It's more than another loss. It's a deathblow.
One minute a team is vibrant, wide-eyed, pulsating with adrenaline and skating all out, believing in itself, and the next it is finished. Physically, emotionally, mentally, suddenly dead. That's what it feels like to the losers.
The winners? They're skating around crazy with glee, hugging and jumping on one another like a bunch of kids, their joy naked and spontaneous. But it's the losers who give sudden death its name.
You can't say it's the best moment in sports, because sudden death isn't a moment. It's a continuum of moments, a time of desperation that can go on for hours or be settled in the blink of an eye. Next goal wins. Go at it! The game gains momentum like a runaway train until, with shocking finality, it's over. Spectators leave the building emotionally drained and hoarse. Players straggle from the ice exhausted and psychologically changed. An overtime loss in the playoffs is a dagger to a club's spirit. Between 1919 and '93 there were 435 sudden-death games in the playoffs, and the winners went on to take the series a whopping 84% of the time.
May 8, 1994
Sometimes, though, even the winner of a sudden-death game dies a little bit. "I was so tired I just wanted to lie down right there," said the Buffalo Sabres' Dave Hannan after scoring the winning goal on April 27 in the Sabres' quadruple-over-time 1-0 win over the New Jersey Devils—the sixth-longest NHL playoff game ever. Said Sabre forward Randy Wood, "Going out for the seventh period, guys in the locker room were saying, 'Somebody score a goal. This is going to cost a fortune in baby-sitting bills.' "
The winning goal came at 65:43 of overtime and 1:52 a.m., squaring the first-round series at three games apiece. The Devils, though, bounced back with a 2-1 win on Friday, eliminating the exhausted Sabres. After the quadruple-overtime game, in which Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek turned back 70 shots, Sabre coach John Muckler said, "We should have gotten credit for two wins, to win the series. We played a doubleheader tonight."
The baseball analogy was apt since the line score of the game read like a rain-shortened pitching duel:
Devils: 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0
Sabres: 0 0 0 0 0 0 1-1
Whatever suffering the Devils and the Sabres endured in their dance with sudden death, it seemed almost merciful compared with that of the Calgary Flames. After Calgary had taken a commanding 3-1 series lead over Vancouver, the gritty Canucks won the final three games, all in sudden death. On Saturday night, after Pavel Bure's Game 7 goal at 2:20 of the second OT ignited a joyous celebration by the Canucks, the Flames and their fans in the Saddledome were reduced to silent exhaustion. To die once in sudden death is painful enough; to perish three times in a row is a fate too cruel.
Hockey may feel inferior to other team sports when it comes to worldwide audience, television appeal, salaries and media coverage. But the NHL can be smug about this much: It has the most exciting way in sports to settle a playoff tie.
Basketball's overtime period is no more than a five-minute extension of the clock; in fact, in contrast to the game's frantic closing seconds, it is initially even anticlimactic. Extra innings in baseball? The home team always has the last at bat, and as often as not it's a dud. Even football—which, like hockey, plays sudden death—falls short when it comes to overtime excitement. The team that loses the coin toss might never touch the ball. And all too often the game concludes with a methodical downfield march that culminates in an eye-glazing field goal. It's about as sudden as passing a kidney stone.
Not so with hockey. Offense and defense reverse roles with the bounce of a puck. A thwarted rush at one end can, with an abruptness that is breathtaking, become a breakaway at the other. Every shot draws a harrowing gasp. Every save is, literally, a game-saver. The fans ride a roller coaster between euphoria and dread, hopping up and down in their seats, screaming encouragement or freezing in anticipated horror.
"Sudden death's the perfect name for it too," says Mike Milbury, former player and coach for the Boston Bruins, the NHL team with the worst playoff sudden-death record, 35-51-3. "It's either instant elation, or it's as if you've fallen from a building. Thud! Eventually you get around to seeing if all the pieces are there, and you go on, but it hurts."
Milbury still feels the sting from playing in the most infamous sudden-death loss in Bruin history, the too-many-men-on-the-ice game against the Montreal Canadiens in 1979. Montreal, en route to its fourth straight Stanley Cup, trailed the underdog Bruins in the closing minutes of Game 7 of their semifinal series when Boston was caught with an extra man on the ice. On the ensuing power play Montreal tied it 4-4, with just 1:14 left. "We couldn't believe something so ludicrous had happened to send us to overtime," Milbury remembers. The Bruins entered the extra period in a state of semishock. "Then freaking Yvon Lambert scored to win it," says Milbury. "No one remembers this, but I'd hit him hard early in the game, and he was out cold. I thought he was done for the night."
Often, as in the case of Lambert, the sudden-death hero is an unheralded, mucking defensive grinder. "In overtime teams pay a little more attention to the top scorers," says former New York Islander defenseman Ken Morrow, who tallied only 17 regular-season goals in his 10-year career but scored three OT winners in the playoffs—two more than Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr or Phil Esposito. "That opens up the ice for the guys who don't ordinarily score."
As often as not it is the superpest, not the superstar, who rises to the occasion. Scrappy Claude Lemieux of the Devils has two sudden-death playoff goals; Super Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins has none. Three of the Sutter brothers (Brent, Darryl and Duane), members of a family that personifies hard-nosed play, have scored a total of five sudden-death playoff goals. The Washington Capitals' notorious hit man, Dale Hunter, has tallied four playoff overtime goals.
"Fighting off people, getting where you want to go, knowing how to get there—that's what you have to do to score in overtime," says Bob Nystrom, who scored four sudden-death goals in his playoff career with the Islanders, including the Cup-winner against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1980. "I always felt I was going to score the goal."
Not all top scorers, however, are shut down in overtime. The game's most prolific sudden-death scorer was the fiery superstar Maurice (the Rocket) Richard, who had six such goals in his great career. "Rocket was so competitive, and he was stronger than a horse," says Gordie Howe, who scored 869 times in the NHL regular season and playoffs, but none in overtime. "The sudden-death game I remember most was when the Rocket scored in the fourth overtime to beat us in 1951. I lost 12 pounds in that game, and afterwards I was weak as a puppy."
Two days after his quadruple-overtime goal beat Howe's Detroit Red Wings, Richard scored in sudden death to beat Detroit again—this time in triple OT.
The Islanders, who are 29-9 in sudden death, have by far the NHL's best playoff overtime record. "We had fanatical guys on the Islanders," says Nystrom, who now is a radio analyst for the team. "Guys who hated to lose. Someone would yell, 'Hey, boys, who's going to be the hero?' I remember Butch Goring saying, 'They're not paying us any extra for the overtime, so no sense wasting time, boys. I'm losing money on this.' The one thing [Islander coach] Al Arbour instilled in us was, you have to attack. You have to go at them."
That overtime philosophy is shared by all NHL coaches, which is why fans would be well advised to be in their seats when the puck is dropped in sudden death. Eleven of the record 28 overtime games in last year's playoffs were decided in the first 5:16 of the extra session. "You try to get your best players on the ice very quickly," says Bryan Murray, general manager of the Red Wings. "You tell them not to sit back, not to be afraid to take the odd chance. At the same time we try to point out it's unlikely the referee will call penalties. So you can't allow the other team a free chance."
Players will desperately tackle, grab, hook, hack and hang on attackers—anything to avoid being a scapegoat. And they have good reason to flout the rules: In the history of the NHL, there has never been a penalty shot called in sudden death. "It was an unspoken rule, and I thought it was a good rule, to let the players decide it," says Morrow, who in 1987 played in the quadruple-overtime Game 7 in which the Isles beat the Caps 5-4 to advance to the conference semifinals. Pat LaFontaine scored the winner at 1:58 a.m. "The ref wasn't going to call anything," recalls Morrow. "Guys were so tired that anybody who came near our goal, I'd just wrap my arms around him."
During the course of that marathon, the Islanders, who were the visiting team, asked Washington's trainers for some oxygen. Mercifully, the Cap trainers delivered a canister; but when Murray, who was Washington's coach at the time, found out about this act of generosity, he made the trainers take it back. "I thought we were going to play all night," says Murray. "The goaltenders, Bob Mason and Kelly Hrudey, seemed fresh, and I didn't know if anyone was going to score. We had 75 shots that game. They had 56. Bobby Gould had 12 shots for us in the overtimes alone."
"The goalies can rise to great heights," says Detroit coach Scotty Bowman. "That's what I think of in overtime—the tremendous saves."
Montreal goalie Patrick Roy led the Cup-winning Canadiens to 10 straight playoff overtime wins last season, a record that Bowman believes may never be broken. (Roy in fact added to that streak by stopping 60 shots in a 2-1 overtime victory against the Bruins last week.) Roy has now gone 113:57 of overtime without allowing a goal, making 81 game-saving stops. One of the great myths about sudden death is that goalies dread it because of the pressure. "I loved overtime," says Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall, who played 18 seasons with the Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues. "What a great chance to discourage your opponent. That's what I always thought about after an overtime win: Think of how bad those other guys feel. It's relatively easy to play an overtime game as a goalie. You're only permitted one mistake, which is human, right? In a regular game you can make any number of mistakes."
The longer an overtime lasts, the more invincible the goaltenders feel. Meanwhile, the opposing forwards have less and less energy and fewer bursts of speed. In 1939 Boston's Mel (Sudden Death) Hill became an overnight celebrity when he scored three overtime goals in one playoff series—a record that has stood for 55 years. His first sudden-death goal came in the third overtime of Game 1 against the New York Rangers in the semifinals. Hill, who had missed an open net in the second overtime, batted in a pass that was 18 inches off the ice. "We'd played 119 minutes of hockey, the equivalent of two full games." says Hill, 80, who lives in Fort Quapelle, Saskatchewan. "You were so tired that if you did make a rush, you wondered how you were ever going to get back to your own end."
The longest overtime game in a Stanley Cup final was the Game 1 triple-overtime classic between the Bruins and the Edmonton Oilers in 1990. Milbury was coaching Boston, and he remembers it being nothing but fun. "We were all pretty loose," Milbury recalls. "In the dressing room between periods I told some stories about old overtime games I'd been in. Guys were laughing and enjoying it. If you can't enjoy overtime hockey in the Stanley Cup finals, you're in trouble.
"The two goaltenders [Bill Ranford for Edmonton and Andy Moog for Boston] played better in the third overtime than they did in the regular game," Milbury remembers. "How did it end? [Edmonton coach John] Muckler took a chance. He put his worst defensive player on the ice, Petr Klima, who'd been sitting on the bench for three hours. And that's the guy who scored. It soured our momentum for the rest of the series." The Oilers beat the Bruins 3-2 and went on to win the Cup.
One of the most famous overtime goals was scored in 1950 by Detroit's Pete Babando against the Rangers. It was the first time the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals was decided in sudden death. Imagine it: Next goal wins the Cup, boys. Drop the puck and play. Clean, simple and absolute in its finality. The hero would for-evermore own a niche in hockey history.
Babando was a journeyman, and in fact he would be traded before the next season began. The first overtime was scoreless, action packed, nerve-racking. Then, 8½ minutes into the second overtime, Babando lined up for a face-off directly behind his center, George Gee. Gee drew the puck straight back, and Babando fired it into the Ranger net. The goal sent Detroit's Olympia Stadium into pandemonium. "In the view of 13,095 fans," The Detroit News reported, "weary, worn and aching Red Wings kissed and embraced, threw equipment to the ceiling and hoisted coach Tommy Ivan to their shoulders."
In the celebratory aftermath a Stanley Cup tradition was born. When the Red Wings were presented the Cup by NHL president Clarence Campbell, "Terrible" Ted Lindsay, the league's scoring champion and a pugnacious competitor, grabbed the Cup in delirious delight and raised it over his head. Holding it aloft, he spontaneously skated along the boards to the roaring approval of the spectators. It is a gesture now linked irrevocably with winning the Stanley Cup.
Hockey historian and broadcaster Dick Irvin cites as the most famous overtime goal the Cup-winner scored in 1951 by Bill Barilko of the Maple Leafs. All five of the names in that year's finals, between Montreal and Toronto, went to sudden death, with the Leafs winning four of them. What makes Barilko's goal in Game 5 particularly memorable and poignant was that it was the last game the defenseman ever played. That summer, while going to a fishing trip in northern Canada, he died in a plane crash. "There's a famous picture that's hanging in Maple Leaf Gardens of Barilko scoring that goal," says Irvin, whose father, Dick Sr., was behind the Canadien bench in that game. "He's flying through the air almost like Orr."
Ah, yes. Any discussion of sudden death has to include Bobby Orr's Cup-winning goal against St. Louis in 1970, scored on Hall. That's the one that Bruin vice president Tom Johnson cites as the most memorable overtime goal in his experience. (Johnson, a former Canadien defenseman, was on the ice when Barilko scored his famous goal, and he was a teammate of Maurice Richard's when the Rocket scored five of his six sudden-death goals.) "It had a flair to it," Johnson remembers. "The picture of it, of course, is something I've seen a thousand times. And the only ones you remember are the ones you won."
The fact that Orr's goal won the Cup—and was the only sudden-death goal the great player ever scored—lends weight to those who argue it was the most famous OT goal ever. Never mind that it was also one of the least meaningful, completing the mighty Bruins' four-game sweep of the Blues, who, in their third season, were Mill thought of as an expansion team. II the Blues had somehow won that game, the Bruins would surely have taken the next one. Or the next one. But the joy in Orr's celebratory leap, body parallel to the ice, arms extended, legs splayed, stick upraised, captures the essence of all sudden-death scorers who have buried that delicious dagger.
"Bobby asked me one time what I remembered about that goal," says Hall. "I told him, 'Bobby, I had showered before you landed. You went up and up and just floated away.' "
Such a leap could have happened only in sudden death, the magical time that gives the sport wings.