The 1996 Stanley Cup Finals paired up two teams that the hockey world hadn’t expected to see there. The Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers each had different levels of standing so far as prestige and regular season success, but both were surprise entrants in the Finals.
It wasn’t that Colorado wasn’t an excellent hockey team. They had two good centers in Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, and were supplemented offensively by forwards Valeri Kaemski and Claude Lemieux. Then the Avalanche pulled the trigger on a midseason trade for goaltender Patrick Roy, who’d won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986. Colorado won the Pacific Division and entered the postseason as the #2 seed in the Western Conference.
Normally, a 2-seed going to the Finals doesn’t qualify as a huge shock, but the Detroit Red Wings had ripped off a 62-13-7 that marked them as one of the sport’s most dominant teams in recent years. But after first dispatching the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks in six games, Colorado did the same to Detroit.
Florida didn’t have nearly the offensive firepower of Colorado–the Panthers’ leading scorer Scott Mellanby would have been fifth-best on the Avalanche. But Florida played pretty good defense, with goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck keying a unit that was sixth-best in the NHL at preventing goals. Florida knocked off Boston and Philadelphia to open the playoffs. Then they shocked the world with a Game 7 win in Pittsburgh over MVP winner Mario Lemieux to win the Eastern Conference Finals.
The 1996 Stanley Cup Finals would open in Denver, and it was a fairly quiet opener. Colorado outshot Florida 30-26 and translated that into a 3-1 win. Then the Avalanche quite literally came pouring down on Vanbiesbrouck in the second game. Forsberg scored a hat trick and Colorado chased the Florida goalie from the game in a 8-1 rout.
Florida had to hope that the series could change with the venue shift to Miami, but now it was Roy’s turn. He made 32 saves and leading his team to a 3-2 win in Game 3, where Colorado got the lead by the second period and never let it go.
Game 4 would merit a much higher place in NHL lore had the series not already been 3-0 for the Avalanche. It was a goaltenders’ war, going three overtimes with no score. Roy made 63 saves. Vanbiesbrouck made 55. It was the 56th shot from Colorado that struck gold, as Uwe Krupp scored the goal that brought the 1996 Stanley Cup to Colorado.
Sakic didn’t have a dominant Finals ,but his sterling effort throughout the postseason earned him the Conn Smythe Award, which is awarded based on play in all four playoff rounds. Colorado’s championship triggered a three-year run for the city of Denver, where the Broncos won the Super Bowl in each ensuing season. And the Avalanche themselves would be back hoisting the Cup by 2001. Florida has not since returned to the Finals.