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STUFF HAPPENS. Inexplicable stuff that has left the 1993 Stanley Cup giddily up for grabs. No-way, can't-happen stuff like the New York Islanders' eliminating the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins last Friday by beating them 4-3 in overtime in Game 7. Indeed, all four teams playing in the conference finals—the Islanders, the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Los Angeles Kings—are postseason overachievers. All four finished the regular season in third place in their respective divisions, and except for the Canadiens, none was still playing last year after the opening round of the playoffs.
Without a doubt, this is the postseason of underdogs and overtime. Twenty-one sudden-death overtime games were played in the first two rounds alone. The record for an entire postseason was 16, which was set in 1982. Montreal, New York, Toronto and Los Angeles all have lived to tell wonderful tales about sudden-death experiences. As of Sunday they were a combined 13-2 in OT.
The Kings played only one overtime game in Rounds 1 and 2, but it was double OT, and it was a biggie. L.A.'s series against the Vancouver Canucks turned the Kings' way in Game 5 on a goal by the immortal Gary Shuchuk. The Leafs, who are facing the Kings in the Campbell Conference finals, needed a pair of overtime wins to eliminate the Detroit Red Wings in Round 1, the second of which came in Game 7. Toronto then split two double-overtime games with the St. Louis Blues in another seven-game series.
At week's end the Canadiens had played 11 postseason games, and six of them needed at least one extra session. Montreal won two of three OT games from the Quebec Nordiques in the opening round and three of three in sweeping the Buffalo Sabres. If the Sabres are still shaking their heads in disbelief, you can't blame them: Buffalo won three overtime games in its sweep of the Boston Bruins in Round 1.
However, the undisputed champions of overtime, the superstars of sudden death, are the Islanders. New York victimized the poor Washington Capitals in three overtime games—twice in double OT—in Round 1. And lest there remained any unbelievers, the Islanders completed their upset of the Penguins with that Game 7 victory, the winning goal coming five minutes and 16 seconds into OT.
Over the years overtime has been Islander time. In its 21-year history New York has built an extraordinary 29-7 record—and an undeniable mystique—in sudden-death playoff games. The Islanders' first significant postseason victory came in 1975 when, as a three-year-old expansion team, they stunned the archrival New York Rangers with a series-winning overtime goal by J.R Parise, 11 seconds into the extra session. Five years later the Islander dynasty was launched with a Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal by Bob Nystrom against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6.
In the deciding game of a 1982 opening-round series against the Penguins, two Islander goals in the final six minutes of regulation forced OT, during which John Tonelli scored for New York. But perhaps the most famous, and certainly the longest, Islander OT victory came in 1987 when Pat LaFontaine scored at 1:58 in the morning and 8:47 of the fourth overtime to edge the Capitals in Game 7 of a first-round series.
Overtime is not just about time; it's about action, about frantic never-take-your-eye-off-the-puck action, because in a heartbeat a game—and a team's season—can end. "Even in one of the most exciting games that you can play, the intensity level goes up in overtime," says Nystrom, who now does radio work for the Islanders. "The drive, the energy, the lift you get is amazing."
Amazing is an apt word for this season's Islanders, too. But if you had suggested two weeks ago that they would derail a team of Penguins who had visions of dynasty dancing in their heads, two other words would have been more appropriate: No way. No way that David Volek, who was in and out of New York coach Al Arbour's doghouse all season and pointless in the playoffs at the time, scores twice, including the overtime goal, in Game 7. No way that the starry-eyed Islanders, no-shows in the playoffs the last two years, who finished 32 points behind Pittsburgh in the regular season, even force a seventh game while playing without their captain, Pat Flatley, and their leading scorer, Pierre Turgeon. No way that one of the lowest-paid goalies in the NHL, 30-year-old Glenn Healy, completely outplays his Pittsburgh counterpart, Vezina candidate Tom Barrasso. No bleeping, wonderful way.
"We never felt we were the Penguins' equal in talent," said Islander winger Steve Thomas. "But we felt heart counted for something even more than that."