This Easter weekend marks the 30th anniversary of game seven of the Patrick Division semifinal matchup between the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals, more commonly referred to as the Easter Epic.
In essentially what was the equivalent of a little over two full games, the Islanders finally eliminated the Capitals when Islander great Pat LaFontaine fired a blueline slapshot past (gloveside, via the post) Washington goalie Bob Mason at the 8:47 mark of the fourth overtime.
With the goal, New York came back from a 3-1 series deficit to avenge a playoff exit at the hands of the Capitals the previous spring, and advanced to the Eastern conference finals to face the Philadelphia Flyers (where they would also overcome a 3-1 series deficit only to lose game seven, 5-1). Washington would miss the playoffs the following season, and have had minimal postseason success over their 43 year history in the NHL.
This game is significant for me as it stands as my first true NHL memory. A few years removed from the midwest and the home state of Ohio, my family was living in Roanoke, Virginia. Cable tv was a premium, with the highlights of my formative years in the 80's being (in no order) HBO, Cinemax (Skinemax), and MTV. I can't remember when we started receiving ESPN, which aired the battle between the Isles and Caps. ESPN was still finding it's footing in the mid-80's, and I probably knew it best via USFL football (pro football was my favorite sport then, as I didn't have much access to the Ohio State Buckeyes) and NBA basketball. I probably knew/watched some hockey, but obviously it wasn't a big sport in the area.
I did latch onto the local teams - the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Orioles respectively, who both had enjoyed success in the 80's. The NBA was very popular at the time, with the success of the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, and some dude named Jordan. Also stayed true to the local hoops teams and followed the Bullets and Georgetown Hoyas.
While I'm sure I caught some Gretzky or Lemieux highlights, I can't say I wrapped myself up in sitting to watch a full hockey game. My family only had two televisions, with one cable box. So while my mother and sister view Dynasty and/or Dallas broadcasts on the main tv upstairs, I was regulated to an old, non remote controlled castoff set in the downstairs rec room, picking up whatever the bunny ears could receive. Which wasn't much, so primarily played Atari/Nintendo with that.
But the Easter Epic was a game I was destined to see. Since we didn't have school Monday, I was free to stay up and watch tv on the good set. So there must not have been too much in the way of programming that evening, and my surfing found it's way to ESPN and that NHL playoff game already in progress...
It must've been in the third when I picked up on the game, not realizing it was not yet half way over. I continued to flip through channels, but came back to the game often, before my inner hockey fan kept focus on the game at the start of the fourth OT period. I remember thinking when they should decide to halt the game, to play again the next day?
I think it was past 2 a.m. local time when LaFontaine finally won it, and I probably stumbled to bed not realizing I had just embarked on a new path in my sports fandom. My hockey interest wavered over several years, and didn't pick up until I attend undergraduate school in the mid-90's (hello, NHL '94).
A generation later, I'm still a Caps fan (and I thank the powers above I'm also an Ohio State fan). Haven't had much to celebrate since then, and have become accustomed to a long, late, sudden loss, but I've come to grow fond of hockey. There's a true beauty in the sport, a uniqueness unlike any other. For all the excitement that any postseason/championship competition can offer, it's hard to top playoff hockey.
So I remain on the hunt for a better hockey memory, but I'll hold onto my introduction to the excitement of hockey, and a remembrance of one Easter night/Monday morning a few decades ago...