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Meet some NHL procrastinators who have prospered

Friday, 04.04.2008 / 9:00 AM / 2008 Countdown to the Cup Coverage

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer


For the past two years Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals have missed the playoffs. It may take till the last game of the season for the Caps to clinch a playoff spot. Ovechkin highlights
For the past two years, Alex Ovechkin has gotten a start on planning his summer vacation earlier than expected. As wonderful as that may sound to a teacher or lawyer, or even a hockey writer, it's not exactly the ideal scenario for a professional hockey player.
   
If for nothing else, the fact that Ovechkin still has no clue when his summer will begin, let alone what he will eventually see or do during the hot months, has made this season's frantic finish one for the Washington Capitals 60-goal scorer to savor.

"The last two years we were thinking about vacation, we were not thinking about the playoffs," Ovechkin said. "Right now, we have a great chance to move forward, to take one step forward and be in that spot."

That spot is eighth, or seventh, or even possibly third in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But if the Capitals are to get there, it's possible it won't be official until the final day of the regular season.

It wouldn't be the first time that has happened in the NHL. And it won't be the last. But this season it appears to be as close to a certainty as ever, considering there are still a handful of teams jockeying for the final playoff berths in each conference.
   
The expansion-era NHL has a history of this kind of final-day frenzy, and it's just as entertaining and intense as any playoff game. For some teams, the last day of the regular season can be seen as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

It was for these teams …

2007: New York Islanders
   
Brendan Witt remembers sitting on the very edge of his chair in a restaurant last April. He was with his Islanders teammates and they were watching, hoping, cringing, salivating, and screaming as the Toronto-Montreal game unfolded on the television screen in front of them.
   
The Islanders' season was hanging in the balance. If the Canadiens beat the Maple Leafs that night, April 7, the Islanders' dramatic playoff push would end before their final regular-season game against New Jersey the following afternoon.
   
"It was nerve-wracking," said Witt, whose team won three in a row just to get a sniff at a postseason berth in the last weekend of the regular season. "You're hoping Toronto could do us a favor and we would be in control of our own destiny after that."

The Maple Leafs did, but for themselves, not the Islanders.

By beating Montreal, 6-5, thanks to a pair of early third-period goals from Bryan McCabe and Kyle Wellwood, the Leafs kept their slim playoff hopes alive. Now, they needed help from the Devils the following afternoon.

With a New Jersey win in the Meadowlands, Toronto was headed to the playoffs. With an Islanders win, the New Yorkers were on to the postseason.

This was pulse-pounding drama. This was playoff hockey days before the curtain would go up on the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This was the singular reason why all 82 games matter.
   
"That's when every shift is crucial, and everything you do on the ice is under a microscope," Witt said. "You enjoy those moments because they bring you back to being a kid in a hockey tournament and trying to get into the final."
   
This time, Witt's team made the dance.

Thanks to former third-string goalie Wade Dubielewicz, the Islanders beat the Devils, 3-2, in a shootout, triggering a wild on-ice celebration and one giant and collective sigh of relief on the Islanders bench.

"We didn't lose any hope," Witt said.

1990: New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers

By beating the Toronto Maple Leafs, 6-3, in the penultimate game of the season, the Islanders gave themselves a chance at the playoffs on the final day of the season.

Pittsburgh had 72 points and the Islanders and Philadelphia were tied with 71. The Flyers were headed to Nassau Coliseum to close out the season.

"Every day we were counting points," Islanders great Bryan Trottier said. "It really became fun because it was a team thing. It had everyone's attention."

The Islanders eliminated the Flyers with a 6-2 drubbing. They retreated to their locker room and glued their eyes to the Penguins-Sabres matchup, which was headed into overtime.

The moment Buffalo defenseman Uwe Krupp's long slap shot found its way through a partial screen and into the net, one of the loudest roars to ever come out of Nassau Coliseum blared through the old arena's walls.

The Islanders' 73 points were good enough. They were playoff-bound.

"All of Long Island could hear the cheer from our locker room," Trottier said. "It was a seeing-eye puck and (Krupp) got pretty good wood on it. It went through three or four bodies and a partial screen and found its way into the net.

"It was not a delayed reaction. Every eyeball saw it go over the goal line and hit the back of the net. Damn if lady luck didn't smile on us."

1988: New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers


John MacLean who was a member of the 1987-88 Devils, is now an assistant coach with the team.
Any Devils' fan from the late 1980s remembers April 3, 1988. The Devils had to win at Chicago Stadium that day to clinch their first postseason berth in franchise history.

But to get that chance New Jersey had to win four straight before arriving in Chicago just to stay in the race with the Rangers for the final spot in the Patrick Division playoffs.

The rivals were deadlocked with 80 points apiece entering the last day, and while the Devils were in Chicago, the Rangers were in Quebec, finishing off a 3-0 win before New Jersey's game even started.

What the Rangers did mattered little to the Devils, who held the tiebreaker against their cross-river rival with two more victories. All New Jersey had to do was win and it was in.

"I had a feeling that we were going to win," said John MacLean, the former Devils forward who is now an assistant coach with the team. "We never thought that we weren't going to win. We never thought of what we weren't going to do."

The Devils were down a goal midway through the third period when MacLean scored the tying goal. Two minutes into overtime, he netted the winner, and the Devils spilled onto the ice for what was then the biggest win in franchise history.

"The chemistry on the team was right for that situation," MacLean said.

The celebration continued all the way until Game 7 of the Wales Conference Finals when the Cinderella story ended a game short of the Cup Final after a loss to Boston.

"Around the NHL, people still talk about the '88 run" ex-Devil defenseman Joe Cirella said. "I think people continue to believe in that sort of stuff. That's one of those fairy tales."

1970: New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens

The Blueshirts were in a dead-heat with the Canadiens on the final day of the regular season, but they were clear underdogs, too. The Rangers needed to not only beat Detroit in the afternoon, but score five more goals than Montreal in the process.

The tie-breaker at the time was goal-differential, and the Habs held a big lead until April 5, the final day of the season. They were playing in Chicago later that night.

The Rangers, though, torched Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier for nine goals, firing off 65 shots, which remains a team record. They had five goals by the 20-second mark of the second period when Rod Gilbert scored his second of the afternoon.

If New York didn't score again, they would need Chicago goalie Tony Esposito to blank the Habs that night. Esposito led the NHL with 15 shutouts, but the Rangers didn't leave anything to chance.

They won, 9-5, and coach Emile Francis even pulled goalie Eddie Giacomin four times in the final four minutes with the hope of scoring more goals for a bigger cushion.

New York didn't need it.

The nine goals held up as Montreal mustered only two against Esposito. Habs coach Claude Ruel even pulled his goalie with nine minutes left hoping the 6-on-5 advantage would help the Habs get the three more goals they needed.

Chicago scored five instead and rolled to a 10-2 win.

 "It was like we won the Stanley Cup," Francis said in the book, Game of My Life, Memorable Stories from Rangers Hockey.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.



Quote of the Day

I downplayed the first one because I thought it's just a hockey game. We just want to win the game; it's against our rival and we want the two points. I downplayed it, but now having gone through the first one I look back and say, 'Geez, that was really cool.' I think as I've grown a bit older I've got a lot more appreciation for what we're allowed to do every day.

— Capitals forward Brooks Laich on the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, the second one of his career after 2011 in Pittsburgh