Part of the reason we watch sports is to view the spectacle of a team overcoming the odds to defeat a heavily favored opponent. Hockey history is filled with these occasions, and they have given us beloved stories from the 1980 Miracle on Ice to the stunning Stanley Cup run of the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings. However, on the other side of all of these stories are the teams that suffered defeat, and the players that failed to live up to the expectation of their fans. Players that lose in these situations routinely can earn the reputation of being chokers.
Hockey is a team sport, and in many situations it is difficult to blame an individual for a particular loss, but over the course of many careers the inability to succeed in big spots stands out against their typical production. A player that is capable of putting up points on a nightly basis suddenly goes silent in a big playoff series. A hot goaltender can all of a sudden give up soft goals that would have been easily stopped just a few days prior. These rapidly changing performance levels have changed the course of hockey history.
The rich history of hockey has been shaped by players willing to take charge at crucial points in big games. These games almost always involve players on the other side faltering in these big moments. The Miracle on Ice may have never happened if Viktor Tikonov had not pulled Vladislav Tretiak during the first intermission. What if Joe Thornton had a legacy of being a playoff superstar and the San Jose Sharks dynasty had taken off? These losing efforts have shaped the game just as much as the victors, but along the way have earned the label of choker.
15 Evgeni Nabokov
A couple days ago, Evgeni Nabokov made an agreement to return to the San Jose Sharks. This move will give symmetry to Nabokov’s career now that he will be starting and finishing it in a Sharks uniform. Unfortunately for Nabokov, he will not leave behind the legacy of a Stanley Cup champion, because he has been involved in a number of choke jobs by the Sharks in the playoffs. Despite posting impressive regular season stats, Nabokov has routinely choked in the playoffs. The most notable incident saw the Sharks crash out of the playoffs to the eightth-seeded Ducks in 2008. Nabokov appeared in eight playoff campaigns with the Sharks and Islanders, but never advanced past the Conference Finals.
14 Alexander Semin
During his seven seasons playing for the Washington Capitals, Alexander Semin appeared in the playoffs for five consecutive years. In the regular season campaigns with the Caps, Semin developed into a consistent performer while alongside teammate Alexander Ovechkin. However, when playoff time rolled around, Semin had a tendency to go missing. Despite managing 22 points in his first 21 playoff games, Semin managed only 12 in his next 30 playoff games over the next three seasons. His lack of production at key moments caused the Caps to crash out in the semi-finals in consecutive seasons before Semin was signed by the Carolina Hurricanes as a free agent in 2012. He has not returned to the post-season since.
13 Marc-Andre Fleury
Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, Marc-Andre Fleury has posted worse goals against average and save percentage in the playoffs when compared to his regular season statistics. During the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Fleury’s goals against average nearly doubled from his regular season total, when it ballooned from 2.36 to 4.63. This downward trend saw the Penguins lose playoff series in the quarterfinals in consecutive seasons, before rallying for an Eastern Conference Semifinals run in 2013/14, where they lost in seven to the New York Rangers.
12 Alexander Ovechkin
If you search the word Ovechkin on UrbanDictionary, you will find a definition that defines the word as verb meaning “to choke.” The description goes on to elaborate how during the span of one year, Alex Ovechkin managed to suffer Game 7 defeats against both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the eigth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, and saw his Russian National Team knocked out of the Olympics. During the 2012-13 Capitals Playoff campaign, Ovechkin practically went missing with only a goal and an assist during their seven-game series loss against the New York Rangers in the quarterfinals.
11 2009/10 Boston Bruins
The Boston Bruins had dominated the first three games of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2010 playoffs. After taking the first game in overtime, the Bruins won 3-2 before stealing a 4-1 victory in Philadelphia to go up 3-0 in the series. With the game tied 3-3 in overtime of Game 4, the Bruins surrendered the overtime winner to Philly’s Simon Gagne and the Flyers never looked back. The Flyers then rattled off three more wins and continued an improbable run that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, while the Bruins were forced to regroup for the following season.
10 Keith Tkachuk
Over the course of his 18-year career, Keith Tkachuk established a reputation for himself as a dedicated, hard-working player capable of producing on a consistent basis. Despite playing in the league for nearly two decades, Tkachuk’s teams managed to win only two playoff series during this time. Both of those came with the St. Louis Blues in the early 2000s and saw the team quickly crash out in the Western Conference Semifinals. Tkachuk is also one of only a handful of players to have played for three teams that have blown 3-1 series leads.
9 Marty Turco
Marty Turco was a consistent goaltender while playing for the Dallas Stars from 2000 to 2010, appearing in the All Star Game three times during that period. However, his performances in the playoffs were consistently frustrating for fans of the Stars. After managing a series win against the Oilers, the Stars lost to the Ducks in 2003. The next three seasons saw the Stars bounced from the playoffs in the first round, before he managed to string together two series wins in 2008. Turco never had the chance to prove himself in the playoffs again after crashing out to the Red Wings.
8 Keith Jones
Aside from Keith Tkachuk, Keith Jones is another player to hold the ignoble distinction of being a member of three different teams to have lost a series after holding a 3-1 lead. The first incident occurred in 1995 when Jones’ Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round in spite of his 8 points in the series. Three years later, it happened again when Jones was held scoreless as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. History repeated itself for the final time in 2000 when the Flyers were beaten by the Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.
7 Current Era Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs are setting records for futility as they continue to frustrate one of the most dedicated and extorted fan bases in the NHL. In the last nine seasons, the Maple Leafs have made the playoffs only once. Their 2013 playoff run proved to be even more painful than missing out. The Maple Leafs took a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. The Bruins then rallied for three consecutive goals before scoring the game winner in overtime to stun the Leafs in one of the most improbable comebacks of all time.
6 Roberto Luongo
Roberto Luongo has been one of the most debated goaltenders in the modern NHL era. While serving as the number one goaltender for the Vancouver Canucks from 2006 to 2012, he was consistent during the regular season, but found wanting when he was needed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Luongo was reliable for them during stretches, but his save percentage has consistently lagged behind his regular season numbers during the playoffs. After suffering defeat in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, he found himself out of a job after two opening round exits in the next two seasons.
5 Joe Thornton
Along with long-time teammate Evgeni Nabokov, Joe Thornton was a veteran member of the San Jose Sharks that earned the label of a choker for repeated playoff no-shows. Thornton joined the Sharks in 2005 after beginning his career with the Boston Bruins. At several points in his career, Thornton has averaged better than one point per game during the regular season, but has never broken that park in the Playoffs. Thornton has still never seen a Stanley Cup Final, despite being considered one of the premier playmakers in the league.
4 1996-97 Philadelphia Flyers
The 1996-97 Philadelphia Flyers were in the midst of their ascension through the Eastern Conference when their potential juggernaut was derailed in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Detroit Red Wings. The Flyers had marched through the first three rounds of the playoffs with easy series victories over the Penguins, Sabres, and Rangers. Despite boasting the Legion of Doom, led by Eric Lindros, the Flyers were dismantled by Detroit. After consecutive 4-2 defeats, the Flyers were whooped 6-1 in Game 3 and head coach Terry Murray acknowledged the “choking situation” at hand. In Game 4, the Wings completed the sweep with a 2-1 victory and Murray was out of a job only a few days later.
3 1974-75 Pittsburgh Penguins
In 1975, the Pittsburgh Penguins became only the second team in history to lose a playoff series after holding a 3-0 lead. The incident occurred in the Quarterfinals against the New York Islanders after the Penguins escaped Game 3 with a 6-4 victory at home. However over the next four games, the Penguins would only score four total goals leading to four consecutive defeats. The Penguins were outscored 12-4 by the Islanders and became the first team in 33 years to suffer defeat in this situation.
2 1941-42 Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings hold distinction of being the first team in hockey history to squander a 3-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Finals. After taking the first three games of the series, the Red Wings failed to close out the series despite hosting Game 4. They then proceeded to surrender nine goals during an embarrassing defeat in Game 5. A shutout in Game 6 put the Red Wings on the brink of elimination after they failed to score for the first time since the opening round of the playoffs. In Game 7, the Wings took a lead into the third period before conceding three consecutive goals to lose and become a footnote in hockey history.
1 Steve Smith
Steve Smith played for 16 seasons in the NHL, but is still best remembered for an incident that occurred during his rookie year. In Game 7 of the Smythe Division Final, Smith collected the puck in the corner of his own zone and while attempting to play a pass across the ice, played the puck off the back of Grant Fuhr into his own goal. Smith fell to the ice in embarrassment, and the Oilers lost the series as a result. In spite of Smith and the Oilers recovering to win three of the next four Stanley Cups, the incident is still remembered as one of the biggest chokes in hockey history.
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