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Remember When? Nordiques play final game before relocating

As defenceman Craig Wolanin fired a futile 110-foot shot on Mike Richter and the crowd at Madison Square Garden stood and cheered, the clock ran out on the Quebec Nordiques.

On this day in 1995, the Nordiques played their final game before the franchise relocated to the United States to become the Colorado Avalanche.

The 1994-95 Nordiques won the Northeast Division with the best record in the Eastern Conference, scored a league-high 185 goals in the lockout-shortened 48-game season and Peter Forsberg won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. Their .677 points percentage meant it was the franchise’s best regular season they had experienced.

Still, despite the loaded roster, they couldn’t muster a lengthy playoff run as many expected they would and were eliminated by the eighth-place New York Rangers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Nordiques had a dramatic victory in Game 1 thanks to a Joe Sakic hat trick that included the game-winner he scored with 38 seconds remaining in regulation. The Rangers bounced back in a big way with an 8-3 win in Game 2 and edged out a 4-3 win in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead.

A key turning point in the series occurred in Game 4, when Sakic seemingly scored a short-handed goal to put the Nordiques up 3-0 with 39 seconds remaining in the first period. However, the goal was called back and the play blown dead because Rangers forward Alexei Kovalev was flailing around in the Quebec zone.

Kovalev crumpled to the ice like a sack of bricks after Wolanin swung his stick lightly with one hand and hit the skilled Russian in the small of the back. Wolanin was not penalized and the Nordiques had possession of the puck, yet referee Andy Van Hellemond ended up blowing his whistle and the goal was called back. The puck had already gone in the net before the whistle sounded, which added to the confusion. Van Hellemond was fined by the league following the game for the error.

There’s no guarantee the Nordiques would’ve won the game had the goal stood, however it would’ve made the Rangers’ comeback attempt that much more difficult. The Nordiques didn’t manage to score again in the game. Brian Leetch cut the lead to one in the second period and Kovalev of all players tied the game early in the third. Steve Larmer scored for the Rangers 8:09 into overtime and the Rangers took a 3-1 series lead.

Quebec emerged from Game 5 with a 4-2 victory in what ended up being the team’s final game at the Quebec Coliseum thanks to goals from Mike Ricci, Wendel Clark, Chris Simon and Scott Young. The series shifted back to Madison Square Garden for Game 6.

Jocelyn Thibault was pulled after 20 minutes for allowing three goals on 16 shots. Kovalev then scored his second of the game to put the Blue Shirts up 4-0 midway through the second period and the Rangers were able to fend off Quebec’s comeback attempt.

The Rangers won the game and series 4-2 and that was that.

The Nordiques franchise had been struggling financially and in the off-season the team was sold to a group of investors from Denver.

While off-ice issues in Quebec ultimately led to the team relocating, the on-ice product led by coach Marc Crawford was in great shape. The talented core that featured Sakic, Forsberg, Valeri Kamensky and Adam Foote — to name a few — had immediate success in Colorado.

Pierre Lacroix only made a handful of minor transactions during the 1994-95 campaign, but the team’s general manager was far more aggressive in 1995-96.

Prior to the start of the regular season, he traded Clark to acquire Claude Lemieux — who had won the Conn Smythe Trophy with the New Jersey Devils several months prior.

Early in the regular season, Lacroix flipped 1990 first-overall pick Owen Nolan to the San Jose Sharks for star defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh. The pièce de résistance, of course, arrived in December when Lacroix sent Thibault, Andrei Kovalenko and Martin Rucinsky to his former provincial rival Canadiens in exchange for Mike Keane and three-time Vezina winner Patrick Roy who had demanded a trade out of Montreal.

The Avalanche finished first in the Pacific Division, beat Vancouver, Chicago and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Detroit to advance to the Stanley Cup Final in which they swept the upstart Florida Panthers.

Seeing the Cup being hoisted by players wearing the Avalanche uniform must’ve such a been bittersweet moment for fans of the Nordiques that watched that team fail to live up to its potential while in Quebec.

The Nordiques were an original team when the WHA debuted in 1972, winning that league’s championship in 1976-77, before joining the NHL in 1979 along with the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers.

Save for a pair of conference finals appearances in the 1980s, the franchise had little playoff success. The two times they earned division titles they were upset in the first round.

When you consider all the talent the franchise had over the 15 years they competed in the NHL – from the Stastny brothers all the way to the players that made the transition to Colorado – it makes it all the more surprising the team wasn’t more of a factor in the post-season.

Notable Nordiques draft picks: Dale Hunter, Michel Goulet, Joe Sakic, Valeri Kamensky, Mats Sundin, Adam Foote, Owen Nolan, Eric Lindros (used to acquire Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci and others), Adam Deadmarsh, Chris Drury, Milan Hejduk

The last time NHL fans saw the Nordiques sweater in action in a non-alumni game was that night in New York when the team dejectedly skated off the ice at MSG in 1995.

The Avalanche haven’t incorporated the Nordiques look in any of their uniforms over the years, even though they sell Nordiques merchandise, but it’s possible that changes during the 2020-21 season as the team celebrates its 25th anniversary in Colorado.

The Carolina Hurricanes had a Whalers Night back in December. Would the Avalanche do something similar?

“Next year is the team’s 25th anniversary season,” Avalanche senior VP and chief marketing officer, Declan Bolger, recently told The Athletic. “I think there is an opportunity. … You look in the media guide and how the Nordiques records are included with the Avalanche’s records, we certainly do acknowledge the Nordiques. We have been back there twice for exhibition games. It’s something we have leaned into instead of away from.”

The Nordiques uniform was voted the fourth-best in NHL history back in 2018 and it would be quite the sight to see it return – even for a game or two.

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Written by Sportsnet

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