NHL's worst-gut punch losses: Rangers, Canucks and Devils

Wednesday August 12th, 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 defeat. Here is Part 6:

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New York Rangers: June 13, 2014; Stanley Cup Final, Game 5—Kings 3, Rangers 2 (OT)

I’ve been a Rangers fan my whole life. I grew up with Sam Rosen and John Davidson as the voices of Rangers hockey and I was crushed when J.D. left in 2006 to become the President of Hockey Ops for the St. Louis Blues. That might be the biggest off-ice gut-punch for those of us who bleed blue, but this isn’t about off-ice changes. This is about the game itself. There are two in recent memory that crush me and my fellow fans: April 11, 2010 (a 2–1 shootout loss to the Flyers that denied the Rangers a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season) and Game 5 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. 

Yes, the 2–0 loss to Tampa Bay at home in Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals hurt, but when I was asked to dig deep and think about the worst pain my team has caused me, Game 5 from the previous year's Final was the first thing that popped into my head. It was the first time since 1994 that the Rangers had made it to the Cup Final and the dream was cruelly over so fast for a team that had such heart.

The 2014 playoffs were not easy for the Rangers. Their first two series went seven games, with New York having to win three straight in the conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The conference finals went “only” six games against the Canadiens, who lost their star goaltender Carey Price to an injury in Game 1. The Cup Final looked like the same tough road. The Rangers dropped Game 1 in overtime and Game 2 in double-OT. Things did look more dire after the series moved to New York and the Blueshirts were shut out, 3–0, in Game 3.

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Game 4 was all about fresh hope. The Rangers won, 2-1, with a typical one-goal differential. Despite being down 3-1 going into the fifth game in L.A., any Rangers fan you spoke to was still confident. They would say “This team has fought back before, they can do it again!  This series is going seven, that’s the Rangers way!” The Blueshirts often take their fans on an unreal emotional roller coaster ride and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

In Game 5, the Kings took an early lead off Justin Williams’ goal in the first period. The bar I was watching in went quiet. My friends and I looked at each other and said, “It’s still early. Anything can happen.”  We still had faith, despite the Rangers’ minuscule six shots on goal in the first.

Late in the second period the Rangers we loved showed up. At 14:07 Dwight King was sent off for high sticking Mats Zuccarello. A minute and a half later, Ryan McDonagh fed a cross-ice pass to Chris Kreider, who was planted firmly to the right of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and he tapped the puck in. Tie game! Four minutes later, and a man down thanks to Dominic Moore hooking L.A.’s Willie Mitchell, Brian Boyle took a pass from Carl Hagelin at mid-ice, beat Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and then Quick glove-side. New York led 2–1 going into the second intermission. We were elated! Rangers fans had a good feeling about this game. Twenty more minutes and the series was going back to The Garden.

About halfway through the third, spirits sank when Mats Zuccarello was called for tripping and former Ranger Marian Gaborik tied the game at 2–2. The groans in the bar could be heard over Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk breaking down the goal on TV. The game went to OT and then double OT. Overtime playoff hockey is the best and the worst. The best if you don’t have a horse in the race and the worst, well, you get the picture. We watched with our hands over our eyes and with five minutes left in that second extra session it was all over.

Rumor has it that Alec Martinez scored the winning goal for the Kings. I have chosen to block it from memory. 

Missed opportunities were the theme of Game 5 for the Rangers. A failed breakaway by Kreider. Too many shots hitting the post. A wide-open net in double OT for Rick Nash, who could have forced Game 6.

“I knew going into this series it was going to end in tears, tears of joy or tears of heartbreak,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “It’s extremely tough.”

“It’s got to be the worst feeling for a hockey player,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “You get this far, you do so much as a group, as a team, and then you fall short; I’ve never felt any worse.”

Rangers fans, too. —Stefanie Gordon

• Vancouver Canucks: June 15, 2011; Stanley Cup Final, Game 7–Bruins 4, Canucks 0

The 2010-11 Canucks were a juggernaut. The best team in franchise history won the Presidents’ Trophy by accruing 117 points while leading the NHL in both goals scored (262) and fewest goals-against (185). But all of Vancouver's success that season was overshadowed by the crushing, ugly end to an otherwise stellar campaign.

The Canucks started the playoffs by exorcising some old demons. In the first round, they finally overcame their nemesis, the Blackhawks, who had defeated them in each of the previous two postseasons. Vancouver made that opening round a nailbiter by blowing a three-games-to-none lead before winning Game 7 in overtime on a goal by Alexandre Burrows. The Canucks then cruised past the Predators in six games and the Sharks in five to earn their third Cup Final appearance, and first since their gallant seven-game loss to the Rangers in 1994. It was a precious and hopeful chance for the franchise to finally win the championship. To do it the Canucks would have to beat the Bruins, the Eastern Conference’s third seed. 

To their fans’ delight the Canucks won the opener at home, 1-0, on a goal by Raffi Torres with 18.5 seconds left. The victory boded well. Five teams had won Game 1 of a Stanley Cup Final by that score and all five had gone on to win the Cup. Vancouver then came from behind to take Game 2 in overtime, 3–2, on a Burrows goal at the 11 second mark. 

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Only two wins away from reversing the franchise’s history of heartbreak, the Canucks lost the next two games in Boston by a combined score of 12–1. Goalie Roberto Luongo, who had been on fire, suddenly went ice cold, allowing all eight of Boston’s goals in Game 3 and being pulled in Game 4. Matters were made worse when blueliner Aaron Rome was suspended for the rest of the series after he delivered a late hit on Boston’s Nathan Horton early in Game 3 that resulted in the Bruins forward being stretchered off. Rome’s absence thinned a D corps that had suffered the loss of Dan Hamhuis to an abdominal injury in the series opener. 

Luongo rebounded at home in Game 5 by making 31 saves in a tense 1–0 win that left an estimated crowd of 100,000 people celebrating in the streets of Vancouver, but his return to form didn’t hold when the series returned to Boston. The Bruins rolled to a 5–2 victory in Game 6. Vancouver’s loss was made more ominous by the Canucks' listless response to Bruins agitator Brad Marchand using Daniel Sedin’s head for a punching bag with impunity during an incident in the third period.

The script for Game 7 in Vancouver called for the Canucks to rise up, battle back, defend their home ice and lift the Cup in front of their championship-starved fan base. Instead, Boston dominated. Patrice Bergeron opened the scoring with an assist by the villain Marchand at 14:37 the first period, but the shifting in the seats began in earnest with Marchand’s backhanded wrap-around eight minutes into the second period. When Bergeron scored his second of the night while the Bruins were shorthanded less than six minutes later, the outcome was assured. The Canucks were unable to solve Bruins goalie Tim Thomas and Marchand's empty netter with 2:44 remaining sealed their doom by a final score of 4–0. 

Vancouver’s deflating, extraordinarily anticlimactic loss was not just the biggest gut punch in franchise history, it was one of the most heartbreaking losses across the league because of what happened next. Canucks fans, always an impassioned group, did not take the defeat well. They rioted in the streets after the game. Police used batons, dogs, tear gas, flash bombs, and pepper spray on angry crowds that were egged on by outsiders to set fires and loot stores. The city and the team’s fans were reduced to a laughingstock, particularly by the absurd photo below of a couple getting romantic in the street while they mayhem raged.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful and shameful and by no means represents the city of Vancouver,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson. “We’ve had a great run in the playoffs here, great celebrations, and what’s happened tonight is despicable.” Stanley Kay

Rich Lam/Getty Images

• New Jersey Devils: April 28, 2009; Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 7—Hurricanes 4, Devils 3

The Devils have taken quite a few punches to the gut over the years. For instance, in 1983, their second season in New Jersey, they suffered the ignominy of Wayne Gretzky famously dubbing them a “Mickey Mouse organization” after his Oilers laid a 13–4 drubbing on a franchise that had yet to win more than 22 games in season during its nine-year existence. “They're ruining the whole league,” the Great One complained. But the deepest hurt and disappointment come from lofty expectations, and expectations in New Jersey are a more recent phenomenon, certainly since the Devils won their first Stanley Cup in 1995 and came to be regarded as a model franchise during the ensuing two decades. 

When an expected and imminent victory suddenly vanishes, that is the kind of loss that hurts the most. So that’s why we’re not choosing the “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!” game against the rival Rangers in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals as New Jersey’s most painful defeat. For starters, the Devils were considered scrappy underdogs against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blueshirts in that series. And though New Jersey had jumped out to a 3-2 series lead, Game 6—the famed Mark Messier guarantee game—turned the tide. The Devils’ 2–1 loss in double overtime of Game 7 hurt mostly because it was such a gallant effort, a possible upset denied by their notoriously underachieving yet overexposed metropolitan area neighbors who hadn’t won the Cup since 1940. 

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Instead, let’s fast-forward 15 years and the Devils’ three Cups. In the spring of 2009, New Jersey made the postseason for the 12th straight year, finishing first with 106 points in a tough Atlantic Division that included the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin Penguins (99 points), the Jeff Carter-Mike Richards-Claude Giroux Flyers (99), and the Ryan Callahan-Henrik Lundqvist Rangers (95). More impressive, the Devils did it largely without the services of Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur, who missed 50 games due to a left elbow injury. In the first round, they faced the Hurricanes, who’d had a serviceable 97-point season led by a 36-year-old Ray Whitney and 24-year-old Eric Staal. The Canes were hardly pushovers, but the Devils were favored.

For the first six games the two teams traded wins, with neither squad able to establish any momentum. Then came Game 7.

With home-ice advantage, the Devils built a 3–2 lead through two periods, and well, no team protected a lead quite as well as defense-minded New Jersey. That season, the Devils had more wins than any other team after taking a lead into the third. And for 18:40 of that final frame, a trip to the second round seemed almost assured. But with just 80 seconds remaining, left winger Jussi Jokinen—the man who’d scored the Game 4-winning buzzer beater a week earlier—tied the decisive game. Then came the haymaker. Just 48 seconds later, Staal sucked the air out of the Prudential Center by sniping a shot under Brodeur’s blocker and killing New Jersey’s season.

“I really don’t know what to say,” Devils coach Brent Sutter said. “I’m pretty shocked and stunned right now.”

So were Devils fans. — Sarak Kwak

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