It was a Stanley Cup Finals between a team in a new city and a team known for throwing rats on the ice. Three years before the 1996 NHL Finals, the Colorado Avalanche were still the Quebec Nordiques, and the Florida Panthers were an expansion team.
Going into the series, the only guarantee was that the NHL would crown a first-time champion.
The Nordiques faced increasing financial difficulties in the early 1990s. To make matters worse, Quebec City was the smallest market in the NHL. After Quebec’s provincial government refused to bailout the team, the franchise was sold to a group of Denver investors in May 1995.
In their first season in the Mile High City, Colorado totaled 104 points, 25 more than second place Calgary. After winning their first two playoff series in six games over Vancouver and Chicago, the second-seeded Avalanche faced top-seeded Detroit in the Western Conference finals. Colorado jumped out to a 3-1 series lead and defeated the defending conference champions in six games. The series was best remembered for Claude Lemieux’s check on Kris Draper that sent the Red Wings forward to the hospital with a broken jaw and shattered cheek and orbital bones.
In the Eastern Conference, Florida earned the fourth seed with 92 points during the Year of the Rat. On the night of Florida’s home opener, Scott Mellanby killed a rat in the Panthers locker room. After the story became public, fans started tossing rubber rats onto the ice after a goal. What started as a few rats early in the season increased to more than 2,000 rats littering the ice during the playoffs.
After knocking off Boston in the first round, Florida shocked top-seed Philadelphia in the conference semifinals in six games. In the Eastern Conference Finals against No. 2 seed Pittsburgh, the Panthers won the final two contests to edge the Penguins in seven games. With the score tied at one in the third period of Game 7 in Pittsburgh, the eventual game-winning goal was scored on Tom Fitzgerald’s 58-foot slap shot at the 6:18 mark of the period.
Colorado entered the Stanley Cup Finals as the favorites, even though Lemieux was suspended for the first two games of the series in Denver. Florida scored first in Game 1; however, Colorado tallied three goals in a five-minute span of the second period to win, 3-1. Game 2 was the only blowout of the series, with the Avalanche scoring seven unanswered goals en route to an 8-1 triumph.
As the series shifted to South Florida for Game 3, the Panthers held a 2-1 advantage after the first period. Similar to Game 1, Colorado tallied two goals in a three-minute span to take a three-games-to-none lead in the series with a 3-2 win.
On June 10, Colorado and Florida played one of the greatest games in Stanley Cup Finals history. Needing a Game 4 win to stay alive, Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy and Panthers netminder John Vanbiesbrouck matched zeros through regulation and two overtimes. The scoreless tie was finally broken at the 4:31 mark of the third overtime on Uwe Krupp’s Stanley Cup-winning slap shot. Roy finished the game by stopping all 63 shots he faced.
In the years following the finals, the teams went in opposite directions. Colorado would advance to the Western Conference Finals in five of the next six years, winning the 2001 title over New Jersey. Meanwhile, Florida has only qualified for the playoffs twice since appearing in the 1996 finals. The Panthers current streak of 10 seasons without a playoff appearance is the longest in the league.