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Don't assume anything in the playoffs

Friday, 05.02.2008 / 5:00 PM / Off the Wall

By Evan Weiner - NHL.com Correspondent


Home ice didn't help the Pens in 1993 when they lost to the Islanders.
The Pittsburgh Civic Arena, now known as Mellon Arena, was not built with sports in mind when it opened on September 19, 1961.

The arena was supposed to have been the permanent home of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Company and house theatrical performances. In the summer, the retractable roof was to open so that patrons could enjoy an evening of opera or theater under the stars or under the roof in the event of rain. The opera company's directors pushed to build the arena, which opened without a name, because too many performances were rained upon when the company used Pitt Stadium at the University of Pittsburgh.

As it turned out, the acoustics at the new opera house were awful, and the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera company relocated to the Benedum Center in 1968 which meant that the building was free for sports. In 1967, the Pittsburgh Penguins joined the NHL, and the Pittsburgh Pipers were part of the newly formed American Basketball Association and both called the Civic Arena home.

With that in mind, perhaps it is understandable that workers at “The Igloo” (the building resembled an Igloo) might not have understood the very nature of sports contests. Basketball Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins told the story of the ABA Finals in 1968 and how whoever was running the arena didn’t understand the nature of sports. The arena was not going to be ready for a possible Game 7 of the ABA Finals. Hawkins' Pipers were trailing 3-2 in their series with the New Orleans Buccaneers and headed to the Crescent City for a must-win Game 6. Hawkins was injured in Game 4, and Civic Arena employees after the fifth game decided to break up the court, convinced that the basketball season was over. Hawkins told them not to break down the basketball setting as his team would be back for Game 7. Hawkins was right, there would be one more game at the Civic Arena, and the arena crew had to reassemble the place to house the ABA Finals.
 
Hawkins' Pipers won Game 7, proving the Civic Arena’s management and workers wrong.
 
In sports, no one should ever take things for granted. But history repeated itself some 25 years later when the New York Islanders took on the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions Penguins in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series. The Islanders had extended the series to seven games, but workers at the arena thought Game 7 was just a formality, that the Penguins would win and play Montreal in the 1993 Conference Final.
 
The workers were getting ready for Montreal's arrival in Pittsburgh even though there was a seventh game to be played. Penguins players were getting their stuff together for the trip to Montreal for Games 3 and 4 of the next series.
 
"They were literally packing sticks to go to Montreal," said Islanders center Ray Ferraro. "I know because I saw one of their players packing his gear. And he said;  ‘I need these to go to Montreal.’ Apparently they never went to Montreal. I thought, there is a team ... even in Game 7, they are not really too worried about us. We were kind of like just chugging along doing our thing and in the first minute of Game 7, (defenseman) Rich Pilon and Kevin Stevens crashed together behind the net and Kevin had just a terrible injury. They seemed to not recover for a long time and we got out to a lead and it's not like we protected it, I mean we lost the lead, but we ended up getting enough done to win it in overtime."
 
On paper, the 1992-93 Islanders should not have been a difficult opponent for the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins. Pittsburgh had All-Star caliber players Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet, Joe Mullen, Ulf Samuelsson, Larry Murphy, and Tom Barrasso. The Pens finished the year at 56-21-7 with 119 points. The Islanders made the playoffs with a 40-37-7 mark, but the 87 points were good enough for a sixth-place finish. Pittsburgh easily disposed of New Jersey in five games in the opening round, while the Islanders knocked off Washington in six games. But in Game 6, the Islanders lost leading scorer Pierre Turgeon with a shoulder injury after the Caps' Dale Hunter hit him with a cross check while Turgeon was celebrating his third-period goal which just about ended any chance Washington had in Game 6 and the series. Hunter received a 21-game suspension for the hit, the longest in playoff history up to that time, which carried over into the 1993–94 season.
 
Ferraro gained a new found respect for coach Al Arbour, who got the Islanders ready for the Penguins without his best player, Turgeon, available.
 
Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena, home of the Penguins, is nicknamed “The Igloo” because it resembled an Igloo.
"We came out of nowhere there," Ferraro said. "One of Al's greatest strengths as a coach was what we were able to kind of draw on. He made it very clear what your role was and what he expected from you. If you just went out and did it, you would be OK. We had lost Pierre Turgeon, we had lost our best player and we still won."
 
The Islanders, without Turgeon, beat the Penguins in Game 1 at the Igloo, then lost the next two games. New York won Game 4, but lost in Pittsburgh in Game 5 and fell behind 3-2 in the series. The Islanders won at the Nassau Coliseum in Game 6, setting up the Game 7 showdown.
 
"No one gave us a chance, of course," Ferraro said. "I don't know that we felt we had a chance, but Al, whether we had Pierre there or not, just kept coaching. It didn't matter. We never talked about Pierre because it was something we did not have at that time. We got to Game 7 and literally they were packing, we were just playing. We had a 3-0 lead, they ended up tying it late and I remember Derek King saying on the bench, I was sitting besides him; 'That's a shame.'
 
"And we came in after the intermission and Al said; 'We have one shot to knock off the two-time champions, we would have taken that at the start of the series.' And then Glenn Healy made a fabulous glove save on Ron Francis, we had a two-on-one and I passed it over to David (Volek) and it was done. And, for me, it was as good moment as I had in professional hockey."
 
It was 5:16 into the overtime that Volek scored
 
Ironically, Islanders General Manger Don Maloney didn't want Volek anymore and was looking to trade the wing.
 
"No, they had been trying to move David, he had some back problems," Ferraro said. "But you know how it goes when your opportunity is there, when the window opens up, jump through it, and David was able to do that."
 
Presumably, the Penguins' equipment guys unpacked the sticks after Volek's goal. Either way, the Islanders players were packed because they were either going home or to Montreal.
 
"We didn't have a choice," said Ferraro about his bags being packed. "We went to Pittsburgh and we were going to Montreal or we were going home. My bags were packed. I was either going home for the season or to Montreal."
 
The Islanders and Penguins have had a long playoff history. In 1975, the Islanders stormed back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Penguins in Game 7 on Eddie Westfall's third-period goal in an Islanders' 1-0 victory at the Igloo. The Islanders became the second team in League history to overcome a 3-0 deficit. Pittsburgh had a 2-1 lead late in Game 5 in the 1982 opening-round series, the Islanders rallied to tie the game and John Tonelli won it in overtime after the Penguins Mike Bullard failed to score on a breakaway. The Islanders won the series and went onto win a third straight Cup.
 
"Funny how that would be," said Ferraro. "There are many different ways that can shake out and for Al (who coached the Islanders in 1975 and 1982) and the Penguins, they seem to overlap."
 
The Islanders went up to Montreal, lost the first two games at the Forum, including a double overtime contest in Game 2 and lost the series in five games. Montreal would win the Cup that season. The 1993 run was Arbour's last real shot at the Stanley Cup.
 
As far as the Igloo workers, there is no word on whether they have heard the words of the philosopher George Santayana, who in 1905 wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
 
In other words, when it comes to sports, never assume an outcome.


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I might have blacked out. I was pretty pumped.

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