The worst goal in NHL history can’t simply be a bad goal of the regular variety, one that any goaltender with a shred of self-respect should stop 100% of the time, it must also have long-term repercussions that instill a persistent sense of doom to both the goaltender and organization that allowed it. As such, only one goal stood out among the many bad goals and claimed its rightful place as the worst goal ever. This goal sent a goalie’s promising career into a downward spiral of incompetence. It not only ruined a team’s chance of winning the in-progress playoff game and series, but also cursed many future playoff runs, so much so that it’s still lingering to this day.
Sunday April 21, 2002 featured Game 3 of the opening round series between the top seed Detroit Red Wings and the bottom seed Vancouver Canucks. Vancouver had managed to squeak into the playoffs by going undefeated in their final 10 games of the regular season and had miraculously kept this streak going by upsetting the heavy favorite Red Wings twice on home ice to hold a 2-0 series lead. This was in large part due to the play of Dan Cloutier, who had outdueled six-time Vezina winner Dominik Hasek in Detroit not once, but twice. Now back at home, the Canucks were looking to put a stranglehold on the series.
Game 3 was tightly contested from the outset with both teams seeing it as a must win situation. The Red Wings applied pressure early and Steve Yzerman eventually opened the scoring with a power play goal just over 10 minutes into the first. From there Detroit kept the pressure on, but Cloutier stood tall to keep Vancouver in the game. Early in the second the Canucks evened the score on a power play goal of their own from Todd Bertuzzi. All the momentum swung in Vancouver’s favor at this point, but Hasek was equal to the task and playing his best game of the series. Then, with roughly 30 seconds to go in the second period, Nicklas Lidstrom started to skate the puck out of the Detroit zone and the rest, as they say, is history.
This unlikely goal from one of the greatest defensemen of all-time gave Detroit the lead with just 25 seconds remaining in the period. Once the period ended soon after, Detroit held a 2-1 lead heading into the third, but before we go there let’s take a minute to examine just how bad this goal was from a technical standpoint.
First, Lidstrom himself was the sole puck carrier from the Detroit zone up to center ice, at which point he unleashed the fateful shot. Cloutier only had to follow one skater during this entire play, so his complete focus should have been on Lidstrom and Lidstrom alone the whole time. This means he had ample time to be prepared for the incoming shot. Second, Cloutier was not screened on the play. One of the Vancouver defensemen may have partially obstructed the view on his left-hand side, but that’s not a widely held opinion. Even if that were true, it’s up to the goaltender to put himself in a position to see the shot when it’s from that far out. By all accounts, Cloutier could see the puck and should have stopped it, as evidenced by watching him track the puck the entire way in once the shot was taken. Finally, though the shot was likely tipped by the Vancouver winger, it was done so immediately upon being released and therefore had no change in trajectory from roughly center ice in. Many long range blasts have fooled goaltenders before, but the majority of them have involved the puck taking a weird hop on the ice. This rather simple shot, or dump-in as Lidstrom himself likes to call it, should have been easily handled by Cloutier, but instead he completely botched it. He was in great position, having his glove, stick, and pad prepared for the save, yet came up empty. Clearly all fault on this goal lies squarely on the shoulders of Cloutier and it would stick with him for the rest of his career.
Back to the game at hand, Detroit held on in the third period and went on to win the game by a score of 3-1 with the Lidstrom goal proving to be the game winner. From there they would stomp out three more consecutive, decisive victories and put an end to Vancouver’s short playoff run. The play of the entire Canucks team changed after the Lidstrom goal (coincidentally enough, so did the play of Detroit, as they went on to win the Stanley Cup that year) and Cloutier himself was especially awful from that point onward. During the next three games he was pulled twice and allowed 9 goals on only 32 shots. How different would the outcome have been had Cloutier stopped that shot? We’ll never know, but one can safely conclude that Cloutier cost the Canucks Game 3 and the entire series as well.
However, this was just the beginning in Cloutier’s downward slide. At first it appeared as though he had put the mistake behind him as he recorded another great regular season performance the following year. Nonetheless, once the playoffs hit the bad play returned. Though Vancouver was able to knock off the Blues in the first round, it was in no part due to Cloutier, who allowed 3 goals or more in five of seven games. It got much worse in the second round, as after the Canucks had managed a 3-1 series lead, Cloutier allowed 6 goals on 21 shots to start Game 5 and was pulled. The Wild would end up completing the comeback by winning that game and the next two as well, putting an additional 9 goals past Cloutier in the process.
The 03/04 season would see both Cloutier and Vancouver put together another great regular season, but problems again reared their ugly head come playoff time. This time it was more of a case of bad luck as Cloutier was injured in Game 3 of the first round and missed the rest of the series against the Flames, one they would eventually lose. This would quickly become a string of bad luck for Cloutier, as once the league returned in 05/06 he would only see 46 games of action over the next three seasons due to a combination of injuries and poor play. Now with the Kings, his contract was bought out and his career was essentially finished.
But the goal didn’t just bring an end to Cloutier’s career; it also placed a stigma on Canucks goaltending in the playoffs from that point forward. After Cloutier’s many troubles, the team sought to fix their goaltending fortunes once and for all with the acquisition of Roberto Luongo from Florida. In the beginning it looked like the perfect move as Luongo was outstanding in the regular season and helped Vancouver return to the playoffs for the first time since the 03/04 season. He was also outstanding in the playoffs, helping Vancouver overcome the amazing play of Turco in round one against Dallas and keeping them close against Anaheim despite losing the series. However, the curse struck in Game 5 as Luongo had a lapse in judgement to allow the series winning goal in overtime.
The following season would see the Canucks miss the playoffs entirely, in part due to a late season collapse by Luongo that saw him win only one of his final eight starts. Oddly enough the Canucks would name him captain for the 08/09 season and it appeared to spark them, as they won the division. However, this time the playoffs were even worse for Luongo as it bore witness to his famous collapse against the Blackhawks. He allowed 7 goals in Game 6, 4 goals in the third period and Vancouver was again eliminated from the playoffs. The 2010 playoffs featured a similar outcome as once again Luongo played poorly against the Blackhawks and were eliminated in the second round.
The 2011 playoffs would see Vancouver face the Blackhawks yet again, this time in the first round. Things would be different this time, as Vancouver quickly achieved a 3-0 series lead. But just when things were looking up, Luongo brought it back down with mind-numbingly bad play in the next three games to allow Chicago to draw even in the series. Thankfully, for Luongo’s sanity and that of the Canucks fanbase, Vancouver won Game 7 and Luongo played surprisingly well. Luongo’s strong play continued from there and Vancouver eventually reached the finals. However, after winning the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston, Vancouver was trounced in Game 3 by a score of 8-1 with Luongo allowing all 8 goals. Boston followed this up with a 4-0 victory in Game 4 to even the series. Luongo bounced back with a shutout to help the Canucks win Game 5, but Boston was ultimately too much, decisively winning Game 6 and Game 7 by a combined score of 9-2. Once again goaltending had failed the Vancouver Canucks.
This brings us to last season, one of complete turmoil for the Canucks during the post-season. Coming off yet another Presidents Trophy winning regular season, the Canucks faced the Kings in round one. After losing their first two games with Luongo in net, Vancouver opted to go with Cory Schneider for the remainder of the series, which they eventually lost in five games. It’s all but assured now that Luongo will be traded at some point, but will this put an end to the curse? Only time will tell.
In conclusion, the long-term negative effects caused by this horrible goal still reverberate to this day. It’s a goal that won’t soon be forgotten, especially not by Cloutier or the Canucks. This alone made it a contender for the worst goal of all time, but coupled with the stupefying incompetence displayed by Cloutier on the goal itself puts it in a league of its own. Inspiring the GIF that follows makes it the worst goal ever.