Sometimes the strangest bounce or fluke incident can alter the balance of a playoff series forever. Here are our top 10 in the expansion era.
May 12, 2014. The Anaheim Ducks have just beaten the Los Angeles Kings a third straight time, staking a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference semifinal. A big reason for the Ducks’ success: young goalie John Gibson, fresh off stopping 67 of 70 shots in Anaheim’s Game 3 and 4 victories.
Cue sarcastic Kings coach Darryl Sutter after the game: “He’s the best goalie I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe we got one by him tonight. Lot of pressure on him now. A lot of pressure.”
Seed planted. Gibson holds his own in a Game 6 defeat after allowing a first-period goal, then the rookie’s wheels come off at home in Game 7. The Kings beat Gibson four times on 18 shots, chase him after 22 minutes and win the series. They hoist their second Stanley Cup in three years a month later.
We’ll never know just how impactful Sutter’s comment was – but it sure seemed to coincide with Gibson’s meltdown. One of the most exciting things about playoff series: the storylines and singular moments that change momentum. Here are the top series-changing events since 1967 expansion.
10. KERRY FRASER MISSES WAYNE GRETZKY’S HIGH STICK (May 27, 1993)
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings are locked in a back-and-forth Campbell Conference final, with the Leafs leading the series 3-2. Wendel Clark ties Game 6 in Los Angeles 4-4, sending the game to overtime, where Toronto is one goal away from its first Stanley Cup final berth since 1967. Wayne Gretzky high-sticks Doug Gilmour, but referee Kerry Fraser doesn’t award the Leafs a power play, even with Gilmour bloodied. Gretzky of all people scores the clincher for the Kings, who end up winning Game 7 in Toronto.
9. ROB SCUDERI PLAYS GOALIE (June 9, 2009)
Scuderi gives new meaning to “stay-at-home defenseman” with Game 6 of the Pittsburgh-Detroit Cup final rematch on the line in the final seconds. Johan Franzen has a yawning cage with Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury out of position, but Scuderi drops to his knees and makes two straight saves on the blue ice. Pittsburgh holds on for the win and becomes the first team in 38 years to win Game 7 of the final on the road.
8. DAVID KREJCI’S BROKEN WRIST BREAKS BOSTON’S SPIRIT (May 5, 2010)
The Flyers lose Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal, falling behind Boston 3-0 in the series, but the win proves costly for the Bruins. David Krejci breaks his wrist on a massive hit by Mike Richards. Boston isn’t the same without its key center, and Philly rallies to win the next four games, becoming the third team in NHL history to accomplish the feat.
7. BILLY SMITH OUT, CHICO RESCH IN (April 20, 1975)
The New York Islanders are about to get swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins when Isles coach Al Arbour swaps goalie Billy Smith out for Glenn “Chico” Resch. New York rallies around Resch and becomes the second team in pro sports history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit and win.
6. DWAYNE ROLOSON GOES DOWN IN GAME 1 OF THE FINAL (June 5, 2006)
The veteran netminder plays a huge role in getting the Edmonton Oilers to the 2006 final. He gets injured with five minutes left in a tie game against Carolina. Backup Ty Conklin comes in, and his miscommunication with D-man Jason Smith leads to Rod Brind’Amour’s winner for the Canes, who take the series in seven games.
5. STEVE SMITH’S OWN GOAL (April 30, 1986)
Fitting that one of hockey’s most memorable blunders ever happens the same year as Bill Buckner’s World Series error. The dynastic Edmonton Oilers seek a third straight Stanley Cup and are deadlocked with their bitter rivals, the Calgary Flames, in Game 7 of the Smythe Division final. With the score 2-2 and 14:48 remaining in the third period, Oilers defenseman Steve Smith corrals the puck behind his net. He attempts a long breakout pass up the middle of the ice – and through Grant Fuhr’s crease. The puck banks into Edmonton’s net off Fuhr’s skate.
Smith immediately falls to the ice and sobs. It’s his 23rd birthday. It’s the final goal of the game and eliminates the Oilers. Thankfully for Smith, he’s part of two more Cups, including one the next year, after which captain Wayne Gretzky passes the Cup immediately to Smith. Still, Smith’s gaffe makes us wonder if Edmonton could’ve won five straight titles.
4. NICKLAS LIDSTROM BEATS DAN CLOUTIER FROM DOWNTOWN (April 21, 2002)
The 2002 Detroit Red Wings are among the most stacked teams ever. Dominik Hasek, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov, Pavel Datsyuk…name the Hall of Famer or future Hall of Famer and he plays on this team. But the powerhouse Wings start the 2002 post-season poorly, dropping consecutive home games to Vancouver.
Then, it happens: with the score 1-1 in Game 3, late in the second period, Lidstrom takes a slapshot from center ice. It beats Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier. The air sucks out of GM Place. Detroit goes on to win 3-1 – and the next three games, ousting Vancouver and setting the stage for a Stanley Cup triumph.
3. DON CHERRY’S LINE CHANGE SNAFU (May 10, 1979)
The Boston Bruins have their boot on the Montreal Canadiens’ throat, hoping to end Montreal’s Stanley Cup streak at three. Boston enters the third period of Game 7 up 3-1 at the Forum, but the Habs score twice to tie it 3-3. Boston’s Rick Middleton delivers what looks like a knockout blow, beating Ken Dryden with 3:59 left.
Then coach Don Cherry and the Bruins get confused. Some of the players mishear him and the Bruins end up with as many as eight men on the ice at once. Cherry pulls two back, but that still leaves six skaters. Boston takes a too-many-men penalty. Montreal’s legendary power play unit of Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Serge Savard takes over. Lafleur ties the game on a big blast before Yvon Lambert wins it for Montreal in overtime.
2. MARK MESSIER’S GUARANTEE (May 24, 1994)
The New York Rangers have their best chance at a Stanley Cup in 54 long, painful years, but they trail 3-2 in the Eastern Conference final in an epic series with the New Jersey Devils. Then come the immortal words from Blueshirts captain Mark Messier: “we will go in there and win Game 6.”
The quote blows up in the headlines. Messier calls his shot like New York sports greats Babe Ruth and Joe Namath. Maybe it’s self-fulfilling prophecy, maybe it’s fluke, or maybe Messier knows he and his team are that good. Whatever the driving force is, Messier delivers with a hat trick in Game 6. That sends the series back to New York, where the Rangers win a marathon Game 7. Eventually the Cup is theirs.
1. THE MARTY MCSORLEY STICK MEASUREMENT (June 3, 1993)
Gretzky has the Kings in the driver’s seat as they attempt to bring California its first Cup. They win Game 1 of the final against Montreal and, up 2-1 in the third period of Game 2, are about to take a stranglehold. Then Habs coach Jacques Demers throws up a prayer on captain Guy Carbonneau’s hunch.
Carbonneau suggests Kings D-man Marty McSorley has an illegal curve on his stick. Referee Kerry Fraser rules the blade is indeed illegal, and Montreal earns a power play. Eric Desjardins’ second goal of the game ties it with 1:13 left, and he beats Kelly Hrudey a third time in the extra frame, becoming the first D-man in NHL history with a hat trick in the final. Montreal doesn’t lose another game and wins the series in five. What would’ve happened if McSorley’s twig was legit?
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin