Bryan Trottier is not a man given to emotional outbursts. He doesn't like to talk about moments of destiny. He smiles whimsically and shrugs when people sometimes compare his New York Islanders to The Phoenix each time they rise from the ashes, as they have done so many times in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But tonight, after he had scored the goal that had given the Islanders an implausible 6-4 victory over the Washington Capitals, Trottier finally admitted amazement.
"Can you believe that?" he said, his voice filled with wonder. "If you wrote a script, it couldn't equal that."
If tonight had been a movie, it would have started in the Islanders' dressing room after the second period. The young Capitals, needing only one more victory to send the proud old champions home for the summer, had shot to a 4-2 lead on two second-period goals.
The atmosphere in the Nassau Coliseum was leaden, the fans seemingly just waiting for the end. But in "the room," as the players call it, where these players have contemplated so many tight spots before, there still was hope.
"When you're down 4-2, you have to wonder," said Mike Bossy, who scored the tying goal. "But we've done it so many times in the past that nobody thought it was impossible. There wasn't doubt. There was hope."
And resolve. "The players kept saying, 'We have to find a way,' " said Coach Al Arbour. "I told them we had to go out there and blitz them. Just go right at them. We lost our edge in the second period but we got it back right away in the third."
This is an old team, but it is a proud one. Goalie Billy Smith is 33. Bob Nystrom is 32. Denis Potvin, the captain, is 31. So is Clark Gillies. Bob Bourne and Dave Langevin are both 30. Each of them, along with Trottier, Bossy, Duane Sutter and Stefan Persson, have four Stanley Cup rings. They also have memories.
"If you're going to beat us, you're going to have to kill us," Nystrom said. "You can't just knock us down, because we'll get back up. And then we'll get up again and again. They had us down, but they couldn't kill us."
And so, when the Islanders came out of the room, all the age, all the memories of this frustrating season, seemed gone. They would just go full force for 20 minutes and whatever happened, happened.
"It's pretty scary," John Tonelli said. "It's a cliche, but you know it's do or die. We've been there before and more often than not we do. That's what's made this team great."
This was no simple comeback. This was against a team that hadn't blown a two-goal lead all season. This had the added twist of Potvin, who has carried the Stanley Cup aloft four times as captain, catching a puck in the throat and leaving the ice woozy with two minutes left. (Arbour said he hoped Potvin could play in the fifth game Tuesday.)
Afterwards, Potvin was barely aware of the fact that his team had won -- "I never saw it," -- he said, his voice a whisper. "I feel good," he rasped, sounding horrible.
Determination had made the Islanders but so have great players. Tonight, it was Patrick Flatley making it 4-3, Bossy making it 4-4 and then Trottier, with a superb solo effort, who made it 5-4. There were only 70 seconds left in regulation and overtime seemed inevitable when Trottier faced off against Doug Jarvis to the right of Capitals goalie Al Jensen.
If there is a better faceoff man in hockey than Trottier, it is Jarvis.
Not this time, though. Trottier won the draw, poked the puck past Jarvis, ducked Langway and in one quick swipe had the puck past Jensen. "It's an instinct play," he said. "The puck went behind his (Jarvis) stick and I just grabbed it and shot it."
And then, Trottier, normally so unemotional, danced. He pumped his arms and legs and was mobbed by his overjoyed teammates. The movie could have ended right there. The comeback, the sight of the injured Potvin, the battle-weary team escaping again. But there was more. With 30 seconds left and the Capitals buzzing the net to try to tie the score once more, the Islander goal was dislodged. This had happened earlier with Smith facing pressure and referee Andy Van Hellemond called the Islanders for dislodging the goal in the last two minutes -- an automatic penalty shot.
"I didn't do it," Smith said. "But one of my teammates (Paul Boutilier) did . . . he made the right call."
And so, there was one more scene. All the Islanders and Capitals moved aside as Bobby Carpenter faced Smith. "I didn't know whether to watch or not," Tonelli admitted. "I started to sit behind everyone on the bench but then I decided I had faith in Smitty."
"It comes down to who makes the first move," Smith said. "Whoever does, that's the mistake, that guy loses. Tonight, he made the first move and the first mistake. I was fortunate."
Fortunate or just tough, Smith won the duel from Carpenter. His teammates mobbed him. Thirty seconds later, after Bossy's empty-net goal had finally ended the suspense, they mobbed each other.
"We're just glad," Smith said with a deep sigh, "to have the chance to play again."
It was that close tonight for the Islanders. But, at least for 48 more hours, they proved they weren't ready to have their ashes scattered quite yet.