Throwback Thursday – 1996 Stanley Cup Champions – Avalanche Defeat Florida Panthers for Denver’s First Pro Sports Title


The Colorado Avalanche are off to a slow start this season, and I get the sense Avs Nation could use a sip of nostalgia to get those good Avalanche feelings bubbling again. The Florida Panthers were in town on Tuesday night, which caused me to reflect on the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals between the Avalanche and Panthers.

The Avalanche had just relocated to Denver, and in their first season with a home base a Mile High, they won the most iconic trophy in all of sports – the Stanley Cup. The Avalanche were coming off a heated series with the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals, a clash which fostered the premiere rivalry in all of sports for the next decade.

“He scorreees!! A pure hat trick! A pure hat trick for Peter Forsberg… forget the rats, throw the hats!” –Gary Thorne play-by-play

Most experts and hockey enthusiasts alike figured whoever prevailed in that Detroit/Colorado series, was probably going to go on to capture the Cup. This thought was magnified when Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, and the favored Pittsburgh Penguins were ousted by the underdog Florida Panthers. The Panthers surprisingly navigated themselves through the Eastern Conference bracket, and set up a date with the mighty Avalanche for all the marbles.

The series began in the cozy confines of McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. The Florida Panthers struck first in game 1 on a goal by Tom Fitzgerald at 16:51 of the first period. This was the only time Florida had hope during the series, as the Avalanche would come storming back with three straight goals of their own. The tallies were credited to Scott Young, Mike Ricci, and Uwe Krupp over a 3 minute and 49 second span during the second period.

Game two saw the Avalanche get on the board first, thanks to a Peter Forsberg goal just over four minutes into the game. The Panthers answered quickly with a Stu Barnes power play goal, and then the blasting squad took to the mountain. The Avalanche was released, and it was a sight to behold on this night. Rene Corbet put the Avalanche back in front halfway through the period, and then it was time for Peter Forsberg to show why he was known as ‘Peter the Great.’

Forsberg scored a pure hat trick (three goals in a single period) to propel the Avalanche to a decisive 4-1 lead, and prompt one of the classic calls of Gary Thorne’s play-by-play career, “forget the rats, throw the hats!” If that doesn’t make sense, shame on you for not being a hockey fan in 1996. The unofficial mascot of the Panthers during the playoff run, was plastic rats. The fans would throw hundreds of the things on to the ice, literally, whenever the Panthers scored a goal.

The tradition actually started when Panthers player John Mellanby used a stick to kill a rat in the Panthers’ locker room, prior to the home opener earlier that same season. He went on to score a pair of goals that game, and once the fans caught wind of the story, the tradition was born. It peaked during the two games with Colorado. Also, check out that puck glow in the video below… you guys remember that? Glad they got rid of that… talk about annoying.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, their rats were no help for them in Denver, as the Avalanche went on to win game two by a final score of 8-1. Few expected the Panthers to win a game in Denver, but the thumping the Avalanche put on Florida in the two games, outscoring the Panthers 11-2, made people question if the Panthers would even take a game in the series.

The scene shifted to south Florida, and despite trailing 0-2 in the series, Panthers fans were enthusiastic and confident in their team’s chances. After arriving in Florida, Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix was dining in a beach-side restaurant. Instead of receiving the dinner he had ordered, he was served an appetizer of hard-boiled eggs and caviar arranged in the shape of three rats. The chef confidently proclaimed, with a sauce written message on the dish, “it’s the year of the rats!”

Much like his team on the ice, the Avalanche GM had an answer for Florida. He went around to several of the tables in the dining room, and dumped the contents of each salt shaker onto the plate. He marched it straight back into the kitchen, presented it to the chef, and told him “sorry, your rats have been buried by an Avalanche.”

Game 3 in Florida started of quickly for the Avs, who were looking to quickly drain all hope and belief from the arena. Claude Lemieux got the scoring started for the Avs, in his Finals debut. He was serving a suspension for a hit on Kris Draper from the prior series with Detroit (but that’s a story for another day). Florida wasn’t going to go down without a fight, as they scored the next two goals of the game. Rob Niedermayer, who Avs fans would see again in the 2001 Stanley Cup Final, scored the go-ahead goal.

“Sorry, but your rats have been buried by an Avalanche.” -Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix

The Avalanche showed some resilience of their own, in the hostile, rat-infested arena. Mike Keane equalized a minute into the second period, and captain Joe Sakic scored the game-winning goal soon thereafter. The Avs held on for a 3-2 win.

The Cup was in the house for game 4, with the Avalanche looking to clinch. The main thing I remember from this game was my dad making me, a seven-year old at the time, go to bed. Well dad, hate to break it to you, but I was still sneaking peaks at the TV from the top of the stairs.

Why would my dad make me go to bed, you ask? Well, this game lasted well into the night, needing three overtime periods before it was finally decided. Both goaltenders went beast mode, if you will, and had the force field up between the pipes. Patrick Roy finished the game with an incredible 63-save shutout, and John Vanbiesbrouck was stellar as well, but came up one save short. Uwe Krupp scored in triple overtime, and the Colorado Avalanche were Stanley Cup Champions!!

Patrick Roy finished the series having allowed only 4 goals on 151 shots, for an incredible save percentage of 0.974. Joe Sakic took home the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP, having led the NHL with 18 goals and 34 points over the Avalanche’s memorable run. This was the year the Avalanche captured the hearts of Denver, and turned many, such as myself, into lifelong Avs fans.