When the Stanley Cup Playoff schedule drops each Spring, many Washington Capitals fans rush to the calendar with questions. How does my work schedule align with game days? Can I travel to some games? Do the Caps potentially play the night before Easter?
An Easter Eve game means having an historical connection to, and the remote possibility to match, the Easter Epic, the thrilling four-overtime Game 7 of the 1987 Division Semifinal series versus the New York Islanders.
Nick-named the Easter Epic because it started Saturday but finished in the wee hours of Easter morning, the game is both a highlight and lowlight in the franchise’s checkered playoff past. As the Capitals prepare to host Game 5 of their first round series with the Carolina Hurricanes on this Saturday night before Easter, NovaCaps looks back at one of the most bizarrely-entertaining, energy-draining, and credulity-straining games in Washington playoff history.
The 1987 Patrick Division Semifinal marked the fifth consecutive season the Caps and Islanders squared off in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The higher-seeded Capitals had raced to a 3-1 series lead in their quest to oust the Isles for the second season in a row. The Islanders clawed back with victories in Games 5 and 6 to set up the series finale at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD on Saturday April 18, 1987.
The first period was relatively uneventful. The Caps carried the play, outshooting the Islanders 15-5. In what would become the predominant theme of the night, Islander goalie Kelly Hrudey stood tall against the barrage, but finally yielded a goal to Mike Gartner in the final minute of play. The teams traded goals (Patrick Flatley for New York, Grant Martin for Washington) in the second period. In the third period, the teams each tallied 11 shots. Unfortunately for Washington, the only one to find the back of the net was a game-tying backhander from Bryan Trottier that beat Caps goaltender Bob Mason with a little over five minutes to play in regulation. In 2012, Mason told the Hockey News that a bit of bad luck may have led to the goal: “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.”
But the skate did break, and the thrilling sixty minutes of regulation, ultimately less than half the total game time, became the prelude to the memorable four overtime periods. The first three overtimes were filled with quality scoring chances turned aside by each goaltender, multiple shots hitting posts, and rugged play as Referee Andy Van Hellemond practically swallowed his whistle in his attempt to let the players decide the outcome.
Finally, 8:47 into the fourth overtime, Islander Pat LaFontaine did decide the outcome. After a deflected shot attempt bounced to him near the offensive blueline, LaFontaine whirled and fired a slapshot past a screened Bob Mason.
The loss, though heartbreaking for Caps fans, contained some astounding numbers. Kelly Hrudey thwarted 73 shots, including making 50 straight saves after the second period. The game ended at 1:58 a.m., 6 hours and 18 minutes after the opening face-off. At the time it was the fifth-longest game in National Hockey League history and remains the tenth-longest today. In Capitals lore, it has since been eclipsed by another haunting loss, the Petr Nedved game in 1996, as the longest game in team history.
With three close games, one already settled in overtime, thus far in the series, it is not a stretch to think tonight’s Caps-Canes Game 5 could reach overtime. If it does go to an extra session this Easter Eve, fans should buckle up. The results could be epic.
By Bryan Hailey