Either the Washington Capitals or New York Islanders will put away the skates after tonight's fifth game of the Patrick Division semifinals at sold-out Capital Centre. Regardless of the outcome, this will go down as one of the more memorable Stanley Cup playoff series of recent years.
The Islanders take an edge in experience into the 7:35 p.m. finale. This will be the seventh time they have played in an all-or-nothing game; they have won four of them.
New York also has momentum, following two grueling victories over the weekend and especially in view of the rally from a 4-2 deficit in the third period to a dramatic 6-4 victory on Sunday. In addition, the Islanders seem to possess a driving ambition to accomplish what no other National Hockey League team has done -- win a best-of-five series after dropping the first two games.
Washington has younger legs and the home-ice advantage. The Capitals took a 2-0 lead with a pair of overtime decisions at the Centre before watching it disappear on Long Island.
When all those factors are blended, the game must be considered a tossup. Just as the bounce of the puck has decided the first four games -- all by a single goal except for an empty-net clincher Sunday -- so it figures to determine who goes on to Philadelphia for the divisional final starting Thursday.
"It's a one-game situation and we certainly have to come with our very best," said Washington's Doug Jarvis. "I've played in a few games like this but you never get used to it. Every situation is unique. You have to be confident and do what you're capable of doing, individually as well as together."
The Capitals' afternoon practice at Mount Vernon was sluggish, with a minimal display of spirit. Then the team was taken to a suburban hotel to spend the night, with Murray conducting a 10 p.m. team meeting to begin the buildup of emotion.
"This was the calm before the storm," said Mike Gartner, who has scored a goal in each game of the series.
"We know the Islanders are a team that's not going to quit, but we no longer have a mental block about them and we're not going to quit either."
Although the Islanders' comeback from a two-game deficit has stirred the souls of people who deal in historical precedent, Washington has done its share of fighting back in this series.
Down, 2-0, with a minute remaining in Game 3, the Capitals scored once with a sixth skater replacing goalie Al Jensen and came close to tying it up.
After falling behind, 5-4, with 68 seconds remaining Sunday, Washington put enough pressure on the Islanders to prompt defenseman Paul Boutilier to deliberately dislodge the net, setting up Bob Carpenter's unsuccessful penalty shot.
The Capitals sold the remaining 2,900 tickets for the game yesterday and Murray was hoping the crowd would help the Capitals as much as it helped the Islanders on Sunday.
"Home ice can be a tremendous advantage in the final game of a series," Murray said. "The emotion of the crowd can be a big factor for us, especially coming off a loss like that. The crowd helped them in New York. It promoted extra energy on their part. If we need it, I hope our fans give it to us."
This is the fifth game in seven nights and players on both teams are showing weariness. Accordingly, Murray said he hoped to use four lines and three defensive units as long as possible tonight.
"We've got to get back to the type of game we can play," Murray said. "We're a forechecking team and we have to play the puck deeper in their zone. I plan to use a lot of people, as many as are going all out for us.
"The five in seven has been tough on all of us. We felt four in five would be a factor in our favor, but (Bryan) Trottier and (Mike) Bossy played a lot and played well. Now it comes down to the team with the most to give that pays the price to win it."
In the only other first-round series yet incomplete, Boston is at Montreal and Buffalo at Quebec tonight in fifth games. Montreal defenseman Chris Chelios, who sprained his right knee in Sunday's game, is not expected to be able to play tonight.