Back in March, we took a look back at five forgotten games from NHL history that, in hindsight, changed the results of a draft lottery. It was a reminder of just how close we came to Patrick Kane as an Oiler, or Vincent Lecavalier as a Canuck. It was meant to be a fun concept, and most fans seemed to enjoy it, with the exception of Capitals fans who saw Alexander Ovechkin photoshopped into a Blue Jackets uniform and immediately had coronaries.
This year, the NHL changed the lottery rules, expanding the process to include three draws instead of just one. And that’s good news for us, because it leaves us with plenty of opportunity to play the “one forgotten game” card with this year’s results. Now that we know what the winning spots in the standings were – that would be 30th, 25th and 27th – we can come up with all sorts of scenarios that would have changed the identity of the teams holding them.
So today, that’s what we’ll do. Granted, given how close the standings were around the key spots, we could pick virtually any game from the season for some of these teams. But that’s no fun. We want something that’s at least vaguely memorable, since it makes it more entertaining to point back and say “We didn’t realize it at the time, but that game changed everything.”
Usually, that means a late-season game that’s still somewhat fresh. But not always, as we’ll see with our first pick
October 29, 2015 – Canadiens at Oilers
Edmonton and Toronto finished just one point apart for what turned out to be the winning 30th spot, so there are plenty of options here. For example, this third period comeback by Ottawa in Dion Phaneuf’s return to Toronto narrowly kept the Maple Leafs from finishing 29th and missing out on Auston Matthews. Thanks, Senators!
But my favorite option was suggested by reader kungfu_canuck. It’s this early season contest between the Habs and Oilers, from back when the Canadiens were the toast of the league and the Oilers were off to a slow start that they were sure was only temporary. Montreal roared out to a 3-0 first period lead. But a second period goal by the recently recalled Leon Draisaitl sparked a comeback, and the Oilers pushed back to tie the game in the third. With overtime looming, Draisaitl struck again with just a minute left, handing the Oilers a 4-3 win that felt like a possible season turning point.
In the end, those two points kept Edmonton from the lottery-winning 30th spot and handed it to the Toronto instead. As an added bonus, the Oilers weren’t the only team to suffer a major loss that night without knowing it; during pregame warmup, Carey Price stepped on a puck and hurt his leg. He’d later re-aggravate the injury, one that cost him most of the season.
One game, one comeback, and potentially franchise-altering impacts on three different teams. And none of us had any idea at the time.
April 9, 2016 – Jets at Kings
While it didn’t get much attention going in, there may not have been a bigger game on the schedule’s final weekend than the Jets visiting Los Angeles. While Winnipeg had nothing to play for, the game was a crucial one for the Kings – with a win, they’d clinch first place in the Pacific Division.
That seemed like a sure thing, given that the Jets would presumably already be thinking about summer vacation. And early on, that’s how it went, with the Kings jumping out to a 3-0 lead. But the Jets wouldn’t quit, tying the game with a pair of third period goals and then earning the two points by winning the shootout.
The result opened the door for the Ducks to steal the Pacific crown the next night, pushing the Kings into a first round matchup with the Sharks that they lost in five. It also completed a three-game California sweep by the Jets in the final week, one that nudged them a few spots up the standings and had more than a few of their fans bemoaning their plummeting draft odds.
But in hindsight, they needed every one of those wins. Subtract just one point from any of those last three games, and the Jets would drop to 26th spot, moving the Calgary Flames up to 25th and a date with Patrik Laine. Sometimes, playing with pride down the stretch really does pay off.
November 9, 2015 – Coyotes at Ducks
When these two teams met back in early November, the Ducks seemed to have shaken off a lousy October. They’d won four straight to pull within two points of a playoff spot, calming calls for Bruce Boudreau to be fired and gradually restoring the reputation as one of the league’s better teams.
And then, early in overtime, this happened:
That brutal giveaway by Ryan Getzlaf cost the Ducks the game and pushed them back into their losing ways; they wouldn’t truly right the ship until January. But the win also cost the Coyotes. In hindsight, that extra point would be enough to leave them in 24th spot at the end of the year, one up on the Jets. An overtime or shootout loss to the Ducks that night would have left them 25th, drafting second overall, and just maybe holding a realistic shot at trading up to get local boy Matthews.
By the way, if you don’t want to use this Mikkel Boedker OT winner, you have other options. Boedker scored three overtime goals before the New Year, and any one of them could have been the one that cost the Coyotes a lottery win. No wonder they traded him.
March 22 – Flyers at Blue Jackets
For nearly 59 minutes, this late-season game went according to plan. The Blue Jackets, who’d long been eliminated and had nothing to play for, were trailing 2-0. Columbus had put up a good fight, pumping a ton of shots at Steve Mason, but now it was time for the playoff-bubble Flyers to close out a win they desperately needed.
And then, with just over a minute left, all hell broke loose. It started with a controversial goal by Boone Jenner on what Flyer fans thought was a high-stick. The referee even seemed to initially wave the goal off, before signaling goal instead. Replay upheld the call, and Jackets were within one.
Then, with second left in regulation, Cam Atkinson poked a puck home through a scramble to tie the game. Columbus went on to earn the win in the shootout.
The story the next day was all about the Flyers blowing a crucial point that threatened to derail their playoff hunt. In hindsight, it didn’t. But the win ended up being a crucial one for the Blue Jackets. Without that frantic late comeback to earn at least a point, they’d have finished with 74 points, allowing the Canucks to slide into the lucky 27th spot.
April 6, 2016 – Canucks at Oilers
Let’s end with a two-for. This game will best be remembered as the last one ever played at Rexall Place. In an emotional win, the Oilers rebounded after a slow start to beat the Canucks by a 6-2 final. The game was followed by a touching ceremony featuring beloved Oiler alumni that, as of this writing, is still going on.
It was also, in hindsight, a lottery disaster for both teams. As with any other Oiler win on the season, you could point to these two points as being responsible for the Oilers just missing out on the first overall pick. But the loss cost the Canucks almost as much. They’d end up finishing the season with 75 points, good for 28th place. With a win, they’d have wound up with 77 points, which would have bumped them ahead of the Blue Jackets for 27th, the slot that ended up winning the third drawing.
Flip this one result and give the Canucks a regulation win in the Rexall finale, and the Oilers and Canucks would both have been lottery winners, picking first and third respectively in a draft that most seem to think has three franchise players. Instead, the Oilers took home the two points and bounced both teams right out of the top three.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.