Easter Epic

For many hockey fans, nothing is anticipated more than an overtime game during the playoffs when the games continue until one side or the other scores the goal that instantly ends the contest. When the home side gets that ultimate goal, the arena rocks with the elation and tension release of a shared moment of triumph. When the visiting team prevails, it can seem as though time has stopped until the spectators have processed that all hope is lost.

Most of the 7,050 in the Cedar Park Center had never experienced an overtime in the finals of the American Hockey League's Championship before. Some of the fans of the Texas Stars needed a refresher course on how the game would proceed as this was new territory, overtime with the Calder Cup on the line. There was never any confusion about the quality of the competition on the ice. The Hershey Bears were being extended to their limits by the Stars and both teams had many opportunities to gain an advantage on the scoreboard only to be turned away by the determined efforts on the other side.

As overtime began and I explained the rules to some friends, I finished by telling them that I am not particularly fond of overtime hockey. I could not explain my feelings over the noise and expectations of the Texas fans, but I was forever changed by the "Easter Epic" and cannot view overtime with any thing but trepidation as visions of Pat LaFontaine's goal ending the longest game seven in the history of the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup Playoffs cloud any enjoyment of the moment.

All things considered, the playoffs began well for the Washington Capitals in the spring of 1987. They won 3 of the first 4 games and needed only one more victory to send the New York Islanders home for the summer. Capitals fans expected that fourth win was surely on its way, but the Islanders won the next 2 games to set up the deciding seventh game in the Capital Centre. The game began at 7:30 on the Saturday night before Easter.

I watched the game on television while other activities of the evening kept me diverted. Every time I returned to the screen, the Capitals had a one goal lead and appeared to have the better chances and control of the outcome. I was surprised when I returned to the television and found the game was still in progress and had moved into overtime. Now I had no distractions and could watch the game for a while, after all, it could not go on much longer.

The first overtime period was close and both teams had good chances to score the winning goal, so I kept watching. I was riding the highs and lows with more than 20 thousand fans who were still in the Capital Centre. Good stuff this overtime tension and competition.

The second overtime was all about frustration. The Capitals took 17 shots that were all stopped by the Islanders' Kelly Hrudy (another name that scars Cap fans). It was after midnight. There were no longer 20,000 fans in the Capital Centre. I nearly turned off the television several times, but each time reasoned that the game could not last much longer. Agonizing near misses in the tension of overtime competition.

The third overtime made it clear that the half full Capital Center had used up the fans energy as much as the players. Physical and mental exhaustion should have created a moment of inability that allowed one team to score. It was now passed 1AM and I had given up trying to walk away from the game. It was painful to watch as the players tried to push themselves up and down the ice in a manner that suggested organization. Still, I had to believe that the Capitals would find a way. You need a support group to endure this kind of emotional turmoil.

The fourth overtime ended at 2 minutes before 2 AM on Easter morning. The fans left in the Capital Centre sat in stunned silence as the Islanders began celebrating the end of the game, winning the game and winning the series to advance in the playoffs. Time hung frozen before the Capitals players could get themselves up to head for the locker room and their summer activities. First, there were traditions to maintain, skating by each member of the Islanders to shake hands and then to gather at center ice and lift their sticks in salute to the fans for the final time of the season. I watched the scene play out and listened to the hollow applause in a hollow building and kicked myself for staying up that late just to be so bitterly disappointed.

The Bears, Alexandre Giroux scored after about 13 minutes of the first overtime in Cedar Park and I wanted to jump to my feet and celebrate with other 30 or 40 Bears fans in the building. I did not. I watched the 7,000 Stars fans go silent and slump into their seats. I watched the Bears mob each other on the ice and was thrilled for them, but thought I saw Pat LaFontaine somewhere on the bottom of the pile. I watched the disappointment of a handful of fans expressed by throwing things onto the ice. I watched the Stars put the hands of the clock back in motion, move slowly to the center of the rink and raise their sticks in salute to the fans who shared the season's journey. I stood and applauded the team and the Texas fans who had learned a hard lesson in playoff hockey and a method for stopping the passage of time.

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