Pat LaFontaine scored the winner in the Islanders’ 3-2 victory at 1:58 on Easter morning, 6 hours 18 minutes after the puck first dropped. Afterward, LaFontaine sought out Bob Mason, the goalie he had beaten — on a long, screened shot the Capitals player never had a chance to glimpse — and said, “I’m sorry.”
That’s all. Just “I’m sorry.” Because in a game with 127 saves, in a marathon in which Mason had stoned the Islanders on 36 previous shots in overtime, the season in the balance on each, the men on the ice, whose bodies and brains ached in a way none had ever experienced, felt that victory, wonderful as it was, almost felt like a felony, too.
“I never worked this hard in my life,” Caps star defenseman Scott Stevens said. “Maybe we should have stopped and had another game” another day.
The endless shifts, encompassing 128 minutes 47 seconds of play — more than two full games — “felt like a bad dream you couldn’t wake up from,” Caps speedster Mike Gartner said.
“Eventually, I didn’t feel anything,” said Caps winger Kelly Miller, who reached a new existential plane. “Something really must kill the pain. I couldn’t feel my body. It was moving without me.”
You show up to play a hockey game, and six hours later, you’re climbing Iwo Jima in skates.
What the 18,000 fans experienced on that night was merely a modified-for-mortals version of what the players felt. Which is tougher: standing almost continuously into a seventh period of hockey or sitting for brief moments of rest only to jump out of your seat as if from an electric shock for what seemed like 150 scoring chances, about half of them possible game-enders?
When the Easter Bunny arrived at midnight, hardly a seat was empty. As 1 a.m. passed, concessionaires had nothing but peanuts in the shell and frozen pretzels. With every print deadline blown and no Internet to post to, reporters in the press box packed their equipment — and just stayed to share the experience. But the stands were still so chock full of chanting, white-towel-waving zealots that owner Abe Pollin might have scored a public relations coup if he had just ordered pizza-to-go for 12,000.
Every sport has its moments of power that attract fans, then meld them to the game for life, just as every sport has its inherent flaws, much as you wish it would be perfect.
That Easter Epic captured hockey’s power and its flaw. There is no other big event in team sports that keeps fans standing, hearts in throats for so long — even until 2 a.m. is about to arrive — for such exhausting, hair-pulling, voice-croaking, palm-bruising marathons. Other sports have overtime and extra-inning games, but none of those sports are so intense, terrifying and exhilarating for such a high percentage of the time. And none leave their stars so close to terminal battle fatigue by the end.
When such an event arrives in a Game 7, when either team’s season could end or advance within seconds, then the whole affair, especially after it reaches sudden death, feels like what football, basketball or baseball would be if you could square or cube the tension to a higher level. But, simultaneously, elevate the potential for injustice or dumb luck to the roof.
“This was the greatest game in our history,” David Poile, the Capitals’ honest and understated general manager, said in defeat. “Have you ever seen a game where there were so many great scoring chances and so few goals? I mean ever in one game.”
The Washington Post’s hockey writer back then, the late Bob Fachet, who loved the NHL more than you love air, thought that appraisal might be correct. But perhaps all those wild chances were, in part, due to an unusual circumstance that Bob told us, in real time, was about to happen as the third period began: There probably won’t be any more penalties called in this game, no matter what.
To quote my game column, which finally made it into Monday’s paper: “For all intents, the referees left early in the third period. Neither team had a power play for the last 89 minutes 42 seconds — almost a normal game and a half. No-sins-barred hockey. Perhaps 100 penalties went uncalled — dozens of them flagrant tackles and slashes. Everybody caught the spirit. Death before dishonor. A half-dozen brawls ended from exhaustion, not intervention. Acts that would bring a jail term anywhere else on a Saturday night were overlooked as afterthoughts.”
I have never seen any game, in any sport, played so far outside the rules or for so long. To a degree that certainly inhibited scoring. But because play was so wild and unconventional, with men constantly out of position, gambling for a game-ender or making a desperate dive to steal the puck because there wouldn’t be a whistle, it seemed that the combo of mayhem and increasing lactic acid produced countless odd-man rushes or loose-puck-in-the-crease alarm bells.
That’s where the NHL’s unpredictable thrill and its puck-luck flaw collide. Don’t tell me that either team really won that Easter Epic in our normal use of the term “win.” After Bryan Trottier tied the score at 2 with about five minutes left in regulation, the Caps hit the post behind Islanders goalie Kelly Hrudey at the end of the first overtime, and the Islanders were denied by iron in the second OT. Even the final LaFontaine goal clanged off the post to Mason’s left — a winning margin of an inch. The Islanders made a dog pile on the ice, not by jumping for joy and falling but just by collapsing on one another.
Sometimes I felt so drained that I sat back, took a deep breath and thought: “Oh, hell, let either of ‘em win. I can’t stay this intense for this long.” And I was young then and at that point only watching.
When it ended, you had to see the postgame damage to believe it. Sugar Ray Leonard had just beaten Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the middleweight title 12 days before in Las Vegas. As I wrote at the time, Stevens, the Caps defenseman, had far more bruises on his face than those two fighters combined.
“It just doesn’t seem right,” Stevens said. “When we were up three games to one, I never thought it would come to this."
To this day, that Caps-Islanders insanity in the Patrick Division semifinals is the longest Game 7 in Stanley Cup playoff history. There wasn’t a longer series-deciding playoff game until 2008 — by 16 seconds — but that was “only” a Game 6.
“It’s a shame one team has to lose,” Pollin said around midnight.
After it ended, Caps coach Bryan Murray flipped that phrase into a perfect postmortem malaprop: “Everybody tried so damn hard. It’s a shame somebody had to win.”
What are we missing this spring? The chance to watch the most ridiculously exciting event in pro sports: the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially a Game 7.
And, just once, until 1:58 in the morning.
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