It's more than another loss. It's a deathblow.
One minute a team is vibrant, wide-eyed, pulsating with adrenaline and skating all out, believing in itself, and the next it is finished. Physically, emotionally, mentally, suddenly dead. That's what it feels like to the losers.
The winners? They're skating around crazy with glee, hugging and jumping on one another like a bunch of kids, their joy naked and spontaneous. But it's the losers who give sudden death its name.
You can't say it's the best moment in sports, because sudden death isn't a moment. It's a continuum of moments, a time of desperation that can go on for hours or be settled in the blink of an eye. Next goal wins. Go at it! The game gains momentum like a runaway train until, with shocking finality, it's over. Spectators leave the building emotionally drained and hoarse. Players straggle from the ice exhausted and psychologically changed. An overtime loss in the playoffs is a dagger to a club's spirit. Between 1919 and '93 there were 435 sudden-death games in the playoffs, and the winners went on to take the series a whopping 84% of the time.
Sometimes, though, even the winner of a sudden-death game dies a little bit. "I was so tired I just wanted to lie down right there," said the Buffalo Sabres' Dave Hannan after scoring the winning goal on April 27 in the Sabres' quadruple-over-time 1-0 win over the New Jersey Devils—the sixth-longest NHL playoff game ever. Said Sabre forward Randy Wood, "Going out for the seventh period, guys in the locker room were saying, 'Somebody score a goal. This is going to cost a fortune in baby-sitting bills.' "
The winning goal came at 65:43 of overtime and 1:52 a.m., squaring the first-round series at three games apiece. The Devils, though, bounced back with a 2-1 win on Friday, eliminating the exhausted Sabres. After the quadruple-overtime game, in which Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek turned back 70 shots, Sabre coach John Muckler said, "We should have gotten credit for two wins, to win the series. We played a doubleheader tonight."
The baseball analogy was apt since the line score of the game read like a rain-shortened pitching duel:
Devils: 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0
Sabres: 0 0 0 0 0 0 1-1
Whatever suffering the Devils and the Sabres endured in their dance with sudden death, it seemed almost merciful compared with that of the Calgary Flames. After Calgary had taken a commanding 3-1 series lead over Vancouver, the gritty Canucks won the final three games, all in sudden death. On Saturday night, after Pavel Bure's Game 7 goal at 2:20 of the second OT ignited a joyous celebration by the Canucks, the Flames and their fans in the Saddledome were reduced to silent exhaustion. To die once in sudden death is painful enough; to perish three times in a row is a fate too cruel.