant penalty in NHL history: too many men on the ice. Their catastrophic loss and its aftermath received the Longform treatment here on with text by Michael Farber. It’s hard to argue against that one being the biggest, most painful and unforgettable gut-punch in Boston’s history, but the Bruins’ meltdown in Game 7 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals against Philadelphia also sits among hockey’s most epic disasters, and for good reason.

Boston leapt out to a 3–0 series lead, thanks to Marc Savard’s OT heroics in Game 1, Milan Lucic’s turn-around slapper in the waning minutes of Game 2, and rookie goalie Tuukka Rask doing his best brick wall impression in Game 3. The Flyers, however, refused to go down without a fight. They took advantage of injuries to key Bruins as Mike Richards and Daniel Briere sparked their offense and Chris Pronger became a stabilizing force in front of goalies Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton. Once sitting pretty only one win away from the Eastern Conference Final, the Bruins soon found themselves in a series that was tied at three wins apiece, with a winner-take-all Game 7 set for Boston.

History wasn’t on the Flyers’ side: Only two NHL teams had ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit (1942 Maple Leafs and 1975 Islanders) and the Bruins held a 16-0 mark as a franchise when up three games to none. Philly had never accomplished the feat in six tries.

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The deciding game was oddly a mirror to the series: the Bruins had a 3–0 lead 14:10 into the first period, and just when the fans at TD Garden stopped holding their collective breath, the Flyers stepped on the gas. James van Reimsdyk made it 3–1 late in the first, giving Philly the juice and confidence it needed to dominate in the second period where the Flyers tied the score before the halfway mark on goals by Scott Hartnell and Briere. The Bruins, unable to set up in the offensive zone, mustered just six shots to the Flyers’ 11 and it all came down to one last decisive period.

For the first 11 minutes of the third, the teams traded scoring chances and impending disaster loomed over the Bruins. It struck in a cruel, all-too-familiar fashion for Boston fans. Lucic and Vladimir Sobotka got their signals crossed and the Bruins found themselves on the wrong side of ... a too many men on the ice penalty. Boston's postseason-best penalty kill unit, taxed by injuries and the emotionally exhausting, tension-filled Game 7, staved off the Flyers’ scrappy power play for 1:42 but let Simon Gagne slip behind the coverage in front of the net where he deposited a rebound past Rask for the only lead Philly would need all night. There was still 7:08 left to play in the game, but Gagne’s tally sucked the life out of the Bruins and the Garden crowd. History may have been on the Bruins' side heading into this night, but the two couldn’t have been further apart when the final horn sounded. — Michael Blinn

• Nashville Predators: April 24, 2010; Western Conference Quarterfinals, Game 5—Blackhawks 5, Predators 4 (OT)

No … not him. Anyone but him ...

Sorry, let’s back up. The 2009-10 Predators were a very underrated team that had a chance to become more highly regarded. But they blew it, which is just one of many, many reasons why Game 5 of their Western Conference series against Chicago remains the biggest gut-punch loss in franchise history.

First, the proof that the Predators of that season were underrated is simple: Their 51.7% Fenwick Close ranked sixth in the league. Granted, not too many people cared about FenClose at the time, but it would become an oft-cited stat when predicting the following season’s Cinderella champs, the Kings. The Preds of 2010 weren’t as dangerous but against a Blackhawks team that had yet to win anything, the possibility of an upset existed.

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Nashville’s good possession stats were surprising for a team that almost always weaseled its way into the playoffs despite its inability to control the puck. You can credit solid defense and good goaltending for that success. But when you looked at the Predators’ roster, the numbers became downright shocking. Just two years removed from a fire sale and a year after Alexander Radulov’s defection back to the KHL, their best offensive player was no-speed, no-shot rookie Patric Hornqvist, who had 30 goals and 21 assists.

The 2010 Preds thrived by inverting their lineup. Fans love to imagine the attributes of a perfect first line—playmaking center, a scoring right winger, a physical left winger. Nashville had the perfect fourth line in Joel Ward, David Legwand, and Jerred Smithson. They rarely lost board battles (Ward), face-offs (Smithson), or races to loose pucks (Legwand). They neutralized the league's top-sixes all season, creating favorable match-ups for their teammates.

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Nashville was a brilliant counter-attack team in an era in which franchises copied the Detroit model, Chicago included. And for a while, the strategy worked. In Game 1, J.P. Dumont scored two goals in the third period to erase a 1–0 Chicago lead. In Game 3, Ward and Legwand scored a goal each (they would combine for 11 points in six series games), en route to a 4–1 win. Game 5 followed the same script. Legwand scored the first goal on an assist from Ward. Then Chicago struck back for three. Late in the second period with a chance to put the game away on the power play, however, the Blackhawks surrendered a short-handed goal to none other than Ward from Legwand on a two-on-one. Martin Erat would add two goals in the third, and suddenly the Preds were threatening to take a 3-2 series lead back to Nashville for the first time in their history.

With just 1:03 remaining in the game, Marian Hossa boarded Dan Hamhuis, putting the Preds on major power play through the end of regulation and robbing Chicago of a top offensive weapon. Nashville’s fans and coaches thought Hossa should have been kicked out of the game, but with just a minute left, no one figured it mattered (foreshadowing!). The situation could not be better for the Preds to just take a knee. But the team that made their bones capitalizing on other teams’ mistakes decided to make a big one of their own.

With 32.4 seconds remaining, Ward won a puck battle against Duncan Keith behind Chicago’s net. Erat then saw fit to take the puck from Ward and blindly flick it up ice into the slot where no one but Chicago’s Jonathan Toews was waiting. Toews skated it into Nashville’s zone where a bunch of scrambling ensued. Eventually the puck found its way behind the Predators’ net and back out to Patrick Sharp and then onto the stick of him—Patrick Kane—who tied the score with 13.6 ticks to go. On to overtime ...

Of course, the Predators still had four minutes of a power play to start the extra session. But if there’s one thing the Preds of 2010 couldn’t do, it was score with a man advantage. They ended up with just one such goal in that entire series. So, naturally, seven seconds after Hossa, came out of the box he scored the game-winner.

Nashville would go on to lose Game 6 and the series by a score of 5–3 thanks in large part to a fluky goal, but after the devastation of Game 5, no Predators fan really expected them to win. I think I need to go cry now.— Sam Page

• Edmonton Oilers: April 30, 1986; Smythe Division Finals, Game 7—Flames 3, Oilers 2

Some younger Oilers fans might list Dwayne Roloson’s injury in Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final against Carolina as the instant when everything went black, but that moment is like Christmas morning compared to Steve Smith’s legendary own goal, a gaffe that goes down with Bill Buckner’s five-hole, Chris Webber’s timeout call and Scott Norwood’s wide right as one of the greatest gaffes in sports history.

The Oilers came into the 1986 playoffs as two-time defending champions and were clear favorites to make it three straight on the strength of a dominant 119-point regular season. After sweeping the Canucks in the first round, they moved on to face their arch-rivals, the Calgary Flames, in the Smythe Division Finals. Fittingly, the bitter foes traded blows through the first six hard fought games (literally, during one bench-clearing brawl) to set up a winner-take-all Game 7 at the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton.

Smith, a rookie defender, wasn’t expected to play in the series but he got the call for Game 6 when a leg injury sidelined veteran Lee Fogolin. Smith’s playoff debut, a 5–2 Edmonton victory, went smoothly but his second game got off to a rough start. Hakan Loob scored a shorthanded goal to put the Flames on the board late in the first and Jim Peplinski padded the lead before the period was out. But the Oilers stormed back in the second, getting goals from Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier to tie the game at two and set the stage for Smith’s nightmare.

Five minutes into the final frame, Smith hurried back into his own zone to retrieve a Perry Berezan dump-in. He stood behind the Edmonton net surveying his options, but when he found one he misfired.  Instead of sending the puck up ice, he fired it off the left skate of goaltender Grant Fuhr and into the Oilers’ net. The own goal gave the Flames a 3–2 lead they would not relinquish.

“It’s the worst feeling I ever had in my life,” a devastated Smith said in the aftermath. “The guys worked so hard and we have to lose like that ... I was trying to pass the puck to somebody. I don’t know who it was.”

Smith’s miscue not only ended Edmonton’s quest for three straight Stanley Cups, it broke up what would have likely been a run of four in a row like the Islanders put together from 1980 to 1983, or perhaps even five consecutive, the record that was set by the Montreal Canadiens (1956-60).

“I always did appreciate what the Islanders and Canadiens accomplished,” Edmonton defenseman Kevin Lowe said at the time. “I didn’t have to lose to know just how fragile it was.” — Allan Muir