We’re a few days removed from Super Bowl 50, which means most of us are already a few days removed from remembering anything that happened during the game. Despite the presence of some of the sport’s biggest names and the usual limitless supply of hype and intrigue, Super Bowl 50 ended up being a dud, a 24-10 snoozer that hinged on which team would make the most game-changing mistakes. But while hockey fans love to point out all the ways their sport is better than others – Our trophy presentation is better! We shake hands after playoff games! Our players are always selfless and classy, as long as you ignore all the times they’re not! – we can’t really take the high road here. The Stanley Cup final has offered up its share of stinkers over the years. So since misery loves company, let’s take a moment to commiserate with our football friends with a look back at the five worst Cup finals over the last 50 years.
#5 – 1982: Islanders vs Canucks
The matchup: The Islanders were in the middle of what would turn out to be a four-year Cup dynasty that saw them win 19 consecutive playoff rounds, a mark that still stands as the North American pro sports record. The Canucks were not quite as good, finishing 41 points behind New York during the regular season. Amazingly, Vancouver had not only been a sub-500 team during the season, but had reached the final by beating three other sub-500 teams. Where were you when we needed you, loser point?
The hope: Maybe everyone is wrong. Maybe the Canucks can shock the world. Maybe they could win… a game? That seemed like the best-case scenario.
The reality: To their credit, the Canucks were at least able to force overtime in Game 1. But Mike Bossy won it in sudden death, and that was pretty much it for the series. The Islanders won in four straight, including winning both games in Vancouver by a combined score of 6-1. None of the Islanders four Cup wins were exactly classics, with only the first even going six games. You could make a case for the 1981 final between the Isles and North Stars deserving this spot, but at least Minnesota won a game, so 1982 gets the nod.
Redeeming quality: Bossy’s seven goals in four games still stands as one of the better Cup final performances in history.
#4 – 2012: Kings vs. Devils
The matchup: It’s a mostly defensive-minded six seed against a super-defensive-minded eight seed. But don’t worry, there’s absolutely no history or rivalry to worry about.
The hope: It will be over as fast as possible.
The reality: OK, maybe I’m being a little harsh here. After all, the Devils were more fun that you probably remember them, and the Kings had morphed into the ’77 Canadiens once the playoffs started. It wasn’t an awful matchup. It’s also the only final on our list to last longer than five games – and that’s the problem. The Kings came in as favorites after steamrolling through the West’s top three seeds in just 14 games. When they went into New Jersey and won both of the first two games in overtime, the series was as good as over. When they came home and cruised to a 4-0 win in Game 3, it really was over. The Kings were going to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, which was good, and we were all going to get a head start on the offseason, which was even better. And then the Devils won Game 4, sending the series back to New Jersey. And then they won Game 5, sending the series back to L.A. Legend has it that the objective and unbiased denizens of the pressbox were just about ready to riot at the prospect of yet another cross-country flight to continue covering the Series That Would Not Die. And then, just as we were all finally starting to get a “maybe we’re witnessing a comeback for the ages” vibe, the Kings went out in Game 6 and trounced the Devils 6-1 to end the series. As an added bonus, the deciding game turned on a
controversial major penalty that we could all argue about all summer.
Redeeming quality: You saw the part about everyone in the media being really sad. Screw those guys, am I right?
#3 – 1988: Oilers vs. Bruins
The matchup: On paper, this one looked pretty good. The Oilers were a dynasty, looking for their fourth Cup in five years. But the Bruins weren’t too bad themselves, with a solid team built around future Hall-of-Famers Ray Bourque and Cam Neely that was looking to snap a 16-year Cup drought.
The hope: Edmonton were heavy favorites, but the Bruins were good enough to pull off the upset, or at least throw a scare into the Oilers like the Flyers had done the year before.
The reality: The Oilers swept the series in five games. No, that’s not a typo. Not only did the series end up being a dud, with the Oilers outscoring the Bruins 18-9 in their four wins, but we also had Game 4 wiped out by a power failure
midway through the second period. That came with the score tied 3-3; the NHL ultimately
cancelled the game. The series resumed two nights later with the previously scheduled Game 5 in Edmonton, where the Oilers completed the sweep.
Redeeming quality: Embarrassing power failures in the middle of your marquee event would go on to become one of the few NHL innovations to be
copied by the NFL.
#2 – 1996: Avalanche vs. Panthers
The matchup: An emerging powerhouse stacked with future Hall-of-Famers takes on, um, a team whose fans would sometimes
pelt you with vermin.
The hope: If we all squint really hard, we can pretend the Panthers are a scrappy underdog story and not the team that well and truly ushered in the Dead Puck Era.
The reality: The biggest problem with the 1996 final matchup we got is that it’s almost impossible not to dwell on the one we could have had. The Western Conference served up a thrilling final between the Avalanche and Red Wings, one that set the stage for
one of the greatest rivalries the sport has ever known. Meanwhile, in the East, the upstart Panthers faced off against a Penguins juggernaut that pumped home a jaw-dropping 362 goals. A matchup between the Penguins and either the Wings or Avs would have been fascinating, featuring a long list of future Hall-of-Famers in their absolute prime. Instead, the Panthers clutched, grabbed and occasionally tackled their way to a seven-game upset over Pittsburgh, a result that taught every NHL owner that a hot goalie and the right mix of cheap grinders could beat a roster full of expensive superstars. In theory, the final still could have been fun. In reality, it was a slog, as the Panthers ran out of magic and were swept in four straight (one of four consecutive Cup final sweeps we suffered through in the dreary late 90s). One of the games was an 8-1 blowout, two more were completely unmemorable, and the series finished with a 1-0 triple overtime snoozer that ended on a
seeing-eye point shot by noted sniper Uwe Krupp that nobody saw live because we were all sleeping.
Redeeming quality: In an alternate universe, that Lemieux/Jagr/Francis vs. Sakic/Forsberg/Roy battle was amazing.
#1 – 1969: Canadiens vs. Blues
The matchup: The Canadiens were a powerhouse, about to win their fourth Cup in five years (and in the midst of winning six out of nine). The Blues were a second-year expansion team.
The hope: None. There was no realistic way to think this series would be good.
The reality: First, we should explain how this matchup even happened, because a recent expansion team making the Cup final sounds like it could be a heartwarming Cinderella story. Instead, it was an early example of the NHL making a terrible decision when it came to growing the league. The 1967 expansion had doubled the size of the league, going from the Original Six to twelve teams. For some reason, the NHL decided to leave all the established teams in one division and put all the newbies in another, which each side sending one team to the Cup final. In other words, it was virtually guaranteed that the Cup final would be a horrific mismatch. And for the three straight years that the format survived, that’s exactly what it was. The Blues ended up playing the role of cannon fodder all three years, and predictably went 0-and-12. You could make a strong case for this spot going to their 1968 loss, which was also to the Canadiens, but at least they kept that sweep relatively close. And while their 1970 loss to the Bruins was just as bad, it at least gave us
Bobby Orr’s famous OT winner. So instead we’ll go with 1969, and a series that saw the Canadiens outscore the Blues 12-3 on their way to an easy win that was also completely forgettable. (Seriously, the wikipedia entry for this entire series is
two sentences long.)
Redeeming quality: All three of the Blues’ Cup final losers were coached by a young whippersnapper named Scotty Bowman who ended up having a pretty decent career. And the NHL eventually learned its lesson, and never made a dumb decision about expansion ever again.
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.