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Maven's Memories: The Easter Epic Pt. 1

The first of Stan Fischler's three-part series on one of the greatest Islander games ever played

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com

The game took six hours and 16 minutes to play. 

It began on a Saturday and finished on Sunday. Easter Sunday, April 18-19, 1987, to be exact.

There has never been a National Hockey League game quite like it; never. 

Since the NHL's inception in 1917 some thousands of contests have been played; thousands. And out of this mass of outcomes The Hockey News rated The Easter Epic the "Second Greatest Game" ever played.

This was Game Seven of an Islanders-Capitals first round tug-of-war to finally be settled at Capital Centre in suburban Landover, Maryland.

"The marathon contest was chock full of memorable moments," wrote Adam Proteau in The Hockey News, "from the goalie whose broken skate could have prevented it all to the broadcaster who had to be told to put his clothes back on."

Anticipating a classic encounter, members of the print and electronic journalistic fraternity poured into Capital Centre for the morning skate.

"I couldn't believe how many reporters were there," said Pat LaFontaine. "It was only the first round but with all those media people we all knew the spotlight was on us. Maybe they were expecting some surprises."

The respective coaches, rookie Terry Simpson for the Isles and Bryan Murray on the other side worked over game plans trying to outwit each other.

One surprise was Simpson's gamble on Kelly Hrudey in goal rather than his proven clutch playoff stopper, Bill Smith, winner of four Stanley Cups and a future Hall of Famer.

Hrudey: "I could hear the sigh of relief from the Capitals and their fans when the announcer said I'd be in goal. I understood how hated Smitty was by Washington. I knew the fans didn't come to see the back-up goalie -- me!"

Video: 1984 Round 1, Gm7: LaFontaine nets historic 4OT goal

The game started innocently enough with each team trying to figure the other; like a couple of championship boxers in the opening round. Hrudey played well until Caps sharpshooter Mike Gartner beat him late in the first period.

Bob Mason, who played so well against the Islanders for most of the season, stopped the visitors cold in the opening frame. Minus captain Denis Potvin and sharpshooter Mike Bossy, the Isles managed to stay close. 

Just past the midway point in the middle period, Patrick Flatley beat Mason on passes from Bryan Trottier and defenseman Steve Konroyd.

"The game already was shaping up big-time," said Caps right Lou Franceschetti. "By this time we had a really good rivalry with the Islanders."

When the Caps moved ahead with 75 seconds left in the second period, it appeared as if Mason and his solid defenders led by Kevin Hatcher and Scott Stevens could cement the lead.

And so they did until a freak event turned the tide with less than six minutes remaining in the third period and Washington still ahead 2-1.

The Islanders attack seemed rudimentary enough as Alan Kerr churned over the enemy blue line flanked by Trottier. After Kerr skimmed the biscuit to Trots, Bryan skated around Hatcher and released a backhand shot.

To all among the 18,130 in the crowd it was an eminently stoppable thrust. What nobody in the building -- not even Trottier -- knew was that Mason had only one good skate. As Trots shot, a key rivet on the heel snapped. 

Mason lamented his fate in an interview with Adam Proteau of The Hockey News: "When the rivet snapped," Mason remembered, "my right ankle gave way and the puck hit both pads and ended up going in.

"We couldn't put in (back-up) Pete Peeters 'cause he was cold the whole game. Meanwhile, the equipment guy went in to fix my skate. For the last five minutes of the third period, I was out there with one good skate."

Trots' goal was an enormous resuscitator for Simpson's sextet. "Washington had taken it to us physically," said Kerr. "It was a whole new game and we felt that we had the Caps right where we wanted them."

Regulation play ended with the score 2-2. Mason had his skate fixed and the teams skated out for the first overtime. Washington had the better of the offense but Hrudey would only bend and not break.

"At times we were sloppy in our own end," noted defenseman Steve Konroyd, "but Kelly kept bailing us out. Mason was good, too. By the second OT the puck just have looked like a basketball to them."

Video: LaFontaine reminisces about 4OT Easter Epic game

Simpson remained cool, calm and collected behind the visitors bench. His aide, Bob Nystrom, viewed the ongoing epic a bit differently.

Nystrom: "There were so many scoring chances. After a while I found myself just smiling and laughing a lot. I knew we were all part of something special. It was almost absurd how many times it looked like either team would score."

Referee Andy Van Hellemond was determined not to have the game decided by a chintzy penalty. The first period elapsed with no score and nobody sent to the sin bin. Caps coach Bryan Murray intercepted Stand-B referee Kerry Fraser.

Murray: "Kerry; are there going to be any blankety-blank penalties called tonight?"

Fraser: "Unless there's a murder out there, there's not going to be a call."

There were no murders out there for the second overtime but Van Hellemond made sure the penalties were even, almost -- two and two minors with a misconduct for Washington's Greg Adams.

Caps fans felt secure in the knowledge that their team had a 15-5 shot advantage in the first period. This uneven exchange continued into the extra sessions but Hrudey held fast. Then again, so did Mason. 

The decisive question was simple enough: who would crack first in the second overtime?


LISTS: THE QUARTET WHO KEPT THE ISLANDERS ALIVE THROUGH REGULATION PLAY:

1 KELLY HRUDEY: After the Capitals scored two goals, Bill Smith's understudy shut the door on Washington; allowing his forwards to tie the game.

2. PATRICK FLATLEY: Once Washington got on the scoreboard it was imperative that someone had to put the Visitors on the board. Flats came through to tie the count 1-1.

3. BRYAN TROTTIER: Without his sidekick Mike Bossy, Trots had to play his 200-foot game. Trots was solid on attack and defense scoring the tying goal when all seemed lost.

4. TERRY SIMPSON: Under-staffed and with two future Hall of Famers -- Potvin and Bossy -- sidelined with injuries, the rookie coach still managed to juggle his lines and keep his team in the game.

(NEXT WEEK: PART TWO: HOW HRUDEY PLAYED THE GAME OF HIS LIFE -- WITH SOME HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS.)

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