Still playing without such former Stanley Cup heroes as Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Brent Sutter, all of whom were injured, and goaltender Battling Billy Smith, who had lost the No. 1 job to the 26-year-old Hrudey, the Islanders took a quick 2-0 lead, but the Caps burst ahead 3-2 midway through the second period. Hello, LaFontaine, who is clearly the Islanders' most valuable player this season. He tied the score at 3-3 and then fed right wing Mikko Makela with a perfect breakaway pass for the go-ahead goal. Two minutes later, LaFontaine, whom Washington defenseman Scott Stevens had been using to swab the left-side boards all night, beat Stevens to a loose puck and lifted it over Mason's stick for what turned out to be the winning score in the Islanders' 5-4 victory.
Suddenly the Caps began reeking of doom. "We'll be all right," said anxious coach Bryan Murray as the teams returned to Landover for Game 7. "If Kelly Hrudey isn't unbelievable in Game 5, the series is over and we don't even have to worry about Games 6 or 7."
Murray had good reason to be anxious. In its 12 previous seasons, Washington had never won a playoff game in which it faced elimination. Worse, Murray knew that two years ago the Islanders had overcome a two-game deficit against his Capitals in a best-of-five series, winning the deciding game at the Capital Centre 2-1.
Gulp. Things got so gloomy in D.C. that the Capitals' publicity troops spread the word for fans to wear white to match the Washington's home jerseys. "We want an upbeat atmosphere," said promotions director Charlie Copeland. "Everybody's so down." Of course, they had been there before.
The Islanders could empathize with Washington. They've been dealing with negative vibes for four years now, ever since they stopped winning Stanley Cups. The club decided to dub this season's team "Islanders II." That designation, it was hoped, would remind the naysayers in the stands that the current squad is not the one that won four consecutive Stanley Cups. As it turned out, Islanders II didn't much resemble their illustrious predecessors during the regular season. They never won more than three games in a row en route to their third-place finish in the Patrick Division and finished the 80-game regular schedule with a 35-33-12 record, their worst since 1974.
Of the smattering of names that remain from the glory days—Smith, Trottier, Potvin, Bossy, Ken Morrow, Sutter—only Trottier and Morrow made substantial contributions against the Capitals. The new order is made up of a few familiar names—Hrudey and 1984 Olympians LaFontaine and winger Pat Flatley—and such not-quite-household words as Makela, Bob Bassen, Brad Lauer, Alan Kerr, Gerald Diduck, Randy Wood (a Yalie, of all things), Steve Konroyd and Rich Kromm. "There definitely is an age gap," says Smith. "Look it me. I'm 36, hanging around with guys who are 20. Our music is different."
"It's been difficult for them to take over," says Simpson. "They're playing in the shadows. We have the two ends of the spectrum here, and that's been part of our problem this year. But don't get me wrong. I'm not interested in putting guys like Bossy and Potvin and Trottier out to pasture, because when they're healthy they can play."
Indeed. Trottier had scored the winning goal in Game 2, and now here in Game 7, with the clock winding down and the Capitals trying to hold on to a 2-1 lead, he skated down the right side of the ice. Washington defenseman Kevin Hatcher chopped away at Trottier, but the Islander veteran fended him off and whipped a backhand shot through Mason's pads for the goal that sent the game into not-so-sudden death.
"Nothing lasts forever," said Al Arbour, the Islander coach during the Stanley Cup dynasty, who this season became the team's vice-president in charge of player development. "It has to change, and it's changing. You could see that, as the overtime went on and on, our kids were getting better and better. This is great."
Sans Bossy and Brent Sutter, the Islander attack depended mainly on the playmaking and goal scoring of the 22-year-old LaFontaine, who grew up in the Detroit area. The knock on the 5'10", 177-pound LaFontaine is that he is too small to be a consistent offensive threat throughout the NHL's ever-expanding playoff format. The Capitals, particularly Stevens, knew that and unloaded on LaFontaine every chance they got. Back in Islanders I glory days, the young Bossy had generally escaped such punishment, because he had Clark Gillies or Bob Nystrom skating nearby as a bodyguard. But the Islanders II lack a policeman.