Recalling the Easter Epic 25 years on
The New York Islanders celebrate after Pat Lafontaine's overtime winner to cap off the NHL's longest Game 7. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
Recalling the Easter Epic 25 years on
On April 18-19, 1987 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders played the longest Game 7 in NHL history. From the time the first puck was dropped until the game-winner was scored at the 8:47 mark of the fourth overtime, a full six hours and 18 minutes passed. Twenty-five years later, The Hockey News spoke to several people who took part in the game, which is known as the ‘Easter Epic’ because it ended at 1:58 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning. Based on their accounts, here is the story of that memorable night.
PRELUDE TO OVERTIME
PAT LAFONTAINE (ISLANDERS CENTER): Nineteen-eighty-seven was a special year for me. It was the year I got married and against the Capitals in the playoffs, we had come back from a 3-1 deficit in the series just to force a seventh game that night.
LOU FRANCESCHETTI (CAPITALS WINGER): We had such a good rivalry with the Isles at that point. We could never get away from them in the first round of the playoffs and in 1986 we finally eliminated them. For me, Game 7 started as just another game, but we had a long history with the Isles and even though they didn’t have Mike Bossy or Denis Potvin in the lineup that night, we knew we had to be at our best to beat them.
The Capitals badly outplay the Islanders in the first period, outshooting the visitors 15-5 and leading 1-0 entering the first intermission. The teams traded goals in the second period, but Washington continued putting all kinds of pressure on Islanders goalie Kelly Hrudey. Meanwhile, the action got increasingly heated – but veteran referee Andy Van Hellemond was not about to start assessing boatloads of penalties.
GORD DINEEN (ISLANDERS DEFENSEMAN): Van Hellemond’s style was to let the players decide the game, so that’s the way it went. Certainly, when overtime came, he was going to let the players decide the outcome of the game. The only thing he would have called was a two-hander on a breakaway.
KERRY FRASER (STANDBY REFEREE): There was a lot of stuff going on on the ice. There wasn’t going to be a penalty – or at least, there wasn’t going to be one called.
In the second intermission, I remember bumping into (Capitals coach) Bryan Murray. He said to me, ‘Kerry, let me ask you a question: Are there going to be any f------ penalties called tonight?’ And I said, ‘Bryan, I think you can rest assured, unless there’s a murder out there, there’s not going to be a call.’ He just shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
The Capitals continue their barrage of shots on Hrudey in the third period, eventually outshooting the Islanders 36-21 in regulation. Unfortunately for Washington, New York’s star center Bryan Trottier scored at the 14:37 mark to tie the game at two goals apiece.
BOB MASON (CAPITALS GOALIE): I don’t think a lot of people know this, but on the tying goal, my skate broke. Trottier was on his backhand, coming down the middle-right side through the dot and threw a backhander right at my feet. I used to wear the old Lange goalie skates and they had a rivet on the heels. The rivet snapped, so my right ankle gave way, the puck hit both pads and ended up going in. Our equipment guy Doug Shearer came out and looked at it and saw the rivet sheared off and I had no support. He couldn’t do anything and we couldn’t put in Pete Peeters when he’d been cold the whole game. So after regulation, Shearer went in with a nut and a bolt and fixed it. But for that last five minutes of the third period, I was out there with one good skate. Who knows, if my skate didn’t break, we might not have gone to overtime in the first place.
FRANCESCHETTI: The first and second periods of overtime were faster than the first and second periods of regulation, because the refs just let us play. And once the whistle was blown, we just skated away and separated. Nobody wanted to be the goat for taking an unnecessary penalty, because one stupid penalty could end the series. We crashed the net, they crashed the net, but once the play was over, there was one shove each and guys skated away. There was a mutual respect for both teams.
DINEEN: That’s part of the reason for the length of the game – sometimes you go out there trying for the big hit, but if you miss it, it can result in a scoring chance for the other team. Nobody wanted to be the one who did that in this game. Both teams were so positionally sound, the scoring chances were at a minimum. And between the two goalies, they both made great saves. You’re playing a more judicious and smarter game.
MASON: Overtime was like a football game. Guys were getting tackled in front of the net.
BILL CLEMENT (ESPN COLOR ANALYST): In the second overtime period, Scott Stevens got Pat Flatley with an open-ice hit so hard, I thought he killed him. He got him much like he hit Eric Lindros, but without as much damage because Flatley saw him coming and it ended up being a shoulder right in the middle of his chest. He just crushed him. Only Scott Stevens would have been thinking in those terms at that point in the game. But it was good, hard-fought, clean hockey.
DENIS POTVIN (ISLANDERS DEFENSEMAN): That was the first and only playoff game I missed and I was with (Isles play-by-play man) Jiggs McDonald contributing on the broadcast. It was sheer torture not to play, but my back injury didn’t give me a choice. When it went on and on in overtime, there was a little guilt involved for me. I was thinking, ‘Could I have played?’
The first overtime ends without a single penalty being called by Van Hellemond. But make no mistake, the officials – including linesmen John D’Amico and Ron Finn – were not leisurely enjoying the game. They and the players needed each intermission to attempt to replenish whatever energy they had lost.
FRASER: The officials were dehydrated, hungry and exhausted. I walked into the dressing room after talking to Bryan Murray and John D’Amico was lying on the floor with his feet up on the bench, because his feet hurt so bad for being on them for such a long length of time. Back then, John wore bare feet inside his skates, so his feet were absolutely killing him. And Ron Finn was looking dishevelled and frazzled.
DINEEN: In those days, we weren’t as well versed in energy drinks and power bars. There was none of that, so I think someone had ordered in some pizza and we had a slice or two over the course of the intermissions. But it got to the point where we were almost giddy in there. We’d sit in the locker room and give each other the business about a certain play and we’d be giggling about it. It was a fun atmosphere and one you couldn’t duplicate.
MASON: I remember drinking salt water and eating oranges in our room, for crying out loud.
FRANCESCHETTI: We had as many oranges as we possibly could, stocked up on liquids and conserved our energy. There wasn’t much said between periods as I guess there was in the Isles room. It was quiet in our room. We just wanted to get the puck to the net, get some bodies in front and see what happened. The ice wasn’t the greatest at the Cap Centre, so you never knew.
Meanwhile, as the overtimes blur into one another, the broadcasters charged with covering the game also begin feeling the strain.
CLEMENT: (Play-by-play partner) Mike Emrick and I were having so much fun. Later I called it the Woodstock of Hockey, because it really had been. We were anchoring the intermissions from where we were and we only had so much subject matter after a while, so we just got a little goofy. It wasn’t contrived or planned, but it was just that Doc, ever the class clown, would lead me anywhere and I’d try to go there.
At one point, I ended up taking my shirt off and wore the T-shirt I had underneath. I also had my tie tied around my head. It was an interesting reaction we got from ESPN. The big red telephone rang in the truck and I was told to put my clothes back on. The next day the president of ESPN sent us a bottle of champagne and the vice-president scolded us. We tried not to get in the way of the game, but it was our way of letting people know how goofy it was. It was bizarre, twilight zone of hockey, so we had fun with it.
The Islanders and Capitals players also are having fun as the game continues on, though the physical exhaustion is setting in.
MASON: I lost 13 pounds that game. But the adrenaline was jacked and you were trying to be the difference-maker. It was funny, because you almost wanted the puck coming to you.
DINEEN: Lou Franceschetti and I had our run-ins in the past and during that game, but there was a mutual respect there. During one play, we were banging around in the corner and the whistle blew and the two of us could barely lift ourselves off the ice. He put his arm over my shoulder to help lift himself up and I didn’t stop him.
To think you’re going head-to-head with all you’ve got, then helping each other up – that shows what we all knew we were going through, regardless of what team we were on.
But you went through different phases in how you’re feeling during the game. I was pretty fortunate in that I could adapt to the game’s ebbs and flows, so I actually felt pretty good. I felt better in the third and fourth overtimes than I did in the first and second. But you could definitely see the fatigue and passion on both sides.
The game took a huge toll not only on the players and officials, but also on the 18,130 fans in attendance, virtually all of whom stayed in their seats the entire time.
CLEMENT: None of the fans went anywhere. I remember one couple in the stands that was dressed up – the man had on a tuxedo – because they had a formal event to attend that night. They watched the early part of the game, left for their function, then came back after the function was over to watch the rest.
And at some point around the third overtime, I realized we were going to end up with a result that created ultimate elation or incredible depression and despair. The longer the game went, the greater the emotional stakes were for everybody.
THE WINNING GOAL
LAFONTAINE: The game was surreal by that stage of the night. I’ll never forget one moment I think of the most: Our equipment guy Jim Pickard told me, ‘You’re going to get the goal, you’re going to pop one in.’ And then he squeezed the water bottle so that the water went down my neck.
At that exact moment, the arena P.A. system played the theme music from The Twilight Zone. Literally, everything stopped and I looked up into the stands, and people were sleeping. It was almost two in the morning and I looked up and it was seven periods, 75 shots to 56 at that moment and I said is this really happening? It was surreal. And 30 seconds later, I jumped over the boards and saw Gord Dineen fly by me.
DINEEN: (Islanders teammate) Kenny Leiter kept the puck in Washington’s end on the opposite side of the rink and I was just coming on the ice. Kenny missed the net on the shot and the puck came to me on the other side. I had a second wind coming off the bench, so I went in behind the net and came out the other side and tried to score myself, but it was blocked out in front. The puck went right out to Patty, who was covering my point. But nobody ever mentions (Islanders winger) Dale Henry as our guy out front. He did a great job of screening. Mason never even saw the puck.
MASON: (Capitals defenseman) Rod Langway was in front of me, the puck had eyes and went through a couple of legs, clanks off the post and goes in. Deflected off Kevin Hatcher’s stick.
LAFONTAINE: I just was covering for Gordie. I remember him coming around the net, trying to throw it out front and I think the puck hit Langway’s stick before it came out to me near the blueline.
I don’t think I’ve ever shot a puck the same way since. I just spun around because the puck came to me at an interesting angle and I just wanted to shoot it and hope for the best, because everything Kelly Hrudey and Bob Mason saw, they stopped. I remember the puck being off on its side, so I didn’t catch it flat and it kind of knuckled. I heard the post and thought “oh” as if it didn’t go in, but then I saw Mason drop to his knees and I saw our guys start to drop and then it was just unbelievable emotion for about a minute. Then we just all collapsed.
DINEEN: I was going back out toward my point, because when the puck was blocked, I was going to take my point position again. So my back was to the play when the puck went in. I heard it clank off the post and I could just tell by their players’ reaction. All you could hear was our players yelling and screaming. It was pretty much dead silence other than that. It was all you could do to get the energy up to celebrate. Half the guys went to Patty and the other half to Kelly. They were our two heroes.
FRANCESCHETTI: When they scored, it was like feeling you were going up in a hot air balloon and the hot air suddenly just stops. It was demoralizing. I don’t know if you could’ve heard a pin drop, but it was very quiet.
MASON: There was just a hollow feeling in the arena. You could sense the air going out of the building. Interestingly, for me, going through those four overtimes actually lessened the blow of defeat. But it still stung a couple days later. And I’ve watched that game numerous times since that night and I still have a tough time watching that puck go in the net.
FRASER: We went down to see the officials afterward and the feeling there was relief it was over. They were totally drained, beyond the normal fatigue, but they were happy an official’s call didn’t end the game. The emotional strain was tremendous.
FRANCESCHETTI: There wasn’t much to say in our room afterward. There were no year-end player meetings to schedule back then, so we were just told to show up at the rink on the Monday morning to grab our equipment and sign some autographs. That was it.
CLEMENT: After it was over, I remember the lineup trying to get into Denny’s restaurant at 2 a.m. All the bars in the area had closed and ‘Doc’ Emrick and I were so damn hungry. I remember being so miffed that we thought we’d walk into an all-night restaurant, but there was a lineup out the door. We said, “Oh, you’re kidding!”
LAFONTAINE: We got home to Long Island at 7 a.m. Easter morning and we had to be down in front of Nassau Coliseum that night at 7 p.m. to catch a bus to play in Philly the next night. We ended up winning Game 2 of that series 2-1 and went to Game 7 with those guys, but we just couldn’t hang on. And that was the year they went to the Cup final and Ron Hextall won the Conn Smythe. But I’ll never forget the way that team came back in that Caps series that year.
MASON: Billy Smith was still playing for the Isles at that time, but was the backup for that game and he was famous for never shaking hands with the other team in playoff rounds. And I’m looking down at the ice in the lineup to shake hands and suddenly he’s right in front of me. He grabs my hand, shakes it and says, “That’s the best-goaltended game I’ve ever seen in my life.”
This article originally appeared in the May 28, 2012 issue of The Hockey News magazine.