History has a strange way of repeating itself.
Today marks the anniversary of one of the most infamous moments in LA Kings playoff history. From a disappointment standpoint, it likely only rivals what went down in Game 2 of the 1993 Stanley Cup Final. Thus, this article could have simply been a fun look back at what happened on April 27, 1998. Instead, the unthinkable happened earlier this week.
“You’d have to search the world high and low to find somebody who’s been in the same shoes as Cody Eakin,” remarked Sean O’Donnell, just seconds into our phone call on Friday – without us even bringing up how the Vegas Golden Knights lost to San Jose. Yes, the similarities are just too obvious.
To set the stage for our chat with O’Donnell, let’s go back to 1998 for a brief build up to what ended up being the Kings second-to-last playoff game ever held at the Fabulous Forum.
It had been an eventful 10 years leading up to that point: Wayne Gretzky arrived in August 1988, the Kings won their only Division title in 1991, the aforementioned Cup run in ’93, a league-wide lockout in 1994, and then the Great One was traded in 1996. More importantly, the Kings had not been back to the playoffs since losing the Cup to Montreal. After finishing second in the Pacific Division in 1997-98, the four year drought was over. As the No. 5 seed, they would face No. 4 St. Louis.
Game 1 was a blowout. Despite goals from Luc Robitaille, Glen Murray, and Craig Johnson, LA lost 8-3 to a Blues attack led by Pavol Demitra and Pierre Turgeon, who each scored twice.
Game 2 was a more pedestrian 2-1 loss. Murray picked up another goal that night, but for the second straight game, LA went 0-for-8 on the power play.
The two teams traveled to Los Angeles for the now pivotal Game 3. Ian Laperriere – a former Blues draft pick who came to the Kings in a trade two years prior – opened the scoring and put the Kings on top 1-0 midway through the first period. Yanic Perreault added another marker in the final few seconds of the opening frame to give the team a comfortable 2-0 lead. O’Donnell then put the Kings up 3-0 in the second period. It wasn’t enough, though.
From the LA Times coverage of the game:
The turning point came at 8:34 of the third period when the Kings’ Ian Laperriere was called for boarding but play continued into the Kings’ zone.
Geoff Courtnall skated into [goaltender Jamie] Storr, who fell back into the crossbar before falling to the ice and then O’Donnell pounced on Courtnall, who covered his head while kneeling. Referee Don Koharski penalized O’Donnell for fighting and Courtnall for charging but that minor was offset by Laperriere’s minor.
The Blues, who had been 0 for 7 with a man advantage before O’Donnell’s penalty, stormed back with four goals to turn around a game that had been completely dominated by the Kings.
King Coach Larry Robinson was livid with Koharski’s call.
“He robbed of us of a game, plain and simple,” Robinson said. “Their guy runs our goaltender and could have put him out of the game and he gets a two-minute for charging. It’s a disgrace. An absolute disgrace. . . . The people of L.A. should be very upset. [Koharski] absolutely gave it to the team across the hall.”
When asked about Courtnall’s hit on Storr, Koharski told Sam Sisco, an NHL supervisor of officials, that he didn’t see it clearly.
In just 3:07, poof; the Kings lead was gone.
“It was the longest five minutes of my life,” O’Donnell quickly remarked when we asked for the key memory he still carries from that game. “It’s a tough thing to go through. You just feel so helpless; you feel guilty. You’re angry because you don’t think the call was right. Mostly it’s just a feeling of helplessness, though.”
Now, some 21 years later, those woulda-coulda-shoulda moments still resonate.
“Obviously, we needed that win. We were up 3-0 in the third period, so we’re probably going to cut their series lead to 2-1,” continued the former defenseman. “Now we’re down in that 0-3 hole. For the most part, you’re thinking that’s pretty much the series. So, that night I went home, I was obviously upset. After we were swept two nights later, there were more than a couple of St. Louis players who mentioned in the handshake line, ‘That’s too bad what happened, we thought you did the right thing.’ and that type of stuff. Even if I felt it was the right thing, it’s always nice to hear from others that it was just a tough break. I still feel like the right thing was done. It’s just unfortunate that all these things came together and it just ended up being the wrong thing, I guess.”
O’Donnell also shared it was perhaps a further combination of two other elements that helped ensure Game 3 wasn’t a moment that haunted him in the years ahead.
“First, my teammates did a really good job of making sure that I wasn’t putting too much blame on myself,” said the Ottawa native. “To a man, they basically said, ‘Look, I know you were protecting our goalie. We wish we could have done things differently to protect that lead.’ That was just the overall feeling or sentiment.”
And although he went to play over 1,200 NHL games in his career, he was still pretty wet behind the ears at that point.
“I was a young player at the time,” he said through his now familiary bass-heavy voice. “You get over things pretty quickly when you’re young. It was my first-ever NHL playoffs, so it was disappointing. It sounds cliché, but things happen in the playoffs – good things and bad things. You can’t look back too much. You have to get ready for the next game. That was our mindset. Like I said, I was upset that night but I knew there was a Game 4. I wanted to come back and try to respond, personally, as I’m sure the team wanted to come back and collectively respond too. It didn’t happen; we were swept. I don’t think that play shaped me in the future, though. It’s not something that I thought about going into the next playoffs, the next playoffs, and the next playoffs. I think it was just a perfect storm of bad things that came together and cost us. You just have to try to put those things in the rear view mirror and move on.”
Which brings us to this week – we had to ask, at what point did the Eakin play start to stir up those more than two decade old emotions?
“When he took the 5-minute major it didn’t really dawn on me because I really thought the game was still in hand for Vegas,” O’Donnell explained, with his tone changing from being more reflective into that of a TV analyst. “When they got it to 3-2, I started thinking to myself – not laughing, just thinking and realizing – this was around the same time in the game [as what happened in ‘98], there were about 11-12 minutes left in the third period. Obviously, the game this week was a Game 7, so it’s a little different. Also, this had the home team (San Jose) scoring the goals. Even though I wasn’t in the building, you could feel how electric that place was just through the TV. Our game was the opposite; you could hear a pin drop. It was just one of those things that happened. I don’t know what I would have done differently or if I should have. Well, obviously, I should have done something differently. But, I think if I did the same thing 100 times, I don’t think it would have worked out that way. It was just a perfect storm of unfortunate things all happening at once.”
O’Donnell had less than 48 hours to stew on his moment. Game 4 was waiting.
Eakin will likely be thinking about it all summer.
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Did O’Donnell tell you he was also in the penalty box with New Jersey in ’01 when they lost THAT Stanley Cup deciding game to Colorado by a power play (Alex Tanguay)? Brutal.
Also not known was that Storr had suffered a concussion on the play, but nobody knew.