Saturday, August 5, 2017

1996 Lewis Cup Finals

For the third year in a row, the Lewis Cup Finals would pit a team from Quebec against a team from the American Midwest. This time, however, it would be the Minnesota Lumberjacks taking on the Quebec Nationale. The Lumberjacks were playing in their second final of the decade and hoped to claim their first title since 1979 after a disappointing loss to Long Island in 1990. Meanwhile, Quebec was hoping to complete one of the greatest Cinderella stories in PHL history. After upsetting New York, Toronto, and Washington, the Nationale had their sights set on winning their first cup in 31 years.

Nationale captain Graham Boswell provided some déjà vu in game one. Boswell was famous for scoring “The Goal”, the game seven overtime winner that gave Chicago the Lewis Cup in 1983. With game one in the 1996 final tied at one in the first overtime, Boswell went to the side of the crease and flipped a pass from rookie Marc Ledoux into the net for the winner. “Unbelievable, just like ’83!” said commentator Don Gillis after showing clips of the goals side-by-side.

Up 1-0, Quebec once again appeared to have control in a series against a superior opponent, but Minnesota was ready for game two. Superstars Pavel Vana and Jason Crowley each had a goal and two assists in a 4-2 Lumberjacks victory. “Obviously we hoped to win both games at home but we’re happy with the split” said Minnesota head coach Bob Truman. “Hopefully we can get some big wins in Quebec.” Prior to game three, a story appeared in Le Journal de Québec suggesting the Nationale could be headed to Atlanta possibly as soon as the 1997-98 season. Though owner Olivia Poulette shot down the rumour, the team felt that a strong showing at home could be critical. Fan support certainly was not an issue, as thousands of fans gathered at the Jean Lesage International Airport to welcome the team home prior to game three. Inside the Ice Palace for game three, the crowd was so loud that the TV anchors were unable to perform their pre-game interviews at rinkside. The game was close, tied 3-3 after two periods. Midway through the third period, Troy Dowdy had a big opportunity when he was hooked from behind on a breakaway and awarded a penalty shot, the first one in Lewis Cup Finals history. Dowdy attempted to deke Christian Grayson but Grayson managed to get it with his left pad, keeping the game tied. Just minutes after the penalty shot, Lumberjacks forward Greg Willis finally broke the tie with a shot from the blueline. The goal held up as the winner and Minnesota took back home ice advantage with a 4-3 win.

After allowing four goals in game three, the Nats looked to Patrick Lemoine to close the door in game four, and the 29-year-old from Laval, Quebec would not disappoint. While Anders Hendriksson, Marc Ledoux, and Rostislav Stransky each scored, Lemoine made 44 saves, holding the Lumberjacks to a single goal from Stanislav Zykov in the third period. Quebec held on to take game four and tie the series. “If we get a big road win, that will be an enormous opportunity for us” said Graham Boswell after game four. For the ‘Jacks, Jason Crowley wanted to keep his team calm. “We still have the advantage” said Crowley. “We just need to buckle down and get that win at home. I’m confident we’ll get it done.” Crowley would back his words up in game five, scoring the opening goal and assisting on Zykov’s insurance marker, while Christian Grayson earned a 37-save shutout and Minnesota now found themselves one win away from the Lewis Cup.

The Nationale remained confident prior to game six, despite the fact that the Lewis Cup would be in their building, but not for them. “This team has a lot of heart” said 15-year veteran Adrian Hubbard. “We have a fantastic crowd out there and they’ll be fueling us the whole game. We know we can win this thing.” Troy Dowdy redeemed himself after missing the penalty shot in game three when he opened the scoring in game six. Quebec led 1-0 and Patrick Lemoine was determined to maintain the lead, making one brilliant save after another. After two periods, the Lumberjacks seemed unable to solve Lemoine, until finally, defenseman Brett Zimmer blasted a hard point shot on net, beating Lemoine to tie the game. Despite losing the lead, the Quebec crowd seemed unfazed, until Greg Willis beat Lemoine again just a minute and a half later to give the ‘Jacks the lead. The building suddenly went silent, as if the fans somehow knew it was over. The Nationale had finally run out of gas. The team pulled Lemoine in a last-minute attempt to tie the game, but Jason Crowley hit the empty net before Quebec could even get another shot. The Lumberjacks piled off the bench and mobbed their captain, as well as Christian Grayson, the 24-year-old goaltender who had been spectacular in only his second playoff as a starter. Grayson even earned high praise from legendary Minnesota goaltender Bobby Sorel, who was in attendance and even joined in the celebration. “The kid was really unbelievable, one of the best performances I’ve ever seen” said Sorel.

Jason Crowley accepted the Lewis Cup from Darryl Byrd, who was booed mercilessly by the Quebec crowd. After a big year in which he led the league in goals and won playoff MVP, there was no doubt Crowley had established himself as one of the elite players of his era, while the Minnesota Lumberjacks, now with three championships, had established themselves as one of hockey’s more successful franchises.

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