Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Remembering the dramatic tying goals that went to waste (aka the Zelepukins)

With no new NHL action these days, the league’s broadcast partners have been dipping into their archives to fill airtime with memorable games from the past. And it’s been pretty cool. We all miss live hockey, but getting to rewatch some old classics isn’t a bad way to spend an evening.

For example, over the weekend Canadian viewers were treated to replays of a pair of classic Canucks Game 7s: their showdown against the Flames in 2004 and their grudge match against the Blackhawks in 2011. A few days earlier, both Sportsnet and Fox Sports West showed the Kerry Fraser game between the Leafs and Kings from 1993.

All memorable games. But they had something else in common, and you may have noticed it. They all featured a very specific type of goal. They all had a Zelepukin.

OK, I’m guessing you don’t call it that, since that’s a label I’ve been using in my own head over the years. But you know the moment. A Zelepukin is when a team scores a dramatic goal to tie a crucial game at the end of regulation but then goes on to lose that game in overtime.

A Zelepukin goal is always a weird moment in hindsight. When the tying goal happens, it’s euphoric for one fan base and crushing for the other. But then the script gets flipped in overtime, and you realize that the Zelepukin just prolonged the misery. Sometimes, the tying goal itself is all but forgotten, replaced in the collective memory by the overtime goal it spawned.

And that’s where the paradox of the Zelepukin kicks in – if your team scored it, you might end up wondering if you’d rather it had never happened at all.

That question has always kind of fascinated me. So today, let’s look at those three Zelepukin goals we’ve been able to relive in recent days, as well as a few more famous ones from hockey history. We’ll start with the one that might have been the most memorable in NHL history. If you’re not sure which one that is, well, the name might give you a hint.

May 27, 1994: Devils vs. Rangers

The setup: It’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, with the Rangers hosting the Devils at Madison Square Garden. New York has won the Presidents’ Trophy and is looking to punch a ticket to the final and a chance to end a 54-year Cup drought. But the underdog Devils are giving them all they can handle. The series is already legendary, having featured Mark Messier’s infamous Guarantee that kept the Rangers alive in Game 6. Now it all comes down to one winner-take-all showdown.

The situation: Game 7 turns into a fierce defensive battle, with Mike Richter and Martin Brodeur trading saves in a 0-0 tie until Brian Leetch gets the Rangers on the board midway through the second. As the third period ticks away, it starts to look like that goal will hold up as the winner.

The Zelepukin: With Brodeur on the bench and 18 seconds left, the teams line up for a faceoff in the Rangers’ end. Messier wins the draw but the Rangers can’t clear, and a goalmouth scramble leads to a golden scoring opportunity. Richter makes what seems like an impossible save, but a certain Devil is there to hack away at the rebound: Tom Chorske!

No, just kidding. It is, of course, Valeri Zelepukin.

And just like that, 18,000 delirious Rangers fans go dead quiet. For at least a little while.

But then: In arguably the most famous overtime of the era, the two teams don’t score through one period before Stephane Matteau’s harmless-looking wraparound attempt ends it. The goal isn’t especially pretty, but the call will live forever.

Do you wish it never happened? If you’re a Devils fan, it’s quite possible that Zelepukin’s goal, at the moment it happened, was the highlight of your entire life as a sports fan. But in hindsight, if you could wave a magic wand and make it disappear, I think you’d have to. Sure, losing 1-0 on a Brian Leetch goal would have been painful. But if you never had to hear Stephane Matteau’s name screamed at you ever again, I think it would be worth it.

April 26, 2011: Blackhawks vs. Canucks

The setup: By 2011, the Hawks and Canucks had managed to brew up a surprisingly heated inter-division rivalry, one that had seen Chicago eliminate very good Vancouver teams in both 2009 and 2010. The Hawks had gone on to win the Cup after that second series, but the Canucks were the favorites heading into their 2011 rematch after a franchise-record 117-point season. All they had to do was slay the dragon.

And through three games, they did. The Canucks built a 3-0 series lead, one that the history books said should be all but insurmountable. But then the Hawks fought back with a blowout win, and then another, and then an overtime win in Game 6 to tie the series. That set up a Game 7 in Vancouver where the Canucks would either fight back with one of the biggest wins in franchise history, or suffer a loss so devastating that they’d have no choice but to detonate the roster. No middle ground.

The situation: Alex Burrows opened the scoring early in the first, and it seemed like that might be enough as Roberto Luongo held off a surprisingly toothless Chicago attack. Late in the third, the Hawks’ chances went from bad to worse when Duncan Keith took a tripping penalty to leave them shorthanded. All the Canucks had to do was play keep away for two minutes, then take it home.

The Zelepukin: A neutral zone turnover led to a harmless looking 2-on-4 rush for the Hawks. But as it turns out, Jonathan Toews is pretty dangerous, even from all fours.

And just like that, the Canucks were headed to sudden death on the verge of what would have been viewed as one of the most epic chokes in NHL history.

But then: Five minutes into overtime Chris Campoli’s failed clearing attempt wound up in Burrows’ glove, and he hammered one past Corey Crawford for the winner.

Do you wish it never happened? Watch that overtime winner again. Do you see how happy Burrows is? It’s the highlight of his entire career. If you were a Hawks fans, would you want to take that away from him? Of course you would. It’s not even a hard question. This Zelepukin clearly needs to go.

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