Hockey may feel inferior to other team sports when it comes to worldwide audience, television appeal, salaries and media coverage. But the NHL can be smug about this much: It has the most exciting way in sports to settle a playoff tie.
Basketball's overtime period is no more than a five-minute extension of the clock; in fact, in contrast to the game's frantic closing seconds, it is initially even anticlimactic. Extra innings in baseball? The home team always has the last at bat, and as often as not it's a dud. Even football—which, like hockey, plays sudden death—falls short when it comes to overtime excitement. The team that loses the coin toss might never touch the ball. And all too often the game concludes with a methodical downfield march that culminates in an eye-glazing field goal. It's about as sudden as passing a kidney stone.
Not so with hockey. Offense and defense reverse roles with the bounce of a puck. A thwarted rush at one end can, with an abruptness that is breathtaking, become a breakaway at the other. Every shot draws a harrowing gasp. Every save is, literally, a game-saver. The fans ride a roller coaster between euphoria and dread, hopping up and down in their seats, screaming encouragement or freezing in anticipated horror.
"Sudden death's the perfect name for it too," says Mike Milbury, former player and coach for the Boston Bruins, the NHL team with the worst playoff sudden-death record, 35-51-3. "It's either instant elation, or it's as if you've fallen from a building. Thud! Eventually you get around to seeing if all the pieces are there, and you go on, but it hurts."
Milbury still feels the sting from playing in the most infamous sudden-death loss in Bruin history, the too-many-men-on-the-ice game against the Montreal Canadiens in 1979. Montreal, en route to its fourth straight Stanley Cup, trailed the underdog Bruins in the closing minutes of Game 7 of their semifinal series when Boston was caught with an extra man on the ice. On the ensuing power play Montreal tied it 4-4, with just 1:14 left. "We couldn't believe something so ludicrous had happened to send us to overtime," Milbury remembers. The Bruins entered the extra period in a state of semishock. "Then freaking Yvon Lambert scored to win it," says Milbury. "No one remembers this, but I'd hit him hard early in the game, and he was out cold. I thought he was done for the night."
Often, as in the case of Lambert, the sudden-death hero is an unheralded, mucking defensive grinder. "In overtime teams pay a little more attention to the top scorers," says former New York Islander defenseman Ken Morrow, who tallied only 17 regular-season goals in his 10-year career but scored three OT winners in the playoffs—two more than Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr or Phil Esposito. "That opens up the ice for the guys who don't ordinarily score."
As often as not it is the superpest, not the superstar, who rises to the occasion. Scrappy Claude Lemieux of the Devils has two sudden-death playoff goals; Super Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins has none. Three of the Sutter brothers (Brent, Darryl and Duane), members of a family that personifies hard-nosed play, have scored a total of five sudden-death playoff goals. The Washington Capitals' notorious hit man, Dale Hunter, has tallied four playoff overtime goals.
"Fighting off people, getting where you want to go, knowing how to get there—that's what you have to do to score in overtime," says Bob Nystrom, who scored four sudden-death goals in his playoff career with the Islanders, including the Cup-winner against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1980. "I always felt I was going to score the goal."
Not all top scorers, however, are shut down in overtime. The game's most prolific sudden-death scorer was the fiery superstar Maurice (the Rocket) Richard, who had six such goals in his great career. "Rocket was so competitive, and he was stronger than a horse," says Gordie Howe, who scored 869 times in the NHL regular season and playoffs, but none in overtime. "The sudden-death game I remember most was when the Rocket scored in the fourth overtime to beat us in 1951. I lost 12 pounds in that game, and afterwards I was weak as a puppy."
Two days after his quadruple-overtime goal beat Howe's Detroit Red Wings, Richard scored in sudden death to beat Detroit again—this time in triple OT.