The first game of the series went into overtime. Then, the second went into double overtime. Should the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders continue on this course, they could turn hockey into the first sporting event where fans show up after the bars close. When was the last time you were watching a Mary Tyler Moore rerun at 5 a.m., wondering if George Michael would cut in with a live update from Capital Centre? If I were David Poile or Bill Torrey, here's a move I'd make before tonight's game on Long Island: hire Sgt. Jablonski from Hill Street to remind my players of the best way to approach one of these overtimes. "Hey! Let's do it to them, before they do it to us."
According to Lou Franceschetti, that was basically the Capitals' philosophy at the top of each overtime Thursday night. Life imitates art. "We said we'd have to take it to them; we can't sit back and let them take it to us."
Franceschetti said that in an overtime, the critical minutes are the first ones. "Everyone likes to get the thing over with as quickly as possible, so you send everything you've got at them in the first few minutes, and you try to get the bounces. After that you sit back and see what happens. If it lasts past the five-minute mark you tend to play more conservative. You rarely see an overtime goal after the first five minutes."
A few feet away, Darren Veitch was nodding in agreement: "Usually it's over in the first couple of shifts," he said. Then, rolling his eyes, "The longer it goes, the longer it's going to go."
I don't know about you, but these overtimes are wearing me out. I'm not as young as I used to be.
Like the Islanders.
"It's better for us; we've got young legs," said the 24-year-old Veitch.
"You have to get to the net. Sometimes the older legs don't want to pay the price as much as the younger legs do," added the 27-year-old Franceschetti.
But even the young, strong legs grew tired on Thursday during 81 minutes of hockey. "I don't mind playing one overtime, but when you start getting into two overtimes, you're getting into agony," said 24-year-old Larry Murphy. "I don't care who you are, by the second overtime you're real tired. You really have to work to motivate yourself or the tiredness will overcome you."
Fatigue, landing on your thighs, grabbing at your calves. "You work for 30 seconds, and you lose it," admitted 27-year-old Bengt Gustafsson. "You want to go somewhere, but you can't get there in time. You're always one step behind."
Accompanying the physical exhaustion is the mental tension. Nobody likes to play overtime in hockey. Because of the unforgiving speed of the sport, it's not sudden death as much as it's Instant Death. It's not at all like extra innings, where both teams must bat. Not at all like basketball; the first basket doesn't win. It's not the same as football; a long pass takes at least 10 seconds from snap to touchdown. In hockey it's, Bang! You're dead. "Maybe that's better. You don't have as much time to think about it," suggested Mike Gartner, who got the winning goal late Thursday night. But they do think about it. And players think more about losing than about winning in overtime. They play cautiously, almost fearfully, knowing that one mistake is one too many. "One little thing can make you lose it," said Gustafsson. "If you make a mistake, you're the reason the team lost. It's a lot of pressure."
No matter how much confidence they may have in their team, players are not confident in overtime. "It's impossible to be," Rod Langway said straight out. "Most overtimes are decided by a strange bounce of the puck, or by a bad play. One bad play, you're back in the locker room. So you're playing not to make the bad play." Even Langway, perhaps the best defenseman in the world, feels restricted by an overtime. "You can't let yourself go for the picture perfect pass -- the one you'd really like to make -- because if you're slightly off and the other guy gets it, bang! It's in the net."
Langway said that in overtime situations, it is unusually quiet both in the locker room and on the bench. On one level the quiet is in response to fatigue; it is a way to conserve energy. "After 60 or 80 minutes, rah-rahing it up takes too much out of you," said Gartner. But on another level the quiet is about nervousness and doubt. "One thing you're hoping for in the overtime is that the nerves won't come into play," Langway said. "Because of the situation, guys are wrapped pretty tightly to begin with. You're quieter so you don't get them more nervous. You want the guys to play and not to be so uptight that when the puck comes to them they're shaking with it."
Warning: Overtime is anxiety provoking and can be stressful to your mental health.
"Anyone who says that it isn't," said Murphy, "is hiding something."
Perhaps that's why the mix in the Capitals' locker room on Thursday night, even after so thrilling a victory, was one part ecstasy and 99 parts relief. As if the overtime was not so much won as it was survived.