In continuing our frozen memories segment, today I’d like to share the story of one of the most remarkable 11 minute stretches I’ve ever seen from one of my favorite hockey players of all time. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Paul Kariya in Game 6 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals.
I’ll set the stage first. As I already detailed in one of my earlier memories, thanks to goaltender J.S. Giguere, the Mighty Ducks found themselves in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. Their opponent was the New Jersey Devils, a team that had appeared in the Finals in 2 of the past 3 years. However, the Ducks had already defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, the #1 seeded Dallas Stars, and the upstart Minnesota Wild on their way to the Finals and were not abut to be intimidated by the Devils history.
The Devils on the other hand were on a mission to make a statement against these young Ducks at home. The Devils absolutely crushed the Ducks in the first two games, winning both Games 1 and 2 by 3-0 scores. However, the old adage is that it’s not over until one team loses at home. The Ducks upheld this, taking Games 3 and 4 in Anaheim to send the series back to New Jersey. Giguere seemed to find his game back at home, stopping 55 of the 57 shots he faced. Game 5 in New Jersey saw the Devils blow the game open in the 2nd period en route to a 6-3 win. The 6 goals marked the first time that Giguere had given up more than 4 goals in a game that playoff run. Some wondered whether he was fatigued, having already faced 644 shots and having endured 7 overtime games already. Questions were also asked about Paul Kariya. Through 5 games, Kariya had been held to just 1 assist after he had scored 5 goals and 3 assists in the first 14 games of the playoffs. The Devils had been very physical with him, matching their captain and top defenseman Scott Stevens against him. Game 6 was back in Anaheim and it was win or go home. If Kariya was ever going to step up, now was the perfect time.
Kariya and the Ducks started fast, quickly opening a 3-0 lead in the first period, with Kariya recording 2 assists. The Devils scored just 2 minutes into the 2nd and the fans in Anaheim could sense that the Devils were about to make a push. Then, with 13:44 remaining in the period, Devils captain Scott Stevens blindsided Kariya, leaving him motionless on the ice. I remember watching that game thinking that Kariya had died. He was not breathing, was not moving, and had been down for over minute. Then, in one of the most memorable images of my life, the camera zooms in on Kariya’s face and you see him take a huge gasp of air and his visor fogs up. Kariya was slowly helped to his feet but was barely able to stand. His legs were wobbly, his eyes were glassy. Many felt that the hit was extremely dirty and that Kariya might be seriously injured. Kariya went back to the locker room, where an ambulance was prepared to take him straight to the hospital. Instead, Kariya passed the preliminary concussion test and said that he was going to return to the game. What happened next is one of the greatest NHL playoff moments of the last 20 years.
Less than 5 minutes after being flattened, Kariya returned to the bench. The announcers could not believe it, with announcer John Davidson saying “I didn’t think we’d see him until next year”. Even Scott Stevens couldn’t believe it when he saw Kariya step out on to the ice. The Ducks fans went into a frenzy and Kariya was more than willing to keep them in that state.
Less than 5 minutes after his return and with 2:45 remaining in the 2nd period, Kariya fired one of the greatest slap shots I’ve ever seen. It zipped past Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, giving the Ducks a 4-1 lead. Fans at the arena said that that was the loudest they had ever heard the stadium get. You could just feel the raw emotion. At home watching, I could not believe what I just saw. The call from announcer Gary Thorne was just perfect. He screamed, “off the floor, on the board”!
The Ducks went on to win that game 5-2 but ultimately fell to the Devils in Game 7. However to this day, I remember where I was sitting when I saw that Paul Kariya goal and heard Gary Thorne’s call. Simply unbelievable. Below is a video of that incredible play.