While we are stuck in the waning parts of the summer, left to contemplate the effect of free agency, the rises or stagnations of young players and all things between the pipes, I feel it is as good a time as any to reflect upon some of the better and worse Stanley Cup Finals that we’ve seen in recent years.
I’ve read about and familiarized myself with the lineal history of the league, but I don’t have many chronological memories of given playoff years before the magical spring of 1994. As a nine year-old kid, I found myself trying to beat chants of “1940” out of my head during random parts of pretty much every day from May on. The Rangers’ crowd was intense during those playoffs, and fed upon the growing hysteria of the idea of taking back the Stanley Cup for the first time since that year that it kept chanting. The tone of the chants seemed to change as the playoffs went along, with it starting more as a reminder of the franchise’s impotence over the last half century. The chant grew to have a touch of controlled anger, meant to not only convey the fans’ pain and suffering, but also to motivate the group of star players that would cement their legacy at the end. By the end, the chant was pure joy, but that’s only because the Cup was already in hand, since even with 1.6 seconds left in Game 7 of the Finals against Vancouver, the Rangers still had to avoid a defensive zone faceoff disaster. The Rangers were able to dig the puck to the corner, and the ensuing celebration in the arena might put to shame anything that we’ve seen since. It, along with the playoff run itself, made a lifelong fan out of my then six-year-old brother.
But as beautiful as those playoffs were, in today’s world they may not have ever happened. The 1993-94 season was played without a collective bargaining agreement, and that situation manifested itself into the 1994 NHL lockout, which carved the 1995 season into a rapid-fire 48-game season that saw the playoffs start in May for the first (and hopefully last) time. Since that first lockout we’ve been lucky enough to see a statistically strange amount of Finals series go seven games, but not every Stanley Cup Finals lives up to the hype inherent in the fourth round of any bracket-style tournament. Here’s a look at the best and worst Finals from the standpoint of an objective third party, who either supported a team that was previously eliminated or just a casual fan without a dog in the fight to begin with. These series are rated based on excitement coming in, the teams and story lines involved, watchability and actual results, and are of course all my opinion.
5. 1997 – Detroit d. Philadelphia 4-0
I know, I know. How can a sweep be considered among one of the best series in any time frame? But remember that there were key story lines coming in for both teams, and that the Red Wings were decided underdogs prior to the drop of the puck in Game 1.
For Philadelphia, the story was supposed to be the punctuation on the Eric Lindros trade as one of the better moves in franchise history, and the first opportunity to reverse what happened the year before. For those that don’t know or remember, Lindros very publicly indicated that he would never play for the Quebec Nordiques, who drafted him #1 overall in 1991 anyway. Among Lindros’ reasons for refusing to play for the club was reportedly that he did not want to have to learn French, which is kind of funny in today’s age of baseball players with translators and the like. Lindros stuck to his guns though, and the Nordiques fielded two trade offers for his rights. One was from the New York Rangers, and the other from the Flyers. New York threw the following at Quebec for the rights to Lindros: Doug Weight, Tony Amonte, John Vanbiesbrouck (apparently the biggest city in the USA didn’t like American players much), Alexei Kovalev, three consecutive first-round draft picks from 1993 to 1995, and $12 million in straight cash, homie.
Luckily for New York, the arbitrator deciding on the two offers ruled in favor of Philadelphia’s deal instead. The Flyers sent the following to Quebec: Peter Forsberg, who by himself made the deal a stinker for Philadelphia and a boon for Quebec (or rather, Colorado), Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, a 1993 first-round pick that became goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, a 1994 first-round pick that was later traded to Washington, and $15 million. Quebec moved to Colorado in the summer of 1995, and that Avalanche team won the Stanley Cup in its first year, largely thanks to the contributions of the players sent over from Philadelphia.
|Lindros with the ’97 Prince of Wales Trophy. It would be the only team trophy he’d win with the club.
One of those players was not Hextall, who got himself traded to the New York Islanders after one season in Quebec. He was then shipped back to Philadelphia, which brings us back to the 1997 Finals. Hextall was a Flyer through and through, and Lindros was expected to cement himself as the legend that he was expected to be all along. He had already won a Hart Trophy as league MVP in the 1995 shortened season, and now was to come the Cup. Lindros and the Flyers destroyed everyone in their path en route to the Finals, going 12-3 in three consecutive five-game victories. To add hype to the already legitimately-based expectations, Lindros had two linemates that teamed up with him to actually have a universally recognized nickname — the Legion of Doom. The line of John LeClair, Mikael Renberg and Lindros tallied 225 goals in the previous two regular seasons alone. They would tack on 41 in those two playoffs, but it ultimately wouldn’t be enough and the line was broken up after the sweep at the hands of Detroit.
So while we look back and understand that this was the one and only chance at glory for Lindros and that era of Flyer hockey, at the time the mood was much different. They were rolling, had a player that people were actually calling the best in hockey, and were favored to win the Stanley Cup over a Detroit team that was known for “choking,” playoff disappointments and a “lack of toughness” that was coded language for “too many europeans.” Ah, the days of nationalism. Glad we’ve moved on and matured. Oh, wait…
The expectations and general feeling surrounding the Red Wings were very different back in the spring of 1997, however. It’s hard to remember now, but four Stanley Cups ago the Red Wings were seen as a team of regular season heroes who didn’t have it in them to close the deal and win hockey’s biggest trophy. While the Flyers were a three seed on an uptick, the Red Wings were a three seed coming off two Presidents’ Trophies in 1995 and ’96 that were mocked by solid beatings at the hands of New Jersey and Colorado. In fact, that 1996 season saw the Red Wings set a record with 62 regular season wins; that record still stands today. But it ended in the conference championship series when those Avalanche handily dispatched of Detroit with those players gained from the trade with Philadelphia. Coming into the ’97 playoffs, it was expected that Colorado should be able to get back to the finals as the winners of their very own Presidents’ Trophy that year.
All signs pointed to another season of Colorado’s dominance over Detroit until a game in late March changed the fortunes of both franchises. Remember that Claude Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face in the ’96 conference finals. The Wings had already played against and lost to Colorado three times in the 1996-97 season, and were reinforcing their reputation for being too soft (read: european) by doing absolutely nothing to anyone on Colorado’s roster. That final meeting changed everything, and allowed Detroit to win the first of two Stanley Cups in a row.
It started when Forsberg took a swipe at Igor Larionov, who aside from having one of the most awesome daughters in the world today, also showed some mettle in getting involved in a wrestling match with Forsberg. That “fight” itself wasn’t much, but it set off a chain of events that delayed the Avs’ second Cup by four years and gave the Red Wings the forum they needed to jumpstart the franchise’s ultimate success. Darren McCarty beat Lemieux into the doctor’s office, and Patrick Roy came flying up center ice before being intercepted by a clothesline by new acquisition Brendan Shanahan. Roy eventually got up and challenged Detroit’s smaller goaltender, Mike Vernon, to a fight that saw Roy put on his back. It was the first time Detroit had gotten over on Roy since they hung 11 goals on him in a game that forced his way out of Montreal and into the Cup-ready hands of Colorado, and it was the first time the team had collectively addressed the illegal hit that could have ended the career of their young teammate ten months prior.
Video via HockeyFightsdotcom’s Youtube page
Pass Sports’ coverage of the March 26, 1997 brawl.
After a six-game upset of Colorado that ended at Joe Louis Arena and felt like a revelation of how to play hockey in the playoffs, the Red Wings found themselves underdogged for the second series in a row, and in the finals again after being swept by Lemieux and his New Jersey Devils in the conclusion to the lockout-shortened season of ’95. So after finally getting over on Lemieux and the team that the Flyers arguably handed the ’96 Stanley Cup to, Detroit had its chance to end a 42-year drought of its own. Let’s also not forget that while Vernon played in the most important regular season game in franchise history, it was actually Chris Osgood who played 47 games to Vernon’s 33. Osgood’s GAA and save percentage were better than Vernon’s through the regular season, and therefore head coach Scotty Bowman probably set himself up for criticism if Vernon didn’t come good and bring the Cup to Detroit right then and there. But, of course, he did.
The games themselves were pretty compelling early on, as the Red Wings played nearly perfect road hockey games to take a 2-0 series lead to Detroit. But it looked shaky early in Game 3, and the Flyers took their first lead at any point in the series in the first period. But the hope was short-lived, as Steve Yzerman tied the score on the power play two minutes later. Another two minutes after that, Sergei Fedorov made one of his best deke moves to put the Wings ahead. By the end it was a 6-1 Detroit victory that left fans’ jaws on the floor. By the time everyone had picked up their jaws, it was time to move on to piling on Lindros and the Flyers. That was perhaps unfortunate, as nobody will remember that the Flyers actually kept their heads and played Game 4 down to the wire; albeit they trailed by two goals throughout the third period until Lindros scored his first and only goal of the finals with just 15 seconds to go. Detroit held on for the 2-1 win and answered announcer Gary Thorne’s very appropriate question from three hours earlier, which was whether or not it was, at long last, time for a coronation.
Full Game 4 highlights, for your viewing pleasure.
The Wings went on to roll through the Washington Capitals in the 1998 Finals, which were utterly forgettable other than the Caps’ incredible collapse in Game 2 and the Brian’s Song-esque scene where fallen defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was rolled out onto the ice in his wheelchair and made into the centerpiece of the team victory photo. Since that series wasn’t worthy of the top 5 or bottom 5 (based on the Konstantinov / repeat / major franchise story lines), I figured I’d make note of it here.
4. 2008 – Detroit d. Pittsburgh 4-2
Yeah, the Red Wings were the victors in both of the finals that I’ve picked so far, but it’s hard to argue against the magnetism of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals. On one side, we had a Detroit team that won the Presidents’ Trophy and had relatively little resistance from either Nashville, Colorado or Dallas on their way to the Finals. The Avalanche were by this time a shell of their former strength, and the Dallas series only went six games after the Red Wings went up 3-0 in the series before people remembered that blowing a 3-0 series lead was possible (see, I really don’t hate the Flyers).
The only real event of controversy for Detroit came prior to Game 5 of the first round series against Nashville, when after losing both road games Dominik Hasek was benched in favor of Osgood, who grabbed the reins and never let go. Osgood went all the way and won his second Cup as a starter (1998) and third overall, including that ’97 title as the playoff backup. Henrik Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe and the Wings were finally certain that they had successfully transitioned from the Yzerman, Shanahan & Co. era.
But the real intrigue of the series came from the runners-up. The Penguins finished dead last in their division from 2002 – 2006, and loaded up on high draft picks due to those terrible seasons. The Pens made the playoffs in 2007, but were eliminated in the first round by the deeper and more mature Ottawa Senators, who went on to win the east. But the 2008 playoffs put those negative memories in the past, and the three series wins had the hockey world questioning whether this 20 year-old Sidney Crosby kid was just too good. With Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and plenty of more-than-capable older players like Marian Hossa at his side, Crosby was trying to start a dynasty for team owned by the man who was housing him. But the Penguins played too similar a style to Detroit, and did so as less developed puck controllers. It’s long been an idea to fight fire with fire, but that strategy only works if your fire is as big as your opponent’s. Pittsburgh’s puck possession game was very good, but not as practiced and dominant as Detroit’s.
It almost didn’t matter though, as the Penguins were within inches of scoring the game-tying goal in Game 6 against a sprawling Osgood. Pittsburgh had already stolen Detroit’s first opportunity to raise the Cup when Max Talbot tied Game 5 with just 35 seconds left in regulation. The Penguins went on to win in triple-overtime and took the series back to Pittsburgh, which had people getting excited and wondering if we could be in for one of the best finals series in recent memory. A 3-1 Detroit lead was cut in half with 1:27 left in the game, and for those moments the Penguins had the feeling of a possible team of destiny. But in a scene that would be almost exactly reversed the following year, Crosby, Hossa and the team in black ran out of time in Game 6 and the Wings raised the Cup on the road.
Pittsburgh’s final rush can be seen around the 2:35 mark.
3. 2011 – Boston d. Vancouver 4-3
This year’s final really was very good. Aside from the obvious fact that it went seven games, we had rumblings of a goalie fight, a couple of crushing injuries (which are unfortunate, but add questions and intrigue), a contrast of styles and two droughts that had lasted 40 and 39 years. This series is still fresh and the fallout is still unknown as far as the Canucks go, so a long writeup as if it were a new concept is unnecessary. If you want to know what I thought about the series, check out the June archive of this blog.
2. 2001 – Colorado d. New Jersey 4-3
As a 16 year-old Red Wings fan, I couldn’t think of a matchup between two teams that I’d rather see lose, but this series was a great one for hockey. These two teams, along with Dallas, had owned the three-year gap between Detroit’s second and third Stanley Cups. Colorado had lost the western finals to Dallas on the road in Game 7 in both ’99 and 2000, but surprisingly the Stars were swept in the second round by St. Louis. The Avs had no problem with the Blues, and finally got back to the finals after those two losses on the brink to Dallas, which were preceded by a blown 3-1 series lead against 7th-seeded Edmonton in ’98 and that conference finals upset loss at the hands of Detroit in ’97.
The team they faced was the defending champion Devils, who had beaten Dallas the previous season in a final series that we’ll get to. New Jersey had always seemed like an overachieving team, as they weren’t favored to win the Cup in their previous two finals appearances in 1995 or 2000 — but they won in four and six games despite being the road team in the series. The Devils again had to do this thing on the road, and it ultimately may have been the difference that led to the Devils finally losing a final series.
The big story throughout the season was the Cup pursuit of legendary defenseman Ray Bourque, who came to Colorado for one last shot at the title that had eluded him for twenty years of that drought for Boston that only just ended in June. After both teams traded road wins in Games 2 and 3, the Avalanche surrendered all advantages by getting smashed at home in Game 5 by a score of 4-1. The game had people wondering if there was just something about the Devils style of play and organization that lent itself to winning championships, and if Bourque would be shutout and kept off the Cup as a player for all eternity. That was not to be, however, as the Avalanche focused and put on a clinic in New Jersey for a 4-0 win that put them squarely back on the podium as favorites to grab the Cup back at home in Game 7.
They did just that, and after doing so captain Joe Sakic took the Stanley Cup over to Bourque so that the 22-year NHL veteran could be the first to lift the Cup that night. It was Patrick Roy’s fourth championship and second as an Av. He won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP for the third time, which is something that still has never been done by any other player. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Colorado won the final two series of the playoffs without Peter Forsberg, who was sidelined for over a year following the bursting of his spleen after 2001’s second round victory over the L.A. Kings. The lack of Forsberg took away from the beauty of the ’01 Finals, but his absence only highlighted the fact that the Avalanche were a great team, and one of the best of the era.
This series brought a merciful end to the Dallas-Colorado-New Jersey three-year round robin of sorts that was bookended by Red Wings titles in 1997, ’98 and 2002.
1. 2009 – Pittsburgh d. Detroit 4-3
As a fan of the Red Wings, this is the one that I think I’ll always remember. Subjectively, this series brought on all the emotions like a truly well-done story can. But objectively, this series had everything that a third party fan can ask for. It had a defending champion going up against the very team that it had denied the season before. It had a young challenger that made a few modifications to try and accomplish what it could not one year prior. It even had an element of treason to it in the form of Marian Hossa leaving Pittsburgh in the summer of 2008 and heading to the very Detroit team that beat the Pens in the ’08 Finals.
And don’t forget that all of this was played out in the cities of Pittsburgh and Detroit less than a year after the crash of the U.S. stock markets. A big rallying cry in Detroit was that the Red Wings needed to do it for the city and its struggling people. Two of the big three automakers had just filed for bankruptcy and employment was skyrocketing while the housing market closely resembled the equal and opposite reaction of something skyrocketing. The Tigers made a fluke World Series in 2006 but threw it away quickly, and hadn’t been back to the playoffs since (and still haven’t). The Pistons had just failed to qualify for the conference finals for the first time in seven years, and everybody knew in which direction that thing was trending. And the eight-year tenure of Matt Millen as head of the Lions front office had finally ended, but the team had little hope of quickly picking up the pieces of the worst eight-year record in modern NFL history (31-97). The city still had it’s Red Wings though, and the mood of the town felt desperate if not defiant. This was the last thing going right in the lives of many of those fans, but the team had to find a way to hold off the charging and maturing Penguins again if Detroit was to hold its title as kings of the hockey world and defend the Stanley Cup for the first time since, well, the Red Wings did it in 1997-98.
Doing so would have made a prophet out of ultra-talented but as-of-yet Cupless forward Marian Hossa, who in many ways led the Red Wings to the ’09 Finals. But in what was either an “english as a second language” misinterpretation or one of the greatest and most unnecessary digs ever, Hossa sat on the bench after Game 2 and told NBC that the reason he jumped ship is because he wanted to see what it was like to play with the top organization in the league. While I think I understand what Hossa was trying to say, it came off as ill-willed and shocking, since many figured the Penguins would rise to the top of the NHL soon, if not in that very series. Of course, they did, but Hossa’s embarrassment lasted only one season, as he immediately signed a long-term deal with Chicago and won the Cup the following year.
For my emotional retelling of how I spent my day and night on Friday, June 12, 2009, refer to this post that was meant to encourage fans of the Canucks and Bruins in the lead-up to their big one this past June.
But as far as the series went, it seemed like it might be a stinker early, or at the very least a long series of uncompetitive games. Detroit won both of its home games, just as it did the season before. Both games went to the Wings by a score of 3-1. But what didn’t follow 2008’s model was a series score of 3-1. Where Pittsburgh failed to get back on serve the year before, the Penguins actually managed to sway the opinions of many by producing back-to-back 4-2 wins to even the series and make it a best-of-three for the ultimate prize.
What happened in Game 5 was perhaps the most intentionally misleading slight of hand that I can remember in a playoff series. If we were watching the series as a film, Game 5 would have been seen as either a piece of writing and directorial genius or a liberty so unbelievable that it’d have us throwing overpriced fountain drinks at the screen. Back at Joe Louis Arena in a game that Detroit lost the year before, the Red Wings embarrassed the Penguins. The Pens seemed to come unglued in the 5-0 loss that had them picking fights about nothing and looking utterly stumped by the return of Pavel Datsyuk, who had missed the first four games of the finals with a foot injury. By the end, over 20,000 people were piling on and letting the Penguins know exactly where the city boy was from. The scene looked every bit like a proof. If the teams were relatively even before, and now Datsyuk was back and rolling, the Wings simply had to be better than the Pens.
But like most if-then arguments relating to sports, this proof turned into just another failed hypothesis. Pittsburgh locked down in Game 6 and made sure not to watch the Wings lift the Cup in Mellon Arena again. Dan Cleary was in all alone late in the third period, but was unable to lift the puck and got stoned by Fleury, who saved 25 shots in a 2-1 win to force Game 7 and give Pittsburgh a game to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 19 years.
And for as much as Detroit was struggling at the time, let’s not forget that this is a Penguins franchise that had to file bankruptcy itself in the late ‘90s, and had to fight through relocation rumors for a while before patron saint Mario Lemieux stepped in to turn the huge amount of money that the Penguins owed him into equity, and bought the team less than four months before Y2K hit. So as much as Detroit wanted to keep its grip on the one thing it still felt it had to hand onto, one can forgive Pittsburgh for not assuming the role of the overfunded tycoon that was beating the life out of the poor small business that had four Stanley Cups since the Pens had their last one.
Game 7 began with this, and ended with this. In between, Sidney Crosby got injured and Max Talbot scored the biggest brace of his career before Fleury stoned Nicklas Lidstrom as time expired. The Penguins won 2-1 again and the cinematic reversal was complete. It’s a loss that the Red Wings haven’t fully recovered from as a team yet, no matter what anyone might say. The quest to win another Cup in 2011-12 is as much fueled by the craving to banish the feelings of inferiority from three years before as it is by the fairy tale desire to send Lidstrom off in the ultimate style.
Pittsburgh’s playoffs have been disappointing since, as they bowed out early in both 2010 and 2011, to Montreal and Tampa Bay, respectively. Both series saw the Pens as the home team, and they’ve now lost their last five games when entering with the opportunity to clinch a series, with three of those games at home. That in itself has been a reversal from what they did inside the Joe on the 12th of June, 2009. They hope to stop the skid, but a lot of that depends on the health of Crosby, who even eight months after last playing doesn’t sound like a man who’s able to fully prepare for a hockey season. We’ll see what happens to both of these teams when the puck drops in just over a month, but for now we’ll have to settle for the memories they gave us from the best Stanley Cup finals since the first lockout.
3. 2000 – New Jersey d. Dallas 4-2
It feels a little unfair to dub this series “bad,” since the level of play was pretty high and it had the defending champions in it. But episode two of the Colorado/Dallas/New Jersey round robin was hard to embrace as a third party observer. Maybe it was the slushy ice in Dallas’ hot summer. Maybe it was the Devils’ trap style of play. Maybe I was still at that age where I needed Detroit to be in the finals. Whatever it was, this series didn’t hold my attention and awe like any of the five listed above, or even like any of those that won’t end up on either list.
There were story lines that developed, such as Jason Arnott being traded to Dallas after beating them in this series. That trade famously brought over Jamie Langenbrunner and franchise legend and current GM Joe Nieuwendyk, and another Stanley Cup in 2003, to New Jersey. Dallas, meanwhile, has never fully recovered from that deal that put an end to their western dominance.
The goalies were Eddie Belfour and Marty Brodeur. The bone-crushing defensemen (and captains) were Derien Hatcher and Scott Stevens. But there’s just something about a series with one home win in six games that lacks continuity, and I never did feel like anybody could figure this one out. Maybe all of this made the series great. Maybe I need to go back and watch the 2000 Finals again. But comparing it with the other 15 finales since 1995 doesn’t allow it to finish high on the list.
New Jersey won in double overtime on the road on Arnott’s goal. The Cup was the Devils’ second and came between the two in 1995 and 2002-03. This series set up the third final in the round robin in 2000-01, when New Jersey entered the finals as the defending champion against Colorado. That series was #2 in “The Good” list above.
2. 2007 – Anaheim d. Ottawa 4-1
One franchise had finally gotten back, while the other had finally gotten there. Anaheim was a surprise entrant in the 2003 Cup finals and took New Jersey all the way to seven games, where the Ducks succumbed to the better Devils despite Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere winning the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Ottawa had beaten two recent nemeses in Buffalo and those very Devils to get to the finals. Daniel Alfredsson had the chance to be the first european captain to ever win the Stanley Cup (Nick Lidstrom would become that just one year later).
Unlike 2003, the Ducks were heavily favored to win this Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and unlike ’03, they did. In fact, outside of the obligatory Game 3 that every home team wins when it’s down 0-2 if it even remotely resembles a good team, there was no real drama to this one. You could argue that Anaheim’s first three wins were sort of dramatic because they were all by one goal, but the games looked like what they were: a matchup between a relative dream team and its less tough, junior varsity version. By the time the series got interesting it got over, as the Ducks cleaned up the mess from the game before with a 3-2 road win in Game 4, which set up a 6-2 drubbing and coronation at home.
Anaheim’s roster is almost laughable when you go down the list, but it was the first Stanley Cup for a lot of them besides captain and Conn Smythe winner Scott Niedermayer, whose career accomplishments provoke more laughter than the ’07 Ducks roster. The smooth-skating defensemen won all three of those New Jersey titles (’95, ’00 and ’03) as well as this one; he won two Olympic gold medals (2002 and ’10), a world championship (2004), a world junior championship (1991), the Memorial Cup (1992), and a Norris Trophy in 2004 to go with the Conn Smythe in ’07.
While Ottawa had a story of redemption to get to the finals, the team was unable to score the ultimate prize, and quickly fell apart afterward. Dany Heatley would request and be granted a trade just two years later, while goalie Ray Emery was waived in the summer of 2008. Jason Spezza remains on the team, but not without much rumor surrounding his impact on the locker room and desire to remain on what’s left of a once-contending team. Alfredsson tore his MCL in the ’08 playoffs, and has battled the aging process to try to find that form that took the Sens through the east in ’07. And in what was one of the worst decisions made, the Senators chose to re-sign free agent defenseman Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara in the summer of 2006, which was not an after-effect of losing the ’07 Finals, but it helped to ensure that the Sens would never get back, even as Chara polishes his ’09 Norris Trophy and ’11 Stanley Cup.
1. 1996 – Colorado d. Florida 4-0
This plain sucked. Not because Colorado won a Stanley Cup in its first year after relocation; not because Claude Lemieux got a title for smashing Kris Draper’s face in; not because it was a contest between a third-year franchise and a first-year team relocated from Canada to the western United States. This series sucked because this was like watching one of those private school vs. public school football games early in a high school season where the only questions of consequence are the winning margin and how many injuries piled up.
Florida had an amazing run to get to the ’96 Finals, largely on the back of goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. The fans decided to try to make a staple out of throwing toy rats onto the ice, and like the first few innings of the Anaheim Angels’ playoff run in 2002 where thunder sticks became all the rage, for a while the ritual was kind of cool. It was almost even acceptable.
But the magic died quickly when the Cats ran up against that Avalanche team that was honed by the Lindros trade with Philadelphia. Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Lemieux, Patrick Roy and the many other big names were too much for Florida, and the series ended mercifully as soon as it could have: in Game 4 on the Panthers’ ratless rink. Colorado won the total goal count in the series 15-4. Plain sucked.
Even a rival winning in a sweep is exciting when it’s Cup-clinching.
Didn’t think you were gonna get this bonus category, did you? Well, these ones weren’t “bad” so much as they were ugly for one reason or another.
3. 1999 – Dallas d. Buffalo 4-2
This one was intriguing enough, and the competition was better than most people expected. The underdog Sabres had Dominik Hasek in net, and therefore had a chance to beat anybody. The Stars were expected to take this one though, as the western conference was seen as simply tougher after Colorado and Detroit had swept through the previous three finals.
Not only did Dallas fail to sweep Buffalo though, they actually needed one of the more controversial overtime goals to finish the series off in six games. In the spirit of competition, there’s no way Brett Hull’s goal should have been anything but a season-winner. But this was that two-year period where every single goal was under review and seemingly half of them were disallowed because a toe was in the crease on the opposite side of the goaltender. For this one, Hull was all up in the crease, but he kicked the puck out of the blue paint, which meant that it had to have come from there, which meant that being in the crease was allowed. Got that? You’re instincts are correct, the crease rule was destroying hockey and it was finally done away with (or just drastically altered) after the ’99 playoffs seemed to end a couple weeks late due to booth review.
So while the hockey was acceptable enough to avoid being one of the three “bad” series, any time you have a team celebrating with the holiest of sports trophies while the commentators are legitimately questioning whether there’s more hockey still to be played, that qualifies as ugly.
2. 2004 – Tampa Bay d. Calgary 4-3
There was a lot of beauty to this series. On one hand there was the Red Mile, in support of an upstart six seed led by one of the most beloved first-year captains league history, Jarome Iginla. On the other hand, there was the desire to spread hockey to the American south and build brands and tap into a mostly untapped hockey market. And there was the knowledge going into the series that this might be the last NHL hockey that any of us got to see for a long time.
Tampa Bay won the Cup at home in Game 7 by a score of 2-1, with Ruslan Fedotenko scoring both goals much like Max Talbot would five years later. But the team was powered by players like Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards, 1998 top overall draft pick Vincent Lecavalier, winger Marty St. Louis, and younger versions of defenseman Dan Boyle and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who really justified the “Bulin Wall” nickname with his outstanding 1.71 GAA and .933 save percentage in the ’04 playoffs. And on top of that, the Lightning were captained by Dave Andreychuk, who mirrored Ray Bourque’s ’01 triumph by winning his first and only Stanley Cup in his 22nd season of NHL play.
But again we had controversy, as Martin Gelinas appeared to have scored what might have held up as the Cup-clinching goal in the third period of Game 6. Certain camera angles appeared to show the puck crossing the line by the slimmest of margins before Khabibulin kicked it out, but the play was to go on. St. Louis ended the game just 33 seconds into overtime, and spoiled the Flames’ chance to win the Cup on home ice. But more importantly, we again had controversy determining a “true winner” after a questionable play in front of, or this time just behind, the goal line. To make the situation even uglier, there was no hockey for another sixteen months, as what could have been Alex Ovechkin’s true rookie season was lost to the lockout.
1. 2005 – Season Cancelled
Come on, there’s never been a Stanley Cup Finals worse than this one. To the credit of everyone involved, the system needed fixed and it got fixed (as far as we all understand). But that doesn’t change the fact that we all had to swallow the mud for an entire year. Turning 21 in what should have been the lead-up to the all-star game may have allowed me to legally quell my heartache for a time with that sweet medicine, but nothing short of winning the Mega Millions could truly offer an even trade off.
The good news is that the puck will be dropped on October 6, and the games will start to count again. The bad news is that the current CBA is set to expire on September 15, 2012. But I am optimistic that a new agreement can be reached before that date, and even if one is not, the current CBA is set to continue on a year-to-year basis until one party notifies the other of a termination at least 120 days before that date. That would be in the middle of the playoffs at the latest, and if such a written notice of termination is delivered by either side in 2012 I’d be close to stunned.
There you have it — the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Stanley Cup Finals from the past 17 years and 16 seasons. I had to give that one final twist into the 2004-05 lost campaign. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and check back periodically before the puck drops for real on October 6.