Thursday, August 3, 2017

1996 Playoffs

One of the top teams during the regular season, the Kansas City Twisters flew under the radar through much of the year, barely getting a mention in the media. “We definitely feel under recognized, maybe even a little disrespected” said captain Scott Drayton. “I think we’re at that point where this team is capable of winning a championship and I think the people who didn’t give us much credit this year will see what this team is really about.” The Twisters faced adversity almost immediately, facing the California Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. After winning game one, the Twisters dropped games two and three to a Nuggets team equally desperate to prove themselves. Game four in San Francisco was a virtual must-win for Kansas City. California took an early 1-0 lead on a goal from Ali Leino, but Jason Lind stood tall in the Twisters’ net, refusing to allow the Nuggets to take a 2-goal lead. Finally, spurred by the performance of their goaltender, the Twisters tied it on a big goal from Brett Delaney. A pair of quick goals in the third from Travis Watson and Blair Horton went on to win the game for Kansas City to tie the series. Heading back to KC for game five, Nuggets captain Kevin Hoyle talked about the pressure he felt to deliver ten years after being selected 6th overall in the stack 1986 draft. “I’ve been in this league for a decade now and I’ve played in eight playoff games, including this series. It’s time for this team to take that next step.” Hoyle backed his words up in game five, scoring what proved to be the winner while Brad Pope made 38 saves to give California a 3-2 lead and a chance to win their first playoff series since 1983.

Game six would be a higher-scoring affair than the rest of the series had been, with a six goal explosion in the first period that left the teams tied at 3-3. The scoring slowed down in the second period, with Dave Mack’s goal near the end of the period giving Kansas City a 4-3 lead. The lead held until a minute remaining in the third period, when California pulled Pope for the extra attacker. The tactic worked as Pope’s younger brother Matt tied the game for the Nuggets. After leading throughout the second half of the game, the Twisters were now just one bounce away from elimination. The hero would emerge in the form of a 35-year-old veteran playing his first season in Kansas City. Just seven minutes into the first overtime, Drayton hit Dave Mack with a stretch pass, springing Mack on a breakaway. Mack made no mistake, beating Pope for the winner to send it to game seven. Game seven would go to overtime as well, though this time it would not end near as quickly. Both Jason Lind and Brad Pope were seemingly unbeatable through three extra periods as the game went beyond midnight local time. Three minutes into the fourth overtime, there was a scramble in front of the California net. Brett Delaney dug the puck out and threw a pass to Mack, who buried it for his second consecutive overtime winner to eliminate the Nuggets. The Kansas City crowd erupted, as did a large crowd in downtown Halifax, thrilled to see their former hometown hero play a big role in the playoffs once again.

Elsewhere in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Wizards avenged their 1995 loss to the Edmonton Northern Lights, defeating them in six games. The Northern Lights were forced to play without their captain and top defenseman in game six, as Dwayne Ingram was suspended for one game for an elbow to the head of Kay Swafford in game five. “Justice was served if you ask me” said Wizards GM Stuart Holly. “Ingram is a bully, he’s the dirtiest player in the game.” For perhaps the first time in his 16-year career, Ingram did show remorse after the series. “I crossed the line and ultimately cost my team” said the 36-year-old. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Lumberjacks defeated the Calgary Wranglers in six games, while Chicago swept the Denver Bulls.

In the east, New York entered their first-round series with Quebec as very heavy favorites. “If they could win this in three straight that would be my prediction” said analyst Ricky Sherman. Game one was a stunner, as the Nationale jumped to a 4-0 lead, ultimately winning 4-1. “We were overconfident” said head coach Bruce Irvine. “we’ll be ready next game.” The Civics certainly looked better in game two, holding Quebec to a 2-2 tie throughout the game while they drastically outplayed them. But Nationale goaltender Patrick Lemoine stood firm, turning away several big scoring chances as the game went into overtime. Overtime lasted just 19 seconds before Troy Dowdy beat New York goalie Jason Wyley for the win to give Quebec a 2-0 lead. The sellout crowd at Broadway house was stunned, the Civics were now in a bad spot, needing to win twice in Quebec to stay alive. After dropping game three on the road, the Civics now faced a 3-0 deficit and a must-win game in Quebec. The Civics put up a valiant effort, at one point leading game four 3-2. Unfortunately for the Civics, Rostislav Stransky tied the game to send it into overtime, where Graham Boswell proved to be the hero, scoring late in the first overtime to complete the sweep and the upset. “I can’t believe we’re done, just like that” said Civics’ defenseman Lamar Jackson.

The rest of the Eastern Conference series' went as expected. Washington defeated Pittsburgh, Toronto beat Miami, and Montreal eliminated Boston, all in five games.

After a first round that went mostly as expected, the post-season spun out of control in round two, as both Chicago and Montreal were upset by Kansas City and Washington respectively to ensure there would be a new matchup for the Finals for the first time since 1993. The team expected to win it all now was the Los Angeles Wizards, who faced a tough series with Minnesota. The Wizards won the first two games at home, but dropped games three and four as the series evened out to a 2-2 split. Game five was pivotal and the Wizards would not let down their home fans, taking a 3-2 win on an OT goal from Jarkko Turunen. LA now had a chance to take the series with a 3-2 lead. Game six would also go to overtime with the Lumberjacks facing elimination. Kay Swafford, playing his first game since suffering a concussion from the Ingram elbow in round one, nearly ended the series when he was sprung on a breakaway, but was turned away by Lumberjacks’ goaltender Christian Grayson. About six minutes later, Pavel Vana finally ended the game with a rebound goal to force game seven. Game seven nearly went into overtime as well, tied 3-3 in the dying seconds, when Greg Willis stunned the Wizards with a big goal to give Minnesota the lead with just four seconds left. It was a devastating loss for Los Angeles while Minnesota advanced to the Western Conference Finals.

The biggest upset of the second round was once again the emerging Cinderella story for the ages in Quebec City. The Nationale stunned the Toronto Racers game one with an OT goal from veteran Jeff Nolan and the team never looked back. When Quebec won game two 4-2, suddenly the hockey world had to take notice. The 7th-place Nationale had swept the Civics, and now had the championship-calibre Racers on the ropes. One goal was all that was needed in game three, as Lemoine’s 63-save performance went down as one of the best of all time as Quebec took a stranglehold on the series with a 1-0 win. The Racers never got into game four, as Quebec won 4-1 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 14 years. In Toronto, after yet another disappointment, GM Bobby Kitchen went off on his players. “Absolutely there will be changes, probably big ones” said an irate Kitchen. “I don’t know what the excuse is. We changed the coach, we’ve adjusted things from a front-office perspective, it’s on the players now and I hate to say it but they let us down.”

Next up for Quebec would be Jake Borman, Igor Zharkov, and the Washington Generals. The series with Washington would prove to be their toughest yet. After winning game one 4-1, the Nationale sustained their first loss of the playoffs in game two, a 4-2 victory for the Generals. Entering game five, the series was tied 2-2. Washington jumped ahead early, with goals from Zharkov and Rob Wentzel to make it 2-0. But Quebec was unfazed, storming back with four goals in the third period including two from Rostislav Stransky to take a 4-2 win and a 3-2 series lead. With their backs against the wall in game six, Washington played their best game of the series. The Generals managed to stay one step ahead of the Nats all game long, while Zharkov scored two goals including the winner in a 3-2 win to force a seventh and deciding game in DC. The Generals simply seemed to run out of gas in game seven. Stransky, Dowdy, and Tim Craft all scored while Lemoine earned a shutout. The Quebec Nationale were on their way to the Lewis Cup Finals for the first time since 1970. “This is really unbelievable” said team captain Graham Boswell. “This was certainly our goal from the start of the year, but to actually get here feels surreal. We have a lot of work left to do though and we want to stay focused.”

For the right to face Quebec for the championship, the Kansas City Twisters faced the Minnesota Lumberjacks in the Western Conference Finals. Though Kansas City were considered to be slight favorites in the series, nobody was willing to count out the Lumberjacks, whose captain, Jason Crowley, was enjoying a career season. Crowley made a strong statement in game one, scoring a hat-trick in a 3-1 Minnesota win. In game two, Travis Watson responded with a two-goal effort as Kansas City tied the series. After a 4-3 overtime win for Minnesota followed by a Jason Lind shutout in game four, the teams were tied 2-2. Kansas City knew game five would be critical. “We can’t go back to their building down like that” said Dave Mack. “Everyone is going to have to dig deep and come up with a big win here tonight.” Mack would attempt to back up his words, scoring the Twisters’ only goal in game five, but it would not be enough as Crowley and Simon Brassard each scored in a 2-1 Lumberjacks victory. Facing elimination in game six, the Twisters came out strong, taking a 2-0 lead early on thanks to goals from Drayton and Delaney, but once again it would not be enough, as the Lumberjacks scored twice in the second period and twice again in the third. Despite the loss, the Twisters in reaching the conference finals had finally proven themselves as legitimate contenders. Meanwhile, The Minnesota Lumberjacks, six years after their disappointing loss to Long Island, would return to the Lewis Cup Finals with an opportunity to claim their third championship in franchise history. 

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