Greatest Playoff Game (NHL)

The history of the National Hockey League is filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of classic, unforgettable playoff games. Our choice for the Greatest Regular Season Game was a simple task indeed, but that’s not the case here. When it comes to the NHL Playoffs, nothing is simple. For some teams it’s a reality check and they’re brushed aside with ease. For others it’s a grueling endurance test that culminates with a Stanley Cup victory. But in between these two extremes lies the majority of playoff games, those between two teams simply fighting tooth and nail to prevent their season from coming to an end. It’s here that you’ll find some of hockey’s most memorable contests; games defined by bitter rivalries, stars colliding, or an unwillingness to concede. Then there are the rare occasions when a unique cocktail of these ingredients creates a game so compelling that all eyes are upon it. That’s where this contest clocks in.

The Easter Epic. Every true hockey fan knows exactly what game this is. The name itself is a defining aspect of what led this game to be one of the most cherished in hockey lore. However, the name was born purely out of the end result. It does nothing to reveal the intriguing components which led up to the game nor does it truly describe what occurred during the game. To really see what made this game so extraordinary we need to dig beneath the surface of the name and look at everything that took place.

We’ll begin with the prologue. The 1987 Patrick Division Semifinals between the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals was hotly anticipated before the series even began. The two teams had become bitter division rivals ever since the Capitals joined the Patrick Division during the 79/80 season and this would be the fifth year in a row that they would meet up in the playoffs. The Islanders held the series advantage to this point, having won three of the four previous meetings, however the Capitals finally got the monkey off their back with a series sweep the previous season. The Capitals also held home ice advantage this time around, putting the Islanders at a slight disadvantage. To make matters worse, the Islanders would be without Brent Sutter, a key piece of their team during much of the regular season.

Once the series officially got underway the situation quickly became worse for the Islanders. They lost the opening game 4-3 and although they did manage to tie the series at two games apiece with a 3-1 victory the following night, they also lost star winger Mike Bossy for the rest of the series. Now without two of their star players they were easily handled by the Capitals in Games 3 and 4, on home ice no less. The Islanders were now on the brink of elimination and adding insult to injury they would also be without all-star defenseman Denis Potvin from this point on.

However, despite everything being stacked against them, the Islanders had hope. They had battled back late in games all season long and were determined to do so once again. Sure, they were in a hole, but they still had the legendary Bryan Trottier to help dig them out of it. However, it wasn’t Trottier who provided the biggest contributions to forcing Game 7. In Game 5 it was Kelly Hrudey making 40 saves to prevent the relentless Capitals attack from clawing back after the Islanders scored two early goals and went on to win 4-2. In Game 6 it was Pat LaFontaine scoring twice in a five minute span, the second of which proved to be the game winner in a 5-4 final. A seventh and deciding game was next and this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear of Hrudey or LaFontaine.

The buildup to Game 7 was enormous as all of the other First Round matchups had ended by the time the Islanders had tied the series, leaving only them and the Capitals to garner all of the media attention for two straight days. The game would also receive full coverage in both the United States on ESPN and Canada on CBC, giving hockey fans throughout North America a chance to catch the final game in a dramatic confrontation for the ages.

By the time the puck was dropped in Landover, MD on April 18, 1987 the fans for both teams were in a frenzy, especially those in attendance at the Capital Center. This was the most important game in Capitals history to this point and everyone knew it. They had a history of choking away playoff leads and post-season disappointments that they had hoped had been vanquished the prior season. Now they were looking at blowing yet another series to their hated rival.

When action got underway in the first period the Capitals stormed out of the gate, eager to make amends for forcing their fans and themselves to endure a seventh game. This initial period was dominated by the Capitals as they outshot the Islanders three to one, peppering Hrudey with shots. They also led the way physically, punishing the Islanders with aggressive play, most of it coming from Scott Stevens, one of the games fiercest competitors. However, it wasn’t until just under a minute to go in the opening frame that the Capitals finally broke through as their lone sniper Mike Gartner managed to redirect a quick pass off the boards onto Hrudey and then smack home the rebound while being pushed to the ice.

The hometown fans were on their feet and the Capitals took this lead into intermission. Once play resumed in the second period things picked up right where they had left off in the first, with the Capitals carrying the play and taking it to Hrudey. But the Islanders managed to tie the game at the halfway point on a quick shot from Patrick Flatley that fooled Bob Mason, as he was only able to get a piece of it.

However, even with the game now tied this did nothing to hold back the onslaught from the Capitals. They continued to carry the play and forced Hrudey to come up big on numerous occasions to keep the Islanders in the game. One of his best saves of the game occurred soon after the score was tied.

But with time winding down in the second period, Grant Martin single-handedly put the Capitals back on top with a display of pure determination, forcefully checking Randy Boyd off the puck behind the net before quickly carrying it out front and snapping it past Hrudey.

Once again the fans were on their feet and the Capitals took the lead into intermission.  They outshot the Islanders 25 to 10 through 40 minutes, but the game would be more evenly contested in the third. Up by a goal with only a period left to play, the Capitals would now try to hold on with their usual brand of stifling defensive play. This plan would backfire though, as decreasing the intensity of their attack actually resulted in more opportunities for the Islanders and Mason was forced to make some timely saves to preserve the lead.

However, with just under 6 minutes to go in the game, Trottier took a pass heading into the Capitals zone and flicked a quick backhander towards Mason. The legend of the busted equipment was born.

Originally it was thought that a strap had broken on one of Mason’s pads, but Mason himself maintains a story to this day that a rivet broke on his right skate at just this moment, leading to his ankle giving way and being unable to adjust to make the necessary save. Nevertheless, it was simple shot that should have been stopped at this crucial point in the game. Maybe the story is true or maybe it’s simply a way for Mason to cope with the tragedy of it all. Either way, the game was now tied with just over 5 minutes remaining in regulation time. The remainder of the third period was as hectic as one could possibly imagine, but in actuality it was merely a taste of things to come.

60 minutes had come and gone with sudden death overtime finally at hand. Up to this point the referees had largely let the players decide the outcome of the game, only awarding three power play opportunities in total, two to Washington and one to New York. Neither resulted in a goal and the referees clearly did not want to negatively influence the outcome as the majority of calls resulted in a player from each side going off. But now, heading into sudden death, the men in stripes weren’t going to call anything unless it resulted in the near death experience of a player. The whistles were put away.

As for the players, they had battled hard for 60 minutes already and yet the war had only just begun. When the first overtime period finally got underway the action picked up right where it had left off in the third, only better. There was no quit in the players and they all had an extra step to their game. It was as if the game had started over and everyone was refreshed and ready. The action was faster, the scoring chances were better, and the play was uninhibited.

This jolt of energy made quick work for both goaltenders. While the Islanders had been badly outshot during regulation, overtime was a new game and both goalies faced a largely equal onslaught. For every great save that Hrudey made, Mason was equal to the task. One of Mason’s best saves came during the first overtime frame, when Bob Bassen was left wide open in front.

The first overtime period was filled with back-and-forth action such as this, capped off with more timely saves and near misses. The Capitals even rang one off the goal post with a minute to go in the period, but that was as close as either team would get for now.

When play resumed in the second overtime it was once again back to the frantic, fast-paced play we had seen before, only this time with the Capitals having somehow mustered up the will to take it a step further. Maybe they had come to the realization it was now or never. They became relentless, attacking with more force and physically taking it to the Islanders once again. This resulted in more skirmishes, which the referees tried their best to dissipate with offsetting minors. But no player would dare take it too far, as they wouldn’t risk putting their team down a man now.

Despite Washington’s inspired play in the second overtime, it would be the Islanders who would come closest to ending it, hitting a post of their own. But if not for Hrudey they certainly never would have pushed it to a third overtime.

The third overtime period featured yet another momentum shift, as now the Islanders were pressing, led by multiple scoring chances from LaFontaine. But as play lingered on both teams began to show signs of tiring, resulting in instances of sloppy play and chances born out of mistakes rather than creativity. Nonetheless, this did nothing to decrease the tension and suspense. If anything it made it even worse, as fans were glued to their seats just hoping that their team didn’t make the fatal mistake that would end their season. By the time the third overtime period ended this was now the longest NHL game since 1951.

That brings us to the fourth and final overtime period in this spectacular game. The players had now played what amounts to two full regulation games in the span of 120 minutes. Looking at it from a series perspective, this was no longer a 7 game series, nor even an 8 game series. The fourth overtime period would essentially be the beginning of Game 9. The length of the game wasn’t just taking its toll on the players and fans, it was also causing the media to act a little stranger than usual.

The goalies too couldn’t possibly take much more of this. Hrudey and Mason had put together a goaltending display for the ages, but how much longer could they last? By now they must have felt like they were carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, both physically and emotionally. Their equipment was soaked with far more sweat than ever before and the mental anguish to keep it together must have been excruciating. Thankfully Hrudey would only have to stop one more shot on this night, but Mason did not receive the same benefit.

The Islanders were once again the better team when play resumed in the final period. Maybe it was because the Capitals had burnt themselves out from carrying the majority of the play through 120 minutes. Or maybe it was because the Islanders were used to playing with such little hope of winning. No one knows for sure, but whatever it was it resulted in the Islanders getting the chances early and finally breaking through when Gord Dineen, the unlikeliest of defensemen, pinched in from the point to keep the play alive, circled the Washington goal, and attempted to wrist a shot towards the net, only for it to ricochet back towards the blue line.

It wasn’t the kind of shot you would ever see LaFontaine make again. He simply spun around and fired off a weak slapshot of a rolling puck in hopes of it getting on goal. Mason, screened in front, never saw it coming and the puck somehow found the post and the back of the net.

The Islanders players piled on to the ice. They were exhausted and overcome with emotion. Some of them went to LaFontaine, the hero of the moment, while others went to Hrudey, the savior of the game. The scene played out oddly, as the Capitals were clearly disappointed, yet at the same time you could almost see a sense of relief on their faces. The hometown fans too were shocked to see their squad lose, largely quiet among the sparse cheers coming from small patches of New York fans, but also relieved to finally be able to return home to their beds on what was now the following day, early Easter morning. Some quietly cheered while making their exit, knowing full well that they had just witnessed a classic that could not have happened without the amazing play of their own team, despite the loss. The Islanders players knew this too. The traditional handshakes that followed the end of a series were different this time, as the Islanders were honest in congratulating the Capitals on how well they played. The animosity that fueled this rivalry had been extinguished, at least for the time being, as even the fiery Billy Smith, famous for avoiding handshakes in the past, joined his teammates this time.

Unlike the prologue and the game itself, the epilogue to this tale isn’t particularly interesting or noteworthy. The Capitals playoff run ended with yet another quick exit, while the Islanders went on to face the Flyers in the Patrick Division Finals, only to fall behind three games to one yet again before fighting back once more to force Game 7. Only this time the hockey Gods did not look kindly upon the Islanders, allowing the Flyers to decisively win Game 7 by a score of 5-1, effectively putting an end to their season as well.

In longer terms, the rivalry between the Capitals and Islanders slowly died down from here, as it wasn’t until 1993 that they would meet again in the playoffs. It was another opening round matchup and a close, hard-fought series, but again the Islanders came out on top in 6 games. They haven’t faced off in the playoffs since. The divisional realignment before the start of the 98/99 season was the final nail in the coffin, as the Capitals were moved to the Southeast Division. A once great rivalry was no more.

Thus concludes the story of the Easter Epic. It may not have secured a Stanley Cup victory, nor even a stepping stone towards one, but it certainly captured the hearts and minds of the entire hockey world. There have been longer games, games involving greater star power, games between more bitter rivals, and numerous other sudden death overtime Game 7’s, but no game can top the Easter Epic’s perfect combination of anticipation and execution. That it’s fondly remembered by even Capitals fans is a testament to its everlasting appeal.