July 13, 2013

1994 Vancouver Canucks: The Penalty Shot

The following is an excerpt from my unreleased book: Remembering The 1994 Vancouver Canucks. Please see below for the full table of contents.

I remember it all too well.

The 1994 Stanley Cup finals. Kirk McLean's unbeatable play in game one. Greg Adams' shocking overtime goal. Ex-Canuck Doug Lidster's game winner in game two. Pavel Bure's high stick in game three. Brian Leetch's amazing play. Mike Richter's acrobatics. Trevor Linden's heart and desire. Geoff Courtnall's big goal in game six. Nathan Lafeyette's goal post in game 7, followed, painfully, by Mark Messier's hoisting of the Stanley Cup. It still hurts to this day.

But more than anything I remember the penalty shot.

Game four. With goals by Linden and Cliff Ronning, the Canucks are up 2-1 in the second period, badly needing this win to knot the series at 2 games apiece.

Under immense pressure from the attacking Rangers, Vancouver desperately seeks a third goal to cushion their lead. Pavel Bure has a breakaway from his own blue line, except he his hauled down by Brian Leetch. At 6:31 of the second period the whistle blows, and referee Terry Gregson immediately points to center ice, signalling a penalty shot!

Does it get any better than that? Arguably the most exciting Stanley Cup final ever now provides hockey's most dramatic moment: the most electrifying goal scorer of his generation one-on-one with the hottest goalie of the time, Mike Richter.

The Pacific Coliseum crowd absolutely roared as Bure readied for the penalty shot. They knew what was at stake. If Bure could score here, that would take the wind out of the Rangers' sails, greatly increasing the Canucks chances of victory both in game four and in the series. Everyone stood on their feet, ready to celebrate a sure goal. The Russian Rocket always scores on breakaways.

But on this night Mike Richter was his match. Richter charged out to meet the rushin' Russian before retreating back into his net. Richter almost knew Bure was going to use his patented move, cradling the puck far to the left hoping to slide the puck under the goalie’s right pad. Memorably Bure used the same memorable move against Calgary earlier in the playoffs. Unlike Mike Vernon, Richter would not be taken by surprise, and took away all of the shooter's room.

Richter's gamble worked, and arguably was the defining moment of his career. It was the defining moment of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals.

Energized by the dramatic moment of theatre, the Rangers came back and took game 4 and took a stranglehold on the series. Brian Leetch scored one goal and assisted on goals by Steve Larmer, Sergei Zubov and Alexei Kovalev. The Rangers were now up 3 games to 1 on the dejected Canucks. Broadway prematurely plans its first Stanley Cup party since 1940.

Like many Canucks fans, I will always wonder what would have happened if Bure scored on that penalty shot.

Mike Richter was just unbelievable in that series. Though I hated him at that moment, the truth of the matter is I had a huge and growing admiration for the Rangers’ acrobatic goaltender. He thwarted my Canucks’ chance to finally win the Stanley Cup. Two years later Richter would similarly and spectacularly show up my other favorite hockey team – Team Canada – at the World Cup of Hockey. Richter singlehandedly – with that rapier-like glove hand, naturally – handed me back-to-back devastating losses. And all I could do was secretly admire him to the point where he may have been my favorite goalie of that era.

While Richter was the show stopper, defenseman Brian Leetch was the most dominant player of the 1994 Stanley Cup final. The defenseman would lead the entire NHL in playoff scoring with 34 points! He would rightfully win the Conn Smythe Trophy – the first non-Canadian to win the Stanley Cup playoffs’ most valuable player award. Leetch’s play that spring was – dare I say it – almost Bobby Orr like.

Mark Messier gets a little too much credit for the New York Rangers winning the Stanley Cup in 1994. Mike Richter and Brian Leetch deserve the most credit.

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