The two best words in sports: Game 7. That is unless you’re an Ottawa Senators fan. Not once has the fanbase been able to revel in post-Game 7 pandamonium following a win.
The Senators are one of three active NHL teams to have played at least one series-deciding game without a win. The Arizona Coyotes are 0-5, while the Vegas Golden Knights have only played and lost one Game 7. The worst Game 7 NBA team is the Memphis Grizzlies who are winless in three. The MLB’s worst is the Cleveland Indians, who are 0-3 as well.
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All the above-mentioned teams have felt the pain of those losses, but not as many times as the Senators. Six times they have played a winner take all Game 7 and they are 0-6, earning them the label as the worst Game 7 team in sports. Here’s a look at those losses.
1997: Round 1 Loss to the Buffalo Sabres
This was the franchise’s first trip to the NHL Playoffs. They were the seventh seed and had two chances to upset the second-seed Buffalo Sabres. Game 6 was a 3-0 Sabres win, to set up Game 7 in Buffalo. The Sabres were without star goaltender Dominik Hasek who was hurt during Game 3 and was then suspended for attacking a reporter who wrote a critical story about him. (from ‘Hasek Suspended 3 Games After Attack’, Chicago Tribune, 05/02/1997).
The Sens were up 2-1 in the third when the unthinkable happened. On a defensive zone faceoff to the left of Senators’ goaltender Ron Tugnutt, forward Alexei Yashin won the draw cleanly. Too cleanly. Yashin’s backhand swipe ended up going over Tugnutt’s glove and into the net. Then, in overtime, Derek Plante ripped a slap shot passed Tugnutt, giving the Sabres their first ever game 7 win.
Tugnutt lying on the ice is an image Sens fans will never forget. The positive from this game, though, was that they showed they were an up-and-coming young team ready to do damage in future years.
2002: Round 2 Loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs
For the third straight season, the Senators met the Toronto Maple Leafs in playoffs. The Maple Leafs bettered the Sens in both previous matchups. Goaltender Patrick Lalime was playing the best hockey of his career. He allowed two total goals and posted three shutouts in the Senators’ five-game first-round win against the Philadelphia Flyers. He had another shutout in Game 1 of their second-round series against the Maple Leafs and allowed just nine goals through five games as Ottawa went up in the series 3-2.
The Maple Leafs were without their captain Mats Sundin who was hurt in their first-round series against the New York Islanders. Even so, they managed to win Game 6 on the road, 4-3. However, Game 7 was a convincing 3-0 Maple Leafs win. The Senators managed just 19 shots. Alex Mogilny led the way for Toronto with two goals, while Curtis Joseph shut the door at the other end in nets. In three straight seasons, the Senators’ season ended at the hands of the Maple Leafs.
2003: Conference Final Loss to the New Jersey Devils
The Senators set franchise records for wins and points in 2002-03, on their way to the Presidents’ Trophy and their first trip to the Eastern Conference Final. That’s where they finally faced adversity in the form of a stingy New Jersey Devils team who gave up just six goals to lead the series 3-1. Senators rookie, Jason Spezza was inserted into the lineup and played the role of hero in Game 5. Game 6 went to overtime, where another unlikely hero emerged for the Sens:
Chris Phillips’ goal sent the Sens to Game 7, their first deciding game at home. After a back-and-forth game, the teams were tied late in the third. I don’t have to tell Sens fans what happened next:
I’ve seen this goal a thousand times. It felt like the Senators were all over the Devils up to this moment. Then, a defensive miscommunication, Martin Havlat went for the hook instead of the hard skate, a puck between Wade Redden’s legs, and the Devils’ Jeff Friesen with the finish. Heartbreak.
2004: Round 1 Against the Toronto Maple Leafs
This was the fourth playoff series between these teams in five years. Mats Sundin was hurt again and missed the last three games of the series. In Game 6, the Senators’ Mike Fisher scored in double overtime send the series to Game 7. That’s when Lalime had a game that he, and all Sens fans, would like to forget:
The Maple Leafs won 4-1. This marked the third straight season that the Senators lost a series-deciding game and the fourth time in five seasons that the Maple Leafs had knocked them out of the playoffs. It was also the end of an era as this was the last game that Lalime, Jacques Martin and Marian Hossa were with the team.
2012: Round 1 Loss to the New York Rangers
The eighth-seed Senators gave the top-seed New York Rangers all they could handle in this series. This was John Tortorella’s Rangers who won games by hitting (1st in the NHL), blocking shots (4th in the NHL), excelling on the penalty kill (5th in the NHL), and not giving up many goals (3rd in the NHL; Henrik Lundqvist won the Vezina).
I distinctly remember the Rangers blocking a ton of shots in this series, and the stats back that up. They were credited with 155 blocked shots, good for over 22 per game. The Sens managed to go up three games to two before a tough 3-2 loss at home sent the series to a seventh game at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers were up 2-0 in the 2nd period, perfect for their style of play. Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson scored one and the Sens pressed hard for the equalizer but to no avail.
2017: Conference Final Loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins
This series was never supposed to get to a seventh game. The defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins were supposed to sweep the boring, but lucky, Senators. Maybe the Sens could fluke their way to one win. They got that win in Game 1. Then they pounded the Penguins for another win in Game 3. Then they managed to win a close Game 6 at home to send the series to Game 7 in Pittsburgh.
In the deciding game, the Penguins scored first, but the Senators’ Mark Stone responded 20 seconds later. The Pens took the lead back in the third, but less than three minutes later, the Ryan Dzingel answered. The game ended up in double overtime, then this happened:
That Senators group felt like a team of destiny. Goaltender Craig Anderson played great, captain Erik Karlsson, on one good leg, played out of his mind, and the whole team bought into head coach Guy Boucher’s defensive system. Chris Kunitz’s goal was a dagger to the heart of Sens fans, and the team has yet to recover.
It’s difficult to pick which loss hurt the most. Due to the rivalry, the Lalime collapse in 2004 against the hated Maple Leafs will always sting, but it was only a first-round matchup. The loss a year earlier against the Devils in the Conference Final was agonizing. The name Jeff Friesen still hurts to this very day.
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My pick, though, would be the most recent loss, against the Penguins. The season was special, from Clarke MacArthur’s long-awaited return to Karlsson’s brilliance to shocking the hockey world by taking the Pens to double overtime in Game 7, only to be ruined by Kunitz’s flubbed shot.
I’m Danny, covering the Ottawa Senators as they attempt to rebuild their way back to contender status.