STUFF HAPPENS. Inexplicable stuff that has left the 1993 Stanley Cup giddily up for grabs. No-way, can't-happen stuff like the New York Islanders' eliminating the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins last Friday by beating them 4-3 in overtime in Game 7. Indeed, all four teams playing in the conference finals—the Islanders, the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Los Angeles Kings—are postseason overachievers. All four finished the regular season in third place in their respective divisions, and except for the Canadiens, none was still playing last year after the opening round of the playoffs.
Without a doubt, this is the postseason of underdogs and overtime. Twenty-one sudden-death overtime games were played in the first two rounds alone. The record for an entire postseason was 16, which was set in 1982. Montreal, New York, Toronto and Los Angeles all have lived to tell wonderful tales about sudden-death experiences. As of Sunday they were a combined 13-2 in OT.
The Kings played only one overtime game in Rounds 1 and 2, but it was double OT, and it was a biggie. L.A.'s series against the Vancouver Canucks turned the Kings' way in Game 5 on a goal by the immortal Gary Shuchuk. The Leafs, who are facing the Kings in the Campbell Conference finals, needed a pair of overtime wins to eliminate the Detroit Red Wings in Round 1, the second of which came in Game 7. Toronto then split two double-overtime games with the St. Louis Blues in another seven-game series.
At week's end the Canadiens had played 11 postseason games, and six of them needed at least one extra session. Montreal won two of three OT games from the Quebec Nordiques in the opening round and three of three in sweeping the Buffalo Sabres. If the Sabres are still shaking their heads in disbelief, you can't blame them: Buffalo won three overtime games in its sweep of the Boston Bruins in Round 1.
However, the undisputed champions of overtime, the superstars of sudden death, are the Islanders. New York victimized the poor Washington Capitals in three overtime games—twice in double OT—in Round 1. And lest there remained any unbelievers, the Islanders completed their upset of the Penguins with that Game 7 victory, the winning goal coming five minutes and 16 seconds into OT.
Over the years overtime has been Islander time. In its 21-year history New York has built an extraordinary 29-7 record—and an undeniable mystique—in sudden-death playoff games. The Islanders' first significant postseason victory came in 1975 when, as a three-year-old expansion team, they stunned the archrival New York Rangers with a series-winning overtime goal by J.R Parise, 11 seconds into the extra session. Five years later the Islander dynasty was launched with a Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal by Bob Nystrom against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6.
In the deciding game of a 1982 opening-round series against the Penguins, two Islander goals in the final six minutes of regulation forced OT, during which John Tonelli scored for New York. But perhaps the most famous, and certainly the longest, Islander OT victory came in 1987 when Pat LaFontaine scored at 1:58 in the morning and 8:47 of the fourth overtime to edge the Capitals in Game 7 of a first-round series.
Overtime is not just about time; it's about action, about frantic never-take-your-eye-off-the-puck action, because in a heartbeat a game—and a team's season—can end. "Even in one of the most exciting games that you can play, the intensity level goes up in overtime," says Nystrom, who now does radio work for the Islanders. "The drive, the energy, the lift you get is amazing."
Amazing is an apt word for this season's Islanders, too. But if you had suggested two weeks ago that they would derail a team of Penguins who had visions of dynasty dancing in their heads, two other words would have been more appropriate: No way. No way that David Volek, who was in and out of New York coach Al Arbour's doghouse all season and pointless in the playoffs at the time, scores twice, including the overtime goal, in Game 7. No way that the starry-eyed Islanders, no-shows in the playoffs the last two years, who finished 32 points behind Pittsburgh in the regular season, even force a seventh game while playing without their captain, Pat Flatley, and their leading scorer, Pierre Turgeon. No way that one of the lowest-paid goalies in the NHL, 30-year-old Glenn Healy, completely outplays his Pittsburgh counterpart, Vezina candidate Tom Barrasso. No bleeping, wonderful way.
"We never felt we were the Penguins' equal in talent," said Islander winger Steve Thomas. "But we felt heart counted for something even more than that."
Heart, as the Islanders proved, can be a formidable weapon, particularly when combined with the sort of goaltending that Healy—he of the 103-116-24 lifetime NHL record—threw at the Penguins. "Everyone played as if it were the last shift of the season every shift of the series," said defenseman Rich Pilon. "We didn't get great goals. We just scored no-fear goals. Heart goals. I'd go to war with these guys."
And the Penguins? It wouldn't be fair to say they played without heart. Center Ron Francis almost made the Islanders choke on his aorta in the final four minutes of Game 7, when Pittsburgh, down 3-1, seemed beyond saving. He scored with 3:47 remaining, and then, with Barrasso pulled from the net, Francis set up the goal that sent the game into overtime.
In the 23 games going into the Islander series, Pittsburgh had gone 21-1-1. Still, the Penguins who showed up against New York seemed better prepared for a coronation than a street fight. They harbored no healthy fear of their opponent. And after Barrasso's goaltending went sour in midseries, after power forward Kevin Stevens went down in Game 7 with an injury, after the magic went out of Mario Lemieux's stick, the banner headline of Saturday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pretty much summed up the Penguins' fate: THREE-PEATERED OUT.
It was crazy for Pittsburgh to enter the series overconfident. New York was the only team to defeat the Penguins three times during the season, and two of those wins had been in Pittsburgh. Whatever regard the Penguins might have had for New York was gone after Game 5, an easy 6-3 victory that gave Pittsburgh a 3-2 series lead and pushed the Islanders to the brink of elimination. Afterward, Stevens said in effect that Pittsburgh would wrap up the series back on Long Island so they could take a couple of days off before playing Montreal (which on Sunday beat the Islanders 4-1 in the first game of the Wales Conference finals). How about a little respect?
Enter 20-year-old Lithuanian defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, a fearless hip-checker and certified off-ice, ain't-life-grand whacko, who operates with the attitude that if a player on the other team has the puck, it's O.K. to cream him, even if that fella happens to wear number 66. Nobody else in the league gets under Lemieux's skin the way Kasparaitis does. In November he goaded Lemieux into taking a double-minor cross-checking penalty in the game in which New York snapped super Mario's 12-game goal-scoring streak. After that Kasparaitis became Penguin Enemy No. 1. "Big guys are easier to hit," Kasparaitis said last week. "You see a big body, you can't miss."
The 5'11", 187-pound Kasparaitis had been fairly quiet in the series until Game 6, that is, if you don't count his backing his BMW over a light stanchion in the Nassau Coliseum parking lot after practice on May 11. A tow truck was needed to disimpale the car from the pole. No one on the Islanders was terribly surprised. Earlier this season Kasparaitis, whom his teammates refer to as "a goof," had had his car towed twice in one day for separate parking violations. "We're waiting for the day," said Islander tough guy Mick Vukota, "when he takes off with the team bus and drives it through a wall."
Arbour was more interested in Kasparaitis's driving some Penguins through a wall. After all, Kasparaitis once punched his own goalie in the face for not giving a full effort in the 1991 World Junior Championships. "Before Game 6," said New York forward Benoit Hogue, "all of us were saying, 'Hey Darius, it's about time you hit somebody. We need you.' "
Ask and you shall receive. From the opening face-off, before a boisterous Coliseum crowd that recalled the Islanders' glory years, when they won four consecutive Cups, from 1980 to '83, Kasparaitis was a menacing force. He assisted on New York's first goal and then began bouncing Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr around like tenpins. In the second period, retaliating for an unpenalized Lemieux crosscheck, Kasparaitis whacked the league's best player four times in the face with his glove—bam-bam-bam-bam—as if Lemieux were some street urchin stealing a wallet. Kasparaitis got two minutes for roughing, but his teammates got the message: Every black uniform was fair game. And with the help of Barrasso, who began giving away more softies than a Dairy Queen, New York won 7-5.
In Game 7 at the Civic Center, Pittsburgh came out flying. But there were early signs that it was not to be the Penguins' night, the most dramatic being the collision between Stevens, a 55-goal scorer this season, and Pilon. Stevens's head hit Pilon's face shield, and he bounced face-first off the ice, knocked cold. Stevens was taken off on a stretcher with a fractured nose, a cut over his eye and a concussion. Tactically and psychologically, the Penguins were never the same.
Still, they carried the play, peppering Healy with 19 first-period shots, seven more in the second period and 16 in the third. He stopped all but one until, with Pittsburgh trailing by two goals and a frustrated Lemieux in the penalty box for slashing—superstars are supposed to come up big in big games, and Lemieux had failed to do so—Francis, surely the most underrated player in the league, led the improbable comeback. The seventh game, to the delirious delight of the 16.164 fans, headed into overtime.
Entering the series, the Islanders were riding a seven-game sudden-death winning streak. After Game 6, New York center Ray Ferraro, who had scored two overtime goals against Washington, was asked about the Islanders' OT secret. "You win one, and it's, Hey, we can do this," he said. "You go to the next one, and you do it again. It really does build. And it can happen so quickly. Nothing's happening, the puck is in the neutral zone, and all of a sudden, one quick pass, two-on-one, game over."
Even knowing the Islanders" history, few people in the Civic Arena at the end of regulation believed that New York would work its overtime magic one more time. Especially not after the Penguins' late-game heroics had earned the tie. And not with Lemieux out there. So when Volek broke in two-on-one with Ferraro and sizzled a slap shot past Barrasso, the crowd fell eerily silent, while the young, irreverent Islanders hopped and hugged and piled onto one another.
"We got no respect from the Pittsburgh Penguins," said Ferraro. Then he harkened back to the biggest upset he could think of: "Muhammad Ali, when he KO'd Liston, said he shook up the world. We did that to the hockey world today."
Stuff happens—especially in OT.