It is 10 minutes before two on Easter Sunday morning in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Gathered inside a building, 18,130 men, women and children—and 40 bedraggled hockey players—have been listening over and over again to a tape of a hauntingly familiar refrain. It is the theme from The Twilight Zone.
You're traveling through another dimension: a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. That's the goal up ahead....
Out on the ice at the Capital Centre, two teams, the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals, are embroiled in the seventh and deciding game of their Round 1 series in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They began play at 7:40 on Saturday night, more than six hours ago. Right now the score is 2-2, and they have just begun their fourth 20-minute, sudden-death overtime period. Goaltender Kelly Hrudey of the Islanders, who has turned away 72 shots and will stop one more, has lost all track of time. The other players have long since stopped jumping over the boards to go out on their shifts, opting instead to shuffle through the door. Zamboni driver John Millsback has already groomed the ice seven times and still has no idea when he will be able to go home. "I'm down to a quarter tank," he says with concern.
At 1:58 a.m., the fifth-longest game in NHL history—and the longest since 1943—ended abruptly when Islander center Pat LaFontaine beat goaltender Bob Mason with a 35-foot slap shot. LaFontaine's shot, the 57th that Mason had faced, came at 8:47 of the fourth OT, after the weary teams had played 68:47 of sudden death and 128:47 in all. The game was longer than two games. For the Islanders, it capped two remarkable comebacks. Not only had they lost three of the first four games to the Capitals, but they had also needed a Bryan Trottier goal with 5:23 to play in regulation—some 3½ hours earlier—just to get into sudden death.
Because of exhaustion, the Islanders' exultation at their victory was tame. Few of the joyous, surprised, panting players could muster the strength to execute even a medium-high five. Besides, it was time to start thinking about the Flyers. The Islanders would face them in Philadelphia on Monday night, which had now become tomorrow. "Great game," said first-year Islander coach Terry Simpson "...for the Flyers."
The Capitals' habit of folding early every spring—they have lost to the Islanders in the first or second round of the playoffs three of the last four years—no longer surprises their fans. By all rights, 1986 was to have been the Caps' year, when they swept the Islanders in the opening round. But the Rangers weren't paying attention, and they eliminated Washington in the second round.
This year, though, the Capitals closed the regular season strongly, losing only one of their last 10 games and overtaking the Islanders for second place in the Patrick Division—and the home-ice advantage in their Round 1 matchup. In typical Capital style they blew that advantage when the Islanders gained a split in Washington by winning Game 2, but these seemingly new Caps then swept Games 3 and 4 on Long Island and went home all set to wipe out the injury-depleted New Yorkers.
Hrudey, however, came to the rescue in Game 5, stopping 40 shots in a 4-2 victory. Uh-oh, same old Caps, always making things tough for themselves. Back to New York, where the Islanders had been making things tough for themselves by not winning in their last six games at Nassau Coliseum.
Still playing without such former Stanley Cup heroes as Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Brent Sutter, all of whom were injured, and goaltender Battling Billy Smith, who had lost the No. 1 job to the 26-year-old Hrudey, the Islanders took a quick 2-0 lead, but the Caps burst ahead 3-2 midway through the second period. Hello, LaFontaine, who is clearly the Islanders' most valuable player this season. He tied the score at 3-3 and then fed right wing Mikko Makela with a perfect breakaway pass for the go-ahead goal. Two minutes later, LaFontaine, whom Washington defenseman Scott Stevens had been using to swab the left-side boards all night, beat Stevens to a loose puck and lifted it over Mason's stick for what turned out to be the winning score in the Islanders' 5-4 victory.
Suddenly the Caps began reeking of doom. "We'll be all right," said anxious coach Bryan Murray as the teams returned to Landover for Game 7. "If Kelly Hrudey isn't unbelievable in Game 5, the series is over and we don't even have to worry about Games 6 or 7."
Murray had good reason to be anxious. In its 12 previous seasons, Washington had never won a playoff game in which it faced elimination. Worse, Murray knew that two years ago the Islanders had overcome a two-game deficit against his Capitals in a best-of-five series, winning the deciding game at the Capital Centre 2-1.
Gulp. Things got so gloomy in D.C. that the Capitals' publicity troops spread the word for fans to wear white to match the Washington's home jerseys. "We want an upbeat atmosphere," said promotions director Charlie Copeland. "Everybody's so down." Of course, they had been there before.
The Islanders could empathize with Washington. They've been dealing with negative vibes for four years now, ever since they stopped winning Stanley Cups. The club decided to dub this season's team "Islanders II." That designation, it was hoped, would remind the naysayers in the stands that the current squad is not the one that won four consecutive Stanley Cups. As it turned out, Islanders II didn't much resemble their illustrious predecessors during the regular season. They never won more than three games in a row en route to their third-place finish in the Patrick Division and finished the 80-game regular schedule with a 35-33-12 record, their worst since 1974.
Of the smattering of names that remain from the glory days—Smith, Trottier, Potvin, Bossy, Ken Morrow, Sutter—only Trottier and Morrow made substantial contributions against the Capitals. The new order is made up of a few familiar names—Hrudey and 1984 Olympians LaFontaine and winger Pat Flatley—and such not-quite-household words as Makela, Bob Bassen, Brad Lauer, Alan Kerr, Gerald Diduck, Randy Wood (a Yalie, of all things), Steve Konroyd and Rich Kromm. "There definitely is an age gap," says Smith. "Look it me. I'm 36, hanging around with guys who are 20. Our music is different."
"It's been difficult for them to take over," says Simpson. "They're playing in the shadows. We have the two ends of the spectrum here, and that's been part of our problem this year. But don't get me wrong. I'm not interested in putting guys like Bossy and Potvin and Trottier out to pasture, because when they're healthy they can play."
Indeed. Trottier had scored the winning goal in Game 2, and now here in Game 7, with the clock winding down and the Capitals trying to hold on to a 2-1 lead, he skated down the right side of the ice. Washington defenseman Kevin Hatcher chopped away at Trottier, but the Islander veteran fended him off and whipped a backhand shot through Mason's pads for the goal that sent the game into not-so-sudden death.
"Nothing lasts forever," said Al Arbour, the Islander coach during the Stanley Cup dynasty, who this season became the team's vice-president in charge of player development. "It has to change, and it's changing. You could see that, as the overtime went on and on, our kids were getting better and better. This is great."
Sans Bossy and Brent Sutter, the Islander attack depended mainly on the playmaking and goal scoring of the 22-year-old LaFontaine, who grew up in the Detroit area. The knock on the 5'10", 177-pound LaFontaine is that he is too small to be a consistent offensive threat throughout the NHL's ever-expanding playoff format. The Capitals, particularly Stevens, knew that and unloaded on LaFontaine every chance they got. Back in Islanders I glory days, the young Bossy had generally escaped such punishment, because he had Clark Gillies or Bob Nystrom skating nearby as a bodyguard. But the Islanders II lack a policeman.
LaFontaine remembers the winning goal this way: "Gord Dineen went behind the net and passed it out. It hit off Hatcher's stick, onto mine, and I just turned around and shot it—a couple feet in the air. Dale Henry screened the goaltender. It just slid in off the post. I saw it [go in] on the replay."
"There was such a togetherness the last three games of this series," said LaFontaine as he sat joyfully drained in the Islander dressing room after the game. "Hopefully, we'll carry this into Philly. It's quite a nice feeling."
There was a togetherness of opinion on the Capitals as well, but the mood was very different and the exhaustion much deeper. "They'd miss chances, we'd miss chances," said Mason. "My arms were heavy. I went through 10½ bottles of water."
"It's unbelievable that you play that long and it comes down to one shot," said Stevens.
But the most inconsolable Capital was forward Bob Gould, who had been a particular victim of Hrudey's spectacular goaltending during sudden death. "We lost a 3-1 lead in games," he said. "What it takes to win, I don't know. How do you get it? How do you solve it? Does somebody bring it in? You've never seen guys bust their tails like we did. We lost a 3-1 lead in games...."
Perhaps, Bob, it would be more accurate to say it was taken from you.