Today, this blog entry reflects upon the most nerve-wracking regular-season game I've ever attended...
Do or die.
For the 2006-07 New York Islanders, their season would be defined by a single game -- the last game of the regular-season. Win, and the Islanders would overcome the many naysayers who picked them to finish dead-last in the league -- by qualifying for the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. A loss, and their season would be over -- a dream unfulfilled.
The Islanders carried no expectations into the 2006-07 season
If you believed the hockey experts who made their preseason predictions, the Islanders weren't even supposed to have this opportunity. On paper, they had a weak offense, a below-average defense, and mediocre goaltending. Many felt that the Islanders would be out of playoff contention by March...and by virtue of their failures, would end up with the #1 overall draft pick for the next season.
Off the ice, question marks surrounded the franchise, as well. Ted Nolan, who hadn't coached in the NHL since 1997, was hired during the summer of 2006 to serve behind the Islanders' bench. Occupying the general manager's chair was Garth Snow, the Isles' backup goalie the previous year. The perception of instability in the front office aided the negative view of the on-ice product.
Ted Nolan was given the Islanders' head coaching reins in 2006-07
The outside criticism produced an unintended effect -- the Islanders rallied behind each other. Playing free-and-loose during the course of the season, the team used the doubts as motivation to play above-and-beyond expectations. For most of the year, the Isles played .500-or-better hockey, placing them in contention to reach the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time in 3 years.
With 4 games remaining in the regular-season, however, the Islanders were still on the outside looking in. They would have to win every game and get some outside help to reach the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Isles, the stars seemed to align in aiding their faint playoff hopes. After rallying for victories over the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers...the Islanders had to win their final game against the New Jersey Devils to qualify for the post-season.
It was a chilly afternoon on April 8th, 2007 -- Easter Sunday. The Islanders converged on the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey for the final day of the NHL's regular season and a matchup with the New Jersey Devils.
For the Devils, the game was essentially meaningless. They had already secured the Eastern Conference's #2 seed, allowing an opportunity to rest players before the playoffs got underway.
Only the Devils knew their post-season fate as this game got underway
The Islanders were looking to take advantage of the situation. Their regular-season record was 39-30-12, good for 90 points. To reach the playoffs, however, the Isles needed 92 points -- nothing less would work. Any win -- in regulation, overtime, or a shootout -- would set the Islanders up with a 1st round matchup against the #1 seed Buffalo Sabres. Any kind of loss would leave the Islanders out of the post-season mix.
For me, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I am an Islanders' fan; my best friend is a Devils' fan. Every year, we attend at least one Islanders-Devils game together for cameraderie's sake...and this happened to be the game that we chose months beforehand. Sitting in Section 231, I was hopeful that the Islanders would clinch a playoff berth in front of my very eyes.
With so much at stake, many other Isles' fans trekked across the Hudson River from New York. Almost half of the 18,111 in attendance at Continental Airlines Arena was donning Islander orange-and-blue.
A big crowd gathered at the Meadowlands for the Easter Sunday matchup
Seemingly inspired by the show of support, the Islanders controlled the game's early pace. Midway through the 1st period, forward Richard Park would beat Devils' backup goalie Scott Clemmensen to give the Isles a 1-0 lead!
While Devils' fans sat and watched the events unfold with a relatively indifferent disposition, Islanders' fans were intensely witnessing one of the most important regular-season games in franchise history. Every shot, every save, every face-off and every hit took on a deeper meaning.
Whenever the puck entered the defensive zone, Islanders' fans became nervous
The Islanders would maintain their 1-0 advantage throughout the 2nd period and into the 3rd. With almost 12 minutes remaining, Park scored his 2nd goal of the game! New York now led 2-0, and every second that ticked from the clock would bring the Islanders closer to an unlikely Stanley Cup Playoff appearance.
Of course, every second that remained on the clock lasted excruciatingly too long for Islander fans. While some were confident that the two-goal lead would hold up, others wondered if it was too good to be true.
Qualifying for the playoffs would not be this easy
With less-than five-minutes remaining, the score remained the same. My stomach was churning; I would not feel comfortable until the Islanders' win was official. During the commercial stoppage, my best friend says, "How about we make this game interesting? The Devils come back and tie it up in the last minute...then you can win in overtime or something. Wouldn't that be better?" My simple response -- "No!!!"
Unfortunately, the Islanders seemed willing to oblige. Roughly 30 seconds after play resumed, forward John Madden scored on a deflection to make the score 2-1. The Devils were on the board...and their fans -- lifeless throughout the game -- now had a reason to cheer.
The Devils put the Islanders on their heels late in the 3rd period
The Devils seemed determined to keep the Islanders out of the post-season party...outhustling their opponents and peppering goalie Wade Dubielewicz with challenging shots. Dubielewicz -- the Islanders' 3rd string goalie who was called into action during the season's final week -- made the saves and kept his team in front.
In the game's final minute, the Devils pulled their goalie for the extra attacker. The Islanders still held a 2-1 lead. A trip to the playoffs was mere seconds away. The Devils were buzzing on the offensive end like they were the ones playing for their post-season lives. Finally, with :00.8 seconds left, John Madden stuffed the puck past the outstretched arm of Dubielewicz and into the net!
John Madden's last-second, game-tying goal nearly broke the Islanders' hearts
Suddenly, the lead was gone. The Islanders were less-than one-second away from a playoff berth. Now, they were potentially minutes away from one of the most devastating defeats in franchise history.
Throughout the 5-minute overtime period, the thousands of Islanders' fans in attendance sat in stunned silence. The absolute worst was now expected. Blowing a two-goal lead in the final five minutes was bad enough...but to do so when your team was playing for everything -- and the other team was playing for little more than pride -- is nearly tragic.
Overtime -- next goal wins
On the ice, the Islanders remained composed...playing a balanced overtime and outshooting the Devils 3-2 in the brief period. Still, neither team could light the goal lamp...and the game was tied at 2 as it went to a shootout.
A trip to the playoffs now essentially rested on the shoulders of the 5'10" Dubielewicz. The man affectionately nicknamed "Dubie" by his Islander teammates was playing in only his 17th NHL game. He was pressed into action earlier in the week after starting goalie Rick DiPietro suffered a concussion...and backup Mike Dunham was ineffective between the pipes.
Wade Dubielewicz became famous during the last week of the 2006-07 season
The Islanders were up 1st as the shootout got underway. Forward Miroslav Satan beat Clemmensen with a wrist shot to put the Isles on the board. Devils' forward Zach Parise responded with a shootout goal of his own. That was followed by a goal from Islanders' forward Viktor Kozlov. The Islanders now held a 2-1 lead in the extra session.
Viktor Kozlov's shootout goal would loom large
After Brian Gionta's shootout attempt was stymied by Dubielewicz, the Islanders had a chance to clinch a playoff spot if Ryan Smyth could score. Clemmensen would block Smyth's shot away, however, giving the Devils one last hope.
Brian Gionta is denied by Dubielewicz in the shootout
As Sergei Brylin began skating toward the Islanders' net with the puck, everyone inside Continental Airlines Arena was standing. The crowd was abuzz...Devils' fans were hoping that Brylin could extend the game. Islanders' fans watched nervously, hoping that the diminutive Dubielewicz could stand tall when it mattered most.
Brylin carried the puck into the Islanders' zone, one-on-one against Dubielewicz. As Brylin started to set up for a backhand shot, the Isles' goalie suddenly lunged forward with his stick. It was a do-or-die play...if Dubielewicz made contact with the puck, the game would be over and the Islanders would make the playoffs. If he missed, it would be an easy goal for Brylin.
The play happened in a split-second, yet it felt like it was moving in slow-motion for the thousands in attendance. Dubielewicz knocked the puck away from Brylin's stick...the Islanders won!
The poke check heard 'round Long Island
In the stands, New York fans were delirious in their happiness, accepting congratulatory handshakes from gracious Devils' supporters. On the ice, the Islanders reacted like they won the Stanley Cup itself...mobbing Dubielewicz in celebration of the historic victory.
The Islanders were overjoyed at making the playoffs
As they skated off the ice to continue the festivities in the visitor's locker room, many of the Islanders' players pointed at those wearing blue-and-orange, to express their thanks for the in-person support. It was a moment of pride for a franchise that had experienced so much frustration and heartbreak in recent years.
More celebratory moments on the ice
Although the New York Islanders would be eliminated by the Buffalo Sabres in a 5-game Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, the season could be viewed as a success by their fans. Not only did the Isles prove their doubters wrong by avoiding last place in the NHL, they qualified for the post-season in one of the most thrilling ways imaginable.
It took 82 games, plus overtime and a shootout -- but the Islanders did it