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Overtime: Hockey’s Final Frontier

September 24, 2011 General No Comments

Overtime: Hockey’s final frontier
By Dean Chadwin
Oct 31, 2001, 16:30

 

©BBS

In hockey, the best team wins the big game most of the time. It’s the team that usually has the money goaltender and the superstars, and role players who can score when the game’s on the line. And when the game is on the line, any real hockey fan knows that some goals—big goals—can be flukes.

Deflections off sticks or skates, easy dump-ins that bounce funny or catch a goalie sleeping, and lucky rebounds have brought down even the best of teams. This element of chance sets hockey apart from other sports. There are no fluke home runs in baseball, nor lucky slam-dunks in basketball.

Ugly goals help make sudden-death overtime the most nerve-wracking experience in major professional sports—for fans and players alike. Every shift, every change of possession, every dump-in holds potential game-ending danger. The slightest opening could be all that’s necessary to turn a game’s, or even a franchise’s, fortunes around.

Enter a locker room after an overtime win and you’ll find an air of joy and confidence unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Teammates surround the goal-scorer and the winning goalie, hoping to siphon off some of the luck that put those men in the right place at the right time. During the 1995 playoff run, I found myself amidst such a celebration at Brendan Byrne Arena. The Devils had just defeated the Penguins late in the first overtime of game four of the conference semis on a goal by Neal Broten.

When Broten scored off a great feed by John McLean, teammates mobbed Broten and game-saving goalie Martin Brodeur on the ice. As reporters fired questions at Brodeur and Broten in the locker room, teammates walked by to hug or tease the two centers of attention. The men in that room were floating—so happy that I kept checking the floor to make sure they were still tied to the earth.

 

The agony of defeat

Down the hall in the Penguins locker room, the mood couldn’t have been more different. This was no ordinary loss. Overtimes seldom are. The Pens had played well, yet came out on the short end of the stick. They felt cursed, believing at least for the moment they were fated to be losers. Answers to even the most innocuous questions were mumbled, eye contact avoided at all costs. To a man, the Penguins wished they could shed their skins so they wouldn’t have to look at themselves in the mirror for a while.

Fans, too, know that feeling. Then a Washington Capitals fan, I endured my most awful night on April 16, 1987. That night the Caps faced the post-dynasty Islanders at the Capital Center in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs. The game was even after 60 minutes of play, and then the torture began.

Statistics show that most sudden-death overtime games are decided in the first 10 minutes, but on that Easter weekend the contest felt like it would never end. Every rush caused my heart to flutter. My mind whirled with every change of possession. Was the winger free? Could he stay onsides? Would the pass get through? Was the goalie tiring? Please let the puck bounce true! And the play continued for what seemed like days.

Both goalies, Washing-ton’s Bob Mason and the New York’s Kelly Hrudey, made key saves, but the man in the bandanna seemed impenetrable. Before the night was over, Hrudey would flop all over the ice in turning away 73 shots from every angle—long slappers from the point, quick wristers from the circles, wraparounds and jammers from the slot. After just one overtime, Hrudey’s invincibility convinced me the Caps would never score again.

It was just before midnight on the east coast. For one long night, Scott Stevens had become the best defenseman in the world—taking extra shifts, hitting people, moving the puck, and clearing the crease. As smaller, less well-conditioned players slowed down, Stevens continued to pick up his game. Maybe the Caps could win, after all.

The second overtime ended, and then, late in the third, New York’s Randy Wood got a great chance right on the doorstep but failed to convert. When the third overtime ended, it was one-thirty in the morning. Most of the fans at the Cap Center had long since gone home. It was the first time since World War II that an NHL game would enter a fourth overtime.

Midway through that fourth overtime, just before two on Easter morning, Pat Lafontaine got clear above the circles and wristed home a shot that beat Mason. It wasn’t a brilliant goal, but at least it was an honest one. The Isles had won the Easter Epic and were, naturally, ecstatic. But as Mason dropped to the ice in exhaustion, the Caps just looked at each other and wondered what more they could have done.

As I watched New Jersey move through the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, I couldn’t help rooting for them. It wasn’t just the presence of Scott Stevens, the Capitals hero-in-defeat during that Easter Epic, on their roster. I felt for the Devils. During the 1994 playoffs, the Devils were burned twice in historic overtime games.

They had lost the second-longest game in the last 50 years. Though Stevens and goalie Martin Brodeur, along with the rest of the Devils, allowed the Buffalo Sabres nothing for six periods—essentially, back-to-back shutouts—it wasn’t enough. Dominik Hasek was even better, stopping 70 Devils shots, before Dave Hannan finally won the game for Buffalo early in the fourth overtime.

Despite what could have been a season-shattering loss, the gritty Devils overcame their misfortune and eliminated the Sabres. They then got within a whisper of the finals before being eliminated themselves on a “garbage goal” in double-overtime by the Rangers Stéphane Matteau. That goal in Game 7 of the conference finals was one the Devils remembered all summer—and all through the 1995 playoffs. They knew that they had come within one ugly, double OT goal, of playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

 

A rare feat

For only the fifth time in playoff history, a team had won a deciding Game 7 in overtime to advance to the Cup finals. Another team to accomplish that feat was the truly remarkable 1950 Detroit Red Wings. The Wings lost the great Gordie Howe to a serious injury in their first playoff game, yet they still won the Cup behind the efforts of future Hall-of-Famers Red Kelly, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, Marcel Pronovost, Jack Ste-wart and netminder Harry Lumley. All the brilliance of those stars would have gone for naught, however, but for goals by a couple of journeymen—out of whom overtime often makes its heroes.

Leo Reise, Jr. broke a scoreless tie when he beat Turk Broda at 8:39 of the first OT in Game 7 of the semis, allowing the Red Wings to get by Toronto and ad-vance to the finals. Then, in the finals, Pete Babando’s shot halfway through the second overtime of the Cup-deciding game got by Chuck Rayner, eliminating the Rangers and initiating a De-troit dynasty that would win four cups in six years. It was the first time a final series had gone into Game 7 overtime.

It’s only happened once since then. Amazingly enough, it was those same Red Wings just four years later—this time facing the Canadiens of Maurice Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, Doug Harvey, and Jean Beliveau. The Red Wings added a healthy Howe, a potent Alex Delvecchio, and a brilliant Terry Sawchuk. Only Hall of Famers Kelly, Lindsay and Pronovost, along with Johnny Wilson, Marty Pavelich, and Jim Peters, returned from the 1950 Detroit club. All told, 14 Hall-of-Famers skated during Game 7, including the Rocket, who remains the all-time leader with six overtime goals in the playoffs.

But the hero that night was a journeyman, and the only member of the vanquished Rangers of 1950 to appear in the 1954 finals.

Tony Leswick, a 5’6” right winger known as Mighty Mouse, had been traded to Detroit by the Rangers in 1951. He’d be traded away to Chicago in 1955, but at Olympia Stadium on the night of April 16, 1954, he was in the right place at the right time. A little more than four minutes into the overtime, the Red Wings dumped the puck hard around behind the net. Leswick gained control along the right-wing boards about 10 feet inside the blueline. He flipped a bad-angle shot towards the net. The shot wasn’t hard—it looked harmless—but it grazed off Doug Harvey’s glove and changed directions. The deflection fooled Canadiens goalie Gerry McNeil and found its way into the net. Another ugly goal brought Detroit hockey’s ultimate prize.

In 40 years of Stanley Cup action since then, there have been six more Game Sevens, but none required extra time. Pete Babando and Tony Leswick remain the only two men to score Cup-deciding goals in Game 7 overtime, proving that hockey’s superstars are not always hockey’s heroes.

 

Do or tie?

To this point, I haven’t mentioned regular-season overtime. That’s because it’s simply not the real thing. In real overtime you play against an endless clock, and there are no ties. The five-minute overtime of regular-season play lacks the desperate heat found in the playoffs because it isn’t do or die—it’s simply do or tie.

Have you ever seen a player dive headlong across the crease to celebrate an overtime goal during the regular season? Probably not. That type of drama is reserved for the playoffs, like the most cherished goal in the history of the soon-to-be demolished Boston Garden, which ended with Bobby Orr’s Superman impression. He lit the lamp in overtime to complete a four-game sweep of the Blues in 1970. After he scored, he soared—leaping into the air to celebrate Boston’s first Cup in decades. It looked like a belly flop, but to Orr it must have felt like landing on a feather bed. The image of this ultimate hockey moment lives in the mind’s eye of all Bruins fans, just as a giant photo of it loomed over the press dining room in Boston for two decades.

If there ever was a “year of the overtime” in the playoffs, it was 1993. Twenty-eight of 85 playoff games played that year ended in overtime. Not surprisingly, the 1993 champs, the Canadiens, have to go down as the most successful overtime team in NHL history. They went 10-1 in sudden death that year, including 3-0 in the Stanley Cup finals against Los Angeles. Though the Habs lost their first playoff game to the rival Nordiques in overtime, that was an aberration. After allowing Scott Young’s OT goal, Patrick Roy then gave up no goals over the next 96 minutes of sudden death play. Kirk Muller, Guy Carbonneau, and John LeClair each scored two overtime goals during the unbelievable run to the Cup. Montreal also won its only OT game last year, pushing Roy’s remarkable streak to 11 games and 113-plus minutes.

In terms of pure numbers, the Canadiens are the NHL’s most successful overtime team, with 66 wins. However, the Islanders (with a 29-9 record) have the highest winning percentage in overtime games, at .763. From 1977 to 1984, when Billy Smith was the best money goaltender on the planet, the Isles went 19-3 in overtime. That record led directly to four Cups, one runner-up, and two semifinal appearances in eight years.

The lesson is clear: when you win in OT, you win Cups.

Individually, Maurice Richard leads all players with six overtime goals, with Bob Nystrom, Dale Hunter, Glenn Anderson, Wayne Gretzky, and Stéphane Richer all tied for second, with four apiece. Six players ranging from solid to all-time greats appear on this list, yet many superstars have never registered an overtime goal in the playoffs. Almost unbelievably, the list of non-scorers includes Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux, Ray Bourque, and Gordie Howe.

Just as Messier’s Rangers needed Matteau’s two overtime goals to escape the Devils and gain the Cup, Howe’s Red Wings needed key overtime goals from role players to win the 1950 and 1954 titles. That’s the beautiful thing about overtime: Hall-of-Famers have no built-in advantage. Any player can claim a permanent piece of history.

Who will be next to join Babando and Leswick? Your guess is as good as mine.

 

Dean Chadwin is the author of Rocking the Pond: The First Season of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

This first appeared in the 09/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2001 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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