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On the Easter weekend of 1987, the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals did battle in one of the hardest fought hockey games in the history of the sport.
The result of the stubborn determination from both teams not to let the other win was a 6 hour, 18 minutes game that went into four overtime periods.
The protracted showdown was game 7 of the NHL’s St. Patrick division semifinal series and was christened the “Easter Epic.” The game began on Saturday evening and extended into the early hours of Easter Sunday, with the New York Islanders emerging victorious.
Build-up to the Easter Epic
During the 1987 regular season, the Islanders had finished in third place, one berth behind the Washington Capitals, and they would then find themselves matched up in the Division semifinal. The two teams were meeting at this level for the fifth consecutive season, with the Islanders having won three of the previous meetings.
During the previous season, the Capitals had eliminated the Islanders, making it the Islanders’ earliest exit from Stanley Cup contention. With each team keen to prove itself better than the other, these facts laid the ground for a very fierce encounter.
The Capitals, hosting the first two games at the Capital Center made the first scalp, beating the Islanders 2-0, and the Islanders took game 2. With the series shifting to Long Island for game 3 and 4, the Capitals produced further upsets to go ahead 3-1 in the series.
Needing only one more win, and given that no team had recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win a series in 12 years, the series now looked to be in the Caps’ hands.
Incidentally, the Islanders held that honor, having overturned a 3-0 deficit and beat the Pittsburg Penguins. Two years before that they had overturned none other than the Capitals’ 2-0 advantage in a best-of-5 series. It was therefore not farfetched to imagine the Islanders attempting that exact feat. In game 5 the Islanders beat the Caps 4-2 and then tied up the series with a 5-4 home win in game six. The winner-take-all game seven was set for the Capital Centre.
The Easter Epic Unfolds.
Come the evening of April 18th, the sold-out Capital Center was the focal point of all hockey fans’ attention, with all other series now complete. The Capitals started as the brighter side and were rewarded with a goal on the 19th minute mark when Mike Gartner beat the Islanders goaltender. Halfway through the second period, Patrick Flatley equalized for the Islanders but Grant Martin restored the Capitals lead shortly after to head into the second break with the lead. In the third period, the two goaltenders were in inspired form helping to keep the scores unchanged for most of the period.
With little over five minutes left in regulation time, a backhand shot from Bran Trottier brought the Islanders level again. There were no more goals in the final minutes, sending the game into sudden death overtime. The first overtime period was packed with action but the goaltenders continued to shine and the game was forced into a second overtime period.
At this point, the players were beginning to show signs of fatigue and the action slowed down significantly. Another scoreless period ensued and the game went into the third overtime period, the first time this was happening in 16 years. The Islanders outshot the Capitals for the time in the game but for all their trying, neither team could get the puck into the opponent’s goal.
A fourth overtime period, the first in the NHL since 1951, dawned. The play was still sluggish and the Islanders continued to dominate in offense but it seemed the teams would continue holding out longer. With eight minutes left in the period, Islander Pat LaFontaine pounced on a deflection from Gord Dineen shot, spun and hit a shot which clipped the left post and into the net. The game had ended in a 3-2 victory for the Islanders after a gruesome six hours. The tired Islanders found the energy to mob LaFontaine as their dispatched mortal enemies stood crestfallen on the pitch.
The Aftermath of the Easter Epic
By the time the encounter finished, it was the morning of Easter Sunday, and this fact lent the game its name. In the Patrick Division finals, the Islanders were to battle the Philadelphia Flyers, who had had extra rest days. They fell behind 3-1 once again and rallied to even the series, but they were unable to replicate the miracle of the previous series.