Gaetan Duchesne's goal at 47 seconds of sudden-death overtime lifted the Washington Capitals to their first victory of the NHL season tonight, a 6-5 decision over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Capitals had lost three in a row, and most of the players were certain the streak had reached four when Toronto's Greg Terrion put the puck into an empty net for an apparent 6-4 lead with 17 seconds left in regulation time.
Referee Kerry Fraser ruled, however, that Terrion had tripped Washington's Larry Murphy to gain possession. He disallowed the goal and sent Terrion to the penalty box.
That controversial decision gave Washington, which had lifted goalie Al Jensen, a six-on-four skating advantage and Mike Gartner capitalized by shooting the puck between goalie Tim Bernhardt's legs with four seconds left to create a 5-5 tie.
Bengt Gustafsson set it up, pouncing on the puck behind the Toronto net and sliding it out to Gartner, who was unguarded in the left-wing circle.
"I knew there wasn't much time left and my first reaction after Gus floated it out there was just to shoot," Gartner said. "But I told myself to make sure it was on net and it was a great feeling to see it go through his legs."
Toronto Coach Dan Maloney, who showed reporters replays afterward in an attempt to prove that Murphy had merely fallen off balance when Terrion lifted his stick, responded to the tying score by throwing a stick on the ice and waving his fist at Fraser.
The Maple Leafs were screaming even louder after Duchesne skated into the slot, took Alan Haworth's feed from the right wing and beat Bernhardt to end it. Center Russ Courtnall was assessed a gross misconduct penalty for berating Fraser.
"I saw Alan go wide with the puck and in that situation it's my job to go to the net," Duchesne said. "The defense didn't pick me, which surprised me, and I was alone. Alan put it on my stick and I just put it over the goalie."
Duchesne was one of many Capitals who were unaware of the tripping call and thought Terrion had wrapped it up for Toronto.
"I thought it was over," Duchesne said. "I didn't hear a whistle or see the guy trip Larry. My head was down. I was almost praying."
Murphy said he never saw Terrion and had no idea why he had fallen.
"I was skating back with the puck, trying to give the guys a chance to come out of our end, and I went down," Murphy said. "I saw (Dan) Daoust coming, but I didn't see Terrion. I couldn't understand what happened. I didn't think I was that bad a skater."
This was a strange game for many reasons. The paid attendance of 13,602 and the actual crowd of about 5,000 were among the lowest figures ever recorded for a regular-season game in Maple Leaf Gardens, which seats 16,182 and where sellouts have been regularly reported since 1946.
The Blue Jays' American League Championship Series game, which was largely responsible for the empty seats, also created a situation that saw the fans suddenly begin cheering for no apparent reason midway through the third period. Naturally, that was when the Blue Jays scored. By game's end, Toronto's hockey and baseball fans were feeling equally frustrated.
"It was a different feeling," Gartner said. "It's unusual to see a crowd like that and most of the night you could hear a pin drop."
Perhaps the Maple Leafs' Jeff Brubaker is a baseball fan. The first time he stepped on the ice, he dropped his gloves and started punching Dwight Schofield on a faceoff. Brubaker, the only Maryland native in the NHL, was ejected in time for the first pitch.
Rick Vaive scored three goals for Toronto and set up Tom Fergus for the score that ended a 4-4 tie with 10:57 left in the third period.
Washington took a lead for the first time this season when Bob Carpenter, Craig Laughlin and Scott Stevens netted rebounds within 105 seconds early in the first period to make it 3-1.
Vaive tied it before the period ended and, after Laughlin deflected Peter Andersson's slap shot for a 4-3 Washington advantage in the second period, Terrion tied it again.