Major league hockey often becomes so intensely physical that it's been likened to a war-game on ice.
This certainly would be an apt description of the 1993 opening playoff round involving the Islanders and Washington Capitals.
"We certainly didn't think the Capitals would be a soft touch," said Pierre Turgeon, the Isles scoring demon. "We knew that they had tough players on defense -- and offense."
Of all the D.C. threats, the most versatile was captain Dale Hunter. His scoring abilities were as evident as his stick work -- low-sticking and high.The Islanders man-with-the-C, Patrick Flatley could vouch for that.
Taking a face-off against Hunter, Flatley's head did an unwanted somersault after Hunter butt-ended him in the eye. Luckily, Patrick lost neither his eye nor complete vision although for a time he hardly could see out of the injured optic.
After medics stitched him up, the club's leader returned to action and proved an inspiration at a most appropriate time for his colleagues.
Leading the series two games to one, the Nassaumen mistook the start of Game Four for Nap Time, falling behind, 3-0. Yet their abilities to rise and shine remained and soon they continued to extract victory from haplessness.
They tied the match forcing overtime once more. Defying the Law of Averages -- well, you can't win every single OT game -- Al Arbour's indomitable band of skaters pushed the Caps into a second extra session.
By now Washington's defenders had marked Ray Ferraro as the most dangerous overtime Islander and did a reasonably good blanketing job on the Trail, British Columbia sniper during the first sudden death session.
But less than five minutes into the second OT Ferraro somehow eluded his checkers and found himself alone in the slot. Better still, Claude Loiselle's radar picked up Ray, who sent a pass and Ferraro swatted home the wafer at 4:46.
While analyzing a three-games-to-one Islanders advantage in the tournament, an onlooker might have uttered a "Series over" conclusion. Three straight overtime losses could have discouraged a lesser team than Washington.
Not the Caps.
Terry Murray's outfit reached the playoffs because it was good. The Caps hammered home the point in Game Five at Landover with large defenseman Al Iafrate leading the way with a three-goal virtuoso performance.
On the other side, Ferraro scared the Caps a bit with his own private hat trick in the third period to pull his team to within a goal of tying. But there was no miracle-in-the-making this time, in what eventually was a 6-4 Islanders defeat.
Nonetheless, the Isles room now knew that the club needn't depend on Turgeon alone to carry the offense. "This is Ray's season right now," said Derek King.
Much as he appreciated Ferraro's efforts, coach Arbour mounted a high dudgeon after Iafrate had torpedoed his ship. For starters, Radar banned all his players but Ferraro from post-game, post-loss conversations with the press.
That bit of business settled, The Bespectacled One castigated Washington defenseman Kevin Hatcher for mistaking his hockey stick for "a double axe."
(Talk about having an axe to grind, Radar did; Hatcher was his target.)
Not done yet, Al suggested -- in less than subdued tones -- that referee Dan Marouelli see an optometrist because of a late penalty the official called on the seemingly innocent Islander Tom Fitzgerald.
Of course Coach Arbour knew that his fillibuster would not change the count. What he was aiming for was a next-game W. Al suggested it could be achieved with a 60-minute effort not a mere third-period burst as in Game Five.
Not surprisingly, the capacity crowd that filled The Coliseum for Game Six was in full agreement with the club's general staff. Flashing "V" for Victory signs as they took their seats, the Islanders faithful were ready for action.
So was the home team.
Having raced to a 4-1 lead in the third period and as dominant as any fan could wish, the Isles sewed up the series when Pierre Turgeon added a fifth goal with eight-and-a-half minutes remaining in regulation time.
As the red goal light flashed and Pierre triumphantly raised his arms, Turgeon was unaware that -- at that very second -- he was being stalked.
Coming up fast behind the Islander, Dale Hunter knew that the series was over and that his team was toast. Hey, it happens in every playoff series and the losers accept the irrevocable defeat and shake hands like sportsmen.
Not this time.
If he couldn't even the score on the Official NHL Board, Hunter decided to even the score on the ice. Dale delivered a blind-sided cheap shot that felled Turgeon with a separated shoulder and concussion.
Stunned to the very core, fans, players and media reacted with a mixture of anger and disgust. So did the Islanders high command. An hour later, his emotions collected, Don Maloney spoke for his team:
"It was a premeditated act to injure a star player. Here's one of the biggest wins in our history, and what are we talking about? It's a crime; it's a disgrace. Hunter is going to have to pay for the damage he's done to this franchise."
The Islanders won the series with a final score of 5-3 yet the victor's dressing room had the aura of a wake. The players knew that no amount of penalty -- cash or games lost -- could replenish an arsenal bereft of its biggest gun.
If further salt could be rubbed into the Isles wound, Hunter did the massaging by feigning innocence and claiming he didn't even know Pierre had scored on the now notorious play.
But the television cameras knew; the on-site NHL officials knew and soon league commissioner -- relatively new on the job -- Gary Bettman would know.
Bettman hit the guilty one with a maximum 21-game suspension and a simple statement that said it all: "No punishment can undo Hunter's actions or erase the competitive loss by the Islanders."
Virtually overlooked was the fact that New York now qualified for the second playoff round and a meeting with the two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Armed with a Turgeon, the Isles would have been posted as distinct underdogs against Mario Lemieux and Company. With Unlucky Pierre sidelined indefinitely, Newsday's Jim Smith predicted that Pitt would win four straight!
Few disagreed with him.
Those precious few who dissented against Smith's opinion happened to be camped in the Islanders dressing room!
LISTS: FOUR BITTER-SWEETS TO TAKE FROM THE WIN OVER WASHINGTON:
1. BITTER BLOW: Cries for Dale Hunter's scalp were as loud as those demanding his lifetime banishment. But the damage was done. Turgeon had to play a waiting game, hoping for a quick recovery.
2.. SWEET VICTORY: No matter how you shake it, the Islanders moved on to a second round; the Caps played golf.
3. BITTER PUNISHMENT: Commissioner Bettman's 21-game suspension of Hunter was deemed inadequate by some Met Area critics. The league office replied that by NHL rules Bettman was limited to doling out a max of 21 games.
4. SWEET REVENGE: Minus Turgeon, the already underdog Isles adopted an Us-Against-The World strategy believing that the best revenge would be a victory over champ Pittsburgh.