Classic Puck Written Review: The Easter Epic
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My father once told me that at first, it was a case of “Hell, let’s just throw this on for a while and see if anything cool happens.” He was at his family home in Hamilton for Easter weekend before heading back to Waterloo to finish up his third-year university exams. It was Saturday evening, the 18th of April, 1987. Little did he know that the significance of this game is what probably contributed to his lacklustre grades.
The den to the left at the end of the hall of my grandparents’ home had a cozy couch with a 25’inch screen box television. Nothing much was really happening aside from the occasional spurt of studying, so he’d procrastinate by tuning into Game 7 of the first round playoff series between the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals.
It was the only NHL game of the evening; every other series had wrapped up. Between 1982 to 1993, the playoff format was arranged in a very similar fashion to how this year’s quest to the Stanley Cup will play out.
The top four teams from each of the four divisions square off throughout the first two rounds (1 v 4 and 2 v 3, with the winners facing each other) until the true division champion emerges to compete in the Conference Finals. It still required the usual four playoff round triumphs to grasp Stanley’s hips.
This season, however, was the first playoff season in which the first round was a best 4 out of 7 series. Previously, it has been a best 3 out of 5 clash, though the league extended it to match the rest of the playoff format, as too many ‘upsets’ occurred given the shortened round.
The Islanders and Capitals made up the Patrick Division, along with the Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, and Devils. It was the only division to have six teams, whereas the other divisions only had five. Nevertheless, the odds of making the playoffs were 66.7%, and at the time, the Penguins were still rebuilding with a young Mario Lemieux, and the Devils were absolute shit.
The Capitals finished second in the division to the juggernaut Flyers, posting a record of 38-32-10. The Islanders finished close behind by only four points, going 35-33-12. Neither record was overwhelmingly impressive, but this matchup was turning into an annual affair, as both teams had faced each other in each of the previous four seasons.
They originally met in the first round of 1983, and the Islanders made quick work en route to their fourth consecutive Cup conquest. The following two years, they bested their division foes from Maryland again, winning the series 4-1 in the second round of 1984 and narrowly winning 3-2 in the first round of 1985.
However, Washington finally enacted some revenge by winning their first series against their Long Island adversaries, sweeping them in 1986 for the Isles’ earliest playoff exit in franchise history.
That set the stage for Game 7 of the fifth playoff series between the two clubs. The Capital Centre hosted the first two battles, which saw the teams split one game apiece. At the Nassau Coliseum, Capitals goaltender Bob Mason shut out the Islanders 2-0, and then stymied all but one shot in Game 4 as the Capitals hoped to wrap up the series in 5 back home.
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However, it was Islanders goaltender Kelly Hrudey (yep, the Hockey Night in Canada analyst) who shone, keeping the dream alive. Game 6 was a thriller as both teams had a flurry of amazing chances with the Islanders coming away the winners, 5-4. As mentioned above, this was the only first round series to require a 7th and deciding game, so Bob Cole and Harry Neale had all of Canada in their grasp. Those who decided to tune in would be in for a long night.
The 18,130 capacity crowd in the Capital Centre was raucous, and the Capitals had a swagger about them during warmup that indicated that they would not be denied. The Islanders, on the other hand, had been in this situation before: the last team to have come back from a 3-1 series deficit, was in fact, themselves.
They were only the second team to ever trail a series 3-0 and win four consecutive games to win, having done this in 1975 against the Penguins. Also, their 1985 series win over the Capitals came after having lost the first two games, only to win the series clincher in the same barn in which this game would transpire. The Flyers awaited the winner, feeling fresh after disposing of the Rangers in six games.
At 7:30pm, as my dad settled in for a bit of hockey before he returned to his studies, the puck was dropped. Right from the get-go, it appeared as though both teams wanted to jump out to an early lead, and then do whatever it took to protect it. Bodies were flying, the forechecking was feisty, and both goaltenders were poised. Cole and Neale gave their opinions on how they imagined the game would emerge, and overtime was a word that was never mentioned.
The Capitals boasted a lineup with sniper Mike Gartner, and three eventual Hall of Fame defenseman; captain Rod Langway, Larry Murphy, and the hard-hitting Scott Stevens, who was just 23 years-old. Stevens had logged nearly 30+ minutes of ice time throughout the series, and tonight would be no exception.
The Islanders, meanwhile, only had two Hall of Famers active for the game, those being Bryan Trottier and Pat LaFontaine (Hall of Fame goaltender Billy Smith was on the bench as Hrudey’s backup, Denis Potvin was constantly battling nagging injuries, and scoring sensation Mike Bossy missed most of the series with back and knee issues).
Referee Andy van Hellemond and linesman John D’Amico were also future enshrined members amongst the action. Van Hellemond had a mishap with his whistle five minutes into the contest, requiring a brief delay to have it replaced. He would definitely be using that whistle much more frequently than expected for a series-clinching playoff hockey game.
The Capitals were by far the superior team in the 1st period. Hrudey made a sequence of sensational saves, much to the ire of the crowd. Mason had a much quieter first stanza, but made a wonderful save with the left pad on Bob Bassen who one-timed a bullet in the high slot.
The firewagon era of high scoring in the 1980s made it appear that goals were imminent, but it took nineteen minutes of game time for the first goal to materialize. To no surprise, it was Gartner of Washington who managed to poke home a loose puck in the crease that Hrudey nearly had covered off of a centring pass from Greg Adams. The team who scored first went on to win each of the first six games. Shots on goal during the first period favoured Washington, 15-5.
The 2nd period began with a flurry of action that tickles me silly. Scott Stevens levelled Patrick Flatley with one of his patented weak-side open-ice hits, which led to a Gartner 2-on-0 breakaway that Hrudey brilliantly denied with the faintest of touches. What a beauty hit; clean, forceful, and majestic. “Boy, when he hits you…. You are hit,” very aptly put by Bob Cole.
The Capitals still had all the momentum and most of the puck possession was in the Islanders zone. However, the Isles finally woke up and managed to equalize thanks to Flatley. Mason had been cold, seeing very little action, which did not bode well for him as Flately’s relatively weak wrister from thirty feet out squeezed between Mason’s legs and into the back of the cage.
Later in the period, Cole and Neale gave the first notion that the players are probably feeling some fatigue, having pushed this series to the max, as well as pushing the gas pedal down throughout the first thirty-five minutes. Boy, what an astute statement that would turn out to be.
The big-time players had come out to play, but in crucial games, often the lesser known 3rd or 4th line skaters have the ability to leave their mark. Grant Martin had just been called up to the Capitals lineup that morning from Binghamton, having played only forty-four NHL games over the course of his four-year career.
He found himself on the ice in the corner to Hrudey’s left battling for the puck with Randy Boyd. Martin, who greatly lacked speed, contributing to his constant up and downs from the AHL, put a firm shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Boyd, knocking him down. Martin then had a few feet of space to kick the puck to his stick and saunter out in front of the goal to slot home the puck and put Washington back up 2-1. It was the only NHL goal of his career, and boy was it critical.
I reckon my dad thought he may as well see the outcome through; hell, the Caps could hold on and advance to the next round. All it took was twenty more minutes of conservative hockey. Shots at that point were 25-10 for Washington, so things seemed to be in order for them to close this out.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Stevens continued to dish out forceful hits, the teams traded possession with spurts of aggressive forechecking, and various scrums would break out after a whistle, though Van Hellemond smartly let the lads play. Lou Franceschetti intentionally bumped into Hrudey while the latter scooped up a loose puck, which left the Islanders’ goaltender woozy. He would shake off the collision by making another eleven saves in the period.
With just under 5:40 remaining in regulation time, the Capitals got a little caught up in a line change as the Islanders brought the puck up to the neutral zone. Steve Konroyd’s rink-wide pass to Alan Kerr gave captain Trottier a little room to receive a pass just inside the Capitals’ blueline, where he had the angle on Kevin Hatcher and beat Mason with a low back-hand between the goaltender’s legs. 2-2.
You would think that the defensive play would tighten up a bit, but both teams wanted to come away with the win in regulation time, as this would be a series-winning goal for either club. Gaeten Duschene had a point-blank shot coolly kicked aside by Hrudey, Larry Murphy had a shot from the point tipped just wide, Dave Christian hit the post with several bodies piled in front, and then the Islanders went down the ice and had significant chances themselves.
What a game! The buzzer finally sounded and sure enough, the inaugural first round series to require a 7th game would also require overtime.
Neale predicted that both coaches would roll with their top two lines for the first several minutes, assuming it would be a short extra stanza. Lo and behold, Mike Gartner had an amazing opportunity to win the game immediately, taking a pass all alone while streaking to the net, but the puck bounced over his stick before he could backhand a shot past Hrudey.
The Capitals remained the more aggressive team, having ample chances to close out the series. The Islanders could only muster a few shots scattered throughout the frame, relying too heavily on Hrudey, who the Capitals hoped would run out of luck.
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Mason produced his most important save, once again on Bassen, who was sprung scot-free, much like Gartner at the beginning of the period. Mason, a right-handed catcher, nabbed the puck and fell back on his rear end, smart enough to hold his arm out to ensure the puck wouldn’t cross the line as his momentum carried him backwards.
The exact same event occurred a few short moments later, this time on Duane Sutter. Washington’s Greg Smith then sizzled a howitzer off the post, the loud clang of iron not nearly as loud as the deafening wail that followed from the invested crowd.
It seemed as though every good chance came from a brief lapse in back-checking. Players would sneak in for an uncontested shot, but the goaltenders remained savvy. The horn sounded on the 1st overtime period and the crowd, as well as my father, knew this was a rare and special night. No time for studying. Somebody had ordered a pizza to the Islanders dressing room, players more than happy to chow down before the action resumed.
The 2nd overtime period began at 11:45pm, and both teams evidently began to show significant fatigue. Hrudey continued to stay sharp, thwarting each of the carefully crafted Capitals chances. It was his busiest period, as he had to turn aside 17 shots, while the Islanders managed to test Mason with only 9.
The quick bursts of speed that a fresh player would expel were then followed by longer, tedious, slower sequences. Towards the middle of the period, the clock hit midnight, thus it was now Easter Sunday.
Van Hellemond and his linesmen weren’t shy about using their whistles, as close offside calls were blown down, and offset penalties continued to be enforced. Scrums often broke out after several bodies tangled up in front of either net. Mason had his mask knocked off during a spell of activity in front, and Greg Adams even took a misconduct penalty late in the frame for instigating nearly every Islander on the ice after a stoppage.
And it went on. The horn sounded again with no victor, and it was the first game in sixteen years to require a 3rd overtime. What a rarity. The tides slowwwwly began to turn in the 3rd OT, as the Islanders gathered some momentum and outshot the Capitals for the first time throughout the contest. Shoulders sagged on the bench, players’ eyes were puffy. The crowd was still engaged, but some appeared to doze off as the battle continued.
Mikko Makela had a great chance that most of the spectators didn’t even process, as the shot slipped just wide while Mason sprawled. It became likely that the winning goal could be a grimy one; at this stage, it would be so gutting to be eliminated after such a glorious display.
Yet, the game would require a 4th overtime, the first in the NHL since Maurice Richard played hero against the Red Wings in 1951. It was well past 1:30am; the hell with exams, my dad thought! Cole kept viewers informed on where the game stood in terms of longevity as the minutes ticked along.
Players were absolutely gassed. The game slowed substantially as whoever had the puck tried to outwit the entire defence unsuccessfully. The crowd was reduced to a murmur, but the occasional burst of action in front of the net brought some oooos and aaaas as the patrons were treated to two full games plus however much more.
As Hrudey turned aside his 73rd save, Cole announced it was now the fifth longest game in league history. As if right on cue, it happened.
Islanders defenceman Gord Dineen pinched in a bit and took possession of a loose puck. He began to circle behind the Caps’ net, hoping for the clutter of bodies in front to set up a decent screen on Mason. As he wheeled out approaching the slot, he let a wrist shot go, which was easily deflected and began to trickle back out to the point. Twenty-two year-old Pat LaFontaine was covering for Dineen at the point and turned to keep the puck in the zone on his backhand.
Fuck it, why not have a go? Having kept the puck in, he wheeled around to take a slapshot, making contact cleanly before he was really square to the goal. Rod Langway haphazardly sauntered forward to cut down the angle, but the effort in the 4th overtime wasn’t on par with what he was capable of during regulation. LaFontaine’s bullet sizzled past everyone, off the post to Mason’s left, and in. It was finally all over.
LaFontaine inexplicably still had the energy to jump around maniacally (chalk it up to adrenaline, I suppose) while he was mobbed by half his Islander teammates. Mason collapsed to one knee, with no Capitals consoling him for the better part of fifteen seconds. Hrudey flailed his arms above his head and was embraced by the other half of the squad. He had faced 75 shots, whereas Mason faced 57. It was 1:58 in the morning.
It was at the time, the longest game since 1943, and would remain the longest between then and 1996, when a game between Pittsburgh and (wouldn’t you believe it) Washington eclipsed it by eleven minutes. It remains the eleventh longest game in league history, and still holds the title of longest Game 7 ever played.
The Islanders would face Philadelphia in the next round, and once again found themselves down 3-1 in the series, summoning the incredible ability to fend off elimination and force a seventh game. However, this time their luck would finally run out as the Flyers took the series and went all the way to the Cup Finals, losing to the Oilers.
It was a glorious moment in the Hall of Fame career of LaFontaine, who remained in Long Island for four more seasons before moving on to Buffalo and challenging for the Hart and Art Ross trophies. Hrudey would go on to start several seasons for the Los Angeles Kings, nearly bringing them Cup glory in 1993. Trottier added two more Cups in Pittsburgh to the four he had earned with the Islanders.
As for the standout Washington core, Mason would sign with the Blackhawks in the offseason, though he would return to the Capitals for a one-year stint in 1989-90. Murphy would have stops in Minnesota, Pittsburgh (winning two Cups), Toronto, and Detroit (winning another two Cups). Gartner would score 700+ goals in his career, notching 30+ in seventeen of his nineteen seasons. Langway would continue to play helmetless in Washington until 1993, and Stevens prematurely ended the careers of several stars through 2004, collecting three Cups in New Jersey.
The Easter Epic turns thirty-four today, an unorthodox anniversary to celebrate, yet still, one that shouldn’t be forgotten in ice hockey lore. Big hits, gargantuan saves, some tidy goals, enormous fatigue, and dire consequences for our ancestors who refused to study until the game concluded.