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It is 10 minutes before two on Easter Sunday morning in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Gathered inside a building, 18,130 men, women and children—and 40 bedraggled hockey players—have been listening over and over again to a tape of a hauntingly familiar refrain. It is the theme from The Twilight Zone.
You're traveling through another dimension: a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. That's the goal up ahead....
Out on the ice at the Capital Centre, two teams, the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals, are embroiled in the seventh and deciding game of their Round 1 series in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They began play at 7:40 on Saturday night, more than six hours ago. Right now the score is 2-2, and they have just begun their fourth 20-minute, sudden-death overtime period. Goaltender Kelly Hrudey of the Islanders, who has turned away 72 shots and will stop one more, has lost all track of time. The other players have long since stopped jumping over the boards to go out on their shifts, opting instead to shuffle through the door. Zamboni driver John Millsback has already groomed the ice seven times and still has no idea when he will be able to go home. "I'm down to a quarter tank," he says with concern.
At 1:58 a.m., the fifth-longest game in NHL history—and the longest since 1943—ended abruptly when Islander center Pat LaFontaine beat goaltender Bob Mason with a 35-foot slap shot. LaFontaine's shot, the 57th that Mason had faced, came at 8:47 of the fourth OT, after the weary teams had played 68:47 of sudden death and 128:47 in all. The game was longer than two games. For the Islanders, it capped two remarkable comebacks. Not only had they lost three of the first four games to the Capitals, but they had also needed a Bryan Trottier goal with 5:23 to play in regulation—some 3½ hours earlier—just to get into sudden death.
Because of exhaustion, the Islanders' exultation at their victory was tame. Few of the joyous, surprised, panting players could muster the strength to execute even a medium-high five. Besides, it was time to start thinking about the Flyers. The Islanders would face them in Philadelphia on Monday night, which had now become tomorrow. "Great game," said first-year Islander coach Terry Simpson "...for the Flyers."
The Capitals' habit of folding early every spring—they have lost to the Islanders in the first or second round of the playoffs three of the last four years—no longer surprises their fans. By all rights, 1986 was to have been the Caps' year, when they swept the Islanders in the opening round. But the Rangers weren't paying attention, and they eliminated Washington in the second round.
This year, though, the Capitals closed the regular season strongly, losing only one of their last 10 games and overtaking the Islanders for second place in the Patrick Division—and the home-ice advantage in their Round 1 matchup. In typical Capital style they blew that advantage when the Islanders gained a split in Washington by winning Game 2, but these seemingly new Caps then swept Games 3 and 4 on Long Island and went home all set to wipe out the injury-depleted New Yorkers.
Hrudey, however, came to the rescue in Game 5, stopping 40 shots in a 4-2 victory. Uh-oh, same old Caps, always making things tough for themselves. Back to New York, where the Islanders had been making things tough for themselves by not winning in their last six games at Nassau Coliseum.