The Islanders, who are 29-9 in sudden death, have by far the NHL's best playoff overtime record. "We had fanatical guys on the Islanders," says Nystrom, who now is a radio analyst for the team. "Guys who hated to lose. Someone would yell, 'Hey, boys, who's going to be the hero?' I remember Butch Goring saying, 'They're not paying us any extra for the overtime, so no sense wasting time, boys. I'm losing money on this.' The one thing [Islander coach] Al Arbour instilled in us was, you have to attack. You have to go at them."
That overtime philosophy is shared by all NHL coaches, which is why fans would be well advised to be in their seats when the puck is dropped in sudden death. Eleven of the record 28 overtime games in last year's playoffs were decided in the first 5:16 of the extra session. "You try to get your best players on the ice very quickly," says Bryan Murray, general manager of the Red Wings. "You tell them not to sit back, not to be afraid to take the odd chance. At the same time we try to point out it's unlikely the referee will call penalties. So you can't allow the other team a free chance."
Players will desperately tackle, grab, hook, hack and hang on attackers—anything to avoid being a scapegoat. And they have good reason to flout the rules: In the history of the NHL, there has never been a penalty shot called in sudden death. "It was an unspoken rule, and I thought it was a good rule, to let the players decide it," says Morrow, who in 1987 played in the quadruple-overtime Game 7 in which the Isles beat the Caps 5-4 to advance to the conference semifinals. Pat LaFontaine scored the winner at 1:58 a.m. "The ref wasn't going to call anything," recalls Morrow. "Guys were so tired that anybody who came near our goal, I'd just wrap my arms around him."
During the course of that marathon, the Islanders, who were the visiting team, asked Washington's trainers for some oxygen. Mercifully, the Cap trainers delivered a canister; but when Murray, who was Washington's coach at the time, found out about this act of generosity, he made the trainers take it back. "I thought we were going to play all night," says Murray. "The goaltenders, Bob Mason and Kelly Hrudey, seemed fresh, and I didn't know if anyone was going to score. We had 75 shots that game. They had 56. Bobby Gould had 12 shots for us in the overtimes alone."
"The goalies can rise to great heights," says Detroit coach Scotty Bowman. "That's what I think of in overtime—the tremendous saves."
Montreal goalie Patrick Roy led the Cup-winning Canadiens to 10 straight playoff overtime wins last season, a record that Bowman believes may never be broken. (Roy in fact added to that streak by stopping 60 shots in a 2-1 overtime victory against the Bruins last week.) Roy has now gone 113:57 of overtime without allowing a goal, making 81 game-saving stops. One of the great myths about sudden death is that goalies dread it because of the pressure. "I loved overtime," says Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall, who played 18 seasons with the Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues. "What a great chance to discourage your opponent. That's what I always thought about after an overtime win: Think of how bad those other guys feel. It's relatively easy to play an overtime game as a goalie. You're only permitted one mistake, which is human, right? In a regular game you can make any number of mistakes."
The longer an overtime lasts, the more invincible the goaltenders feel. Meanwhile, the opposing forwards have less and less energy and fewer bursts of speed. In 1939 Boston's Mel (Sudden Death) Hill became an overnight celebrity when he scored three overtime goals in one playoff series—a record that has stood for 55 years. His first sudden-death goal came in the third overtime of Game 1 against the New York Rangers in the semifinals. Hill, who had missed an open net in the second overtime, batted in a pass that was 18 inches off the ice. "We'd played 119 minutes of hockey, the equivalent of two full games." says Hill, 80, who lives in Fort Quapelle, Saskatchewan. "You were so tired that if you did make a rush, you wondered how you were ever going to get back to your own end."
The longest overtime game in a Stanley Cup final was the Game 1 triple-overtime classic between the Bruins and the Edmonton Oilers in 1990. Milbury was coaching Boston, and he remembers it being nothing but fun. "We were all pretty loose," Milbury recalls. "In the dressing room between periods I told some stories about old overtime games I'd been in. Guys were laughing and enjoying it. If you can't enjoy overtime hockey in the Stanley Cup finals, you're in trouble.
"The two goaltenders [Bill Ranford for Edmonton and Andy Moog for Boston] played better in the third overtime than they did in the regular game," Milbury remembers. "How did it end? [Edmonton coach John] Muckler took a chance. He put his worst defensive player on the ice, Petr Klima, who'd been sitting on the bench for three hours. And that's the guy who scored. It soured our momentum for the rest of the series." The Oilers beat the Bruins 3-2 and went on to win the Cup.
One of the most famous overtime goals was scored in 1950 by Detroit's Pete Babando against the Rangers. It was the first time the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals was decided in sudden death. Imagine it: Next goal wins the Cup, boys. Drop the puck and play. Clean, simple and absolute in its finality. The hero would for-evermore own a niche in hockey history.