Friday, April 29, 2011

Working Overtime

Overtime hockey in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs can test the mettle of players, coaches and fans alike.
The ultimate goal for any team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

For three periods and roughly two-and-a-half hours, those with a vested interest in the game pour their attention and energy into it, knowing the stakes of a best-of-7 post-season matchup. Whether it's executing plays on the ice, developing strategies on the bench or just screaming at the top of your lungs in the stands...everyone inside the arena has a role.

Sometimes that's not enough, however. Unlike the regular-season, where games are decided by a shortened overtime -- and if necessary, a shootout -- playoff hockey is settled the old-fashioned way. Teams skate 5-on-5 in a sudden death format -- whoever scores wins. If the game isn't decided during the first 20-minute extra session, the show goes on until the goal lamp is lit.

This year's playoffs have already featured a number of dramatic OT games

In the 1st round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, there were 14 games that required overtime. Ask anyone who was at those games, and they will speak of the drama involved. Every shot-on-goal could be the winning one. Every save could be a game-changer. Every mistake could be remembered for years to come.

Of the 14 OT games in this year's playoffs, three required multiple overtimes. Under this scenario, it becomes more than just a game. It is a classic, epic struggle...a test of endurance...a badge of honor. The winners gain a tremendous amount of momentum, while the losers are left with a feeling of emptiness.

It should be on every sports fan's bucket list to attend a multi-OT hockey game. One small problem, never know when it might happen.


On April 14th, 2003, the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators met in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.

The Islanders and Senators had their 1st (and only) playoff meeting in 2003

The atmosphere in Uniondale, New York was tremendous. The Islanders, seeded 8th in the East, had "upset" on their minds. Although Ottawa won the NHL's President's Trophy and top overall seed with 113 points in the regular-season, the Islanders earned a split during the 1st two games of the series in Ottawa. Now, they return home to a raucous Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and a sold-out crowd of 16,234.

Nassau Coliseum was ready for some playoff hockey

It had been a strange season for the Islanders, who were expected to take the next step after a hard-fought playoff loss to Toronto the year before. Instead, the blue-and-orange struggled at the end of the regular-season, backing their way into the playoffs with 83 points. There reportedly was dissention in the locker room, as some players accused head coach Peter Laviolette of playing favorites. In the playoffs, however, the off-ice drama took a back seat.

Upon walking through the arena doors, everyone was handed a white rally towel with the words "2003 Islanders Playoff Drive." It's always an impressive sight whenever the rally towels are being waved en a blizzard spontaneously broke out in the seating bowl.

The playoff rally towels were out in force at the Coliseum

The towels would provide visual accompaniment to a crowd that was intent on splitting eardrums. Thanks to its low ceiling and relatively cramped conditions, Nassau Coliseum can get very loud at major events...providing a valuable home-ice advantage.

As Game 3 in the best-of-7 series got underway, loud chants of "Let's Go, Islanders!" echoed throughout the arena. Fans near the top of Section 313 were pounding on the ceiling to amplify the noise. When those chants died down, new ones would spring up...usually directed toward Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime. Heckling chants of "Paaaaaaaa-triiiiiiiiiick" would go on for minutes, in the hopes that they would somehow distract him.

Patrick Lalime was between the pipes for the Senators

Fueled by the sold-out crowd, the Islanders got on the scoreboard first. Midway through the 1st period, former Senators' captain Alexei Yashin poked a loose puck across the goal line, sending Islanders' fans into a frenzy. Once the goal was confirmed by video replay, the blizzard of towels broke out once again. Long Island believed in their underdogs.

The Islanders would open up the Game 3 scoring, thanks to Alexei Yashin

After a goal by Ottawa forward Todd White tied the game late in the 1st period, the Islanders were determined to keep the momentum on their side. During a power play, forward Randy Robitaille fired a shot past Lalime to give the Isles a 2-1 advantage. The tie lasted all of 24 seconds, giving the hometown crowd a belief that this was their night.

Randy Robitaille would give the Islanders a late 1st period lead

The momentum would shift in the 2nd period. Although the Islanders outplayed the Senators and received multiple power plays, it was the team in red, black and white that did the scoring. In the final minute, Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips tipped a pass in the slot past Islanders' goalie Garth Snow.

Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips tied things up in the 2nd period

After two periods, the game was tied 2-2. It would remain that way for awhile.

The Nassau Coliseum crowd was nervous at the start of the 3rd period. The Islanders were taking it to the NHL's best team in 2003, yet the game -- and the series -- still hung in the balance.

On the ice, both teams played conservatively, knowing that one mistake could cost them dearly. The "Let's Go, Islanders" chants continued and towels randomly waved throughout the arena, trying to will the home team to a victory.

Neither team would score, however, and the game was headed to a crucial overtime.

Despite having the NHL's best record in 2003, the Senators were in for a fight

During the intermission, some fans remained in their seats...pondering the potential outcome. Others wandered through the cramped Coliseum concourse, just to distract themselves from the game at-hand. Those 18-minutes felt like they took forever, as numerous questions enter the mind. "Who will be the hero?" "Who might make the big mistake?" "How long will this game last?"

That final question is always present during a playoff OT. Games could last into the wee hours of the players test their physical limits on the ice, while fans deal with a combination of nerves and fatigue.

Todd White scored one of Ottawa's goals in regulation -- would another await in OT?

In the overtime period, the Islanders did everything they could to survive. Ottawa outshot New York 12-6 during the extra session, but Snow kept the puck out of the net. Although the talent gap between the two teams was apparent...the Islanders still had a chance to win and gain control of the series.

Garth Snow kept the Islanders in the game during the 1st overtime

The game's intensity had a direct effect on the crowd. Although the "Let's Go Islanders" and "Paaaaaa-triiiiiiiick" chants continued throughout Nassau Coliseum, they were not as boisterous as they were earlier in the game. As butterflies built in fans' stomachs, the ability to make noise was compromised.

The horn sounded at the end of OT, and the game was still tied 2-2. The Islanders and Senators were headed to double overtime.
No one knows just when this game would end

Throughout my life, I wanted to attend a game like this. The more overtimes, the better! Regardless of who would end up winning, I knew I was witnessing a historic performance.
On the scoreboard above center ice, the start of the 2nd OT was reflected as "Period 5." It was a unique sight, and some players and fans alike were venturing into uncharted territory.

After two minutes of play in double OT, the game would be decided. A neutral zone turnover by Islanders' forward Oleg Kvasha game Ottawa a chance. Senators' forward Magnus Arvedson carried the puck into the Isles' zone and fired a shot toward the net. Standing in front of the goal crease was Todd White...who deflected the puck past Snow and into the net for the game-winner. For White, it was his 2nd goal of the game...and one of the biggest in his career.

Todd White tips the puck past Garth Snow for the game-winning goal

In an instant, Nassau Coliseum fell silent. Some dejectedly headed for the exits...while others stayed in their seats, staring blankly at the scoreboard that now said "Ottawa 3, Islanders 2." The game clock was now frozen, with 17:35 remaining in the "5th" period.

The momentum-crushing loss was too much for the Islanders to handle. The Senators took control of the series, ousting the Islanders in 5 games.

The top-seeded Senators eliminated the 8th-seeded Islanders in 5 games

To this day, I still slightly cringe when I hear the name "Todd White." That's the result of overtime playoff hockey...especially when a game requires multiple OT's. The hero's name is magnified, while the goat's role in the loss is embellished.

The next time you step into an arena for a playoff hockey game, plan ahead -- you never know how long you might be there.

Nowhere on the ticket did it say, "Prepare for a multi-OT game"

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