"My career really took a turning point in a game against the Washington Capitals in 1987. We were down three games to one in that series and fought back and were able to force a Game 7," recalls Pat LaFontaine in identifying the pinnacle of his hockey career.
|LaFontaine's game winning goal in the fourth overtime period of the Patrick Division
Semifinal concluded the eighth longest
game in NHL history.
It was April 18, 1987. The Patrick Division Semifinal had come down to a do-or-die moment for the third place New York Islanders facing the second place Capitals before a standing room only crowd at the Capital Center in Washington. It was, curiously, the fifth consecutive spring that the Islanders and Capitals had faced each other in post-season action.
It had been twelve seasons since any teams had rebounded from being down three games to one. Coincidentally, it was an earlier incarnation of the Islanders that had accomplished that feat, having rallied to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1975.
Neither team scored until Washington's Mike Gartner put the home team ahead late in the first period. Midway through the second, Pat Flatley of the Islanders tied the score, but Grant Martin put the Capitals back in the lead, 2-1, by the end of that period.
With a little more than five minutes left in regulation time, New York's Bryan Trottier fired a backhand through goaltender Bob Mason's pads to tie the game. When the buzzer sounded at the end of sixty minutes, the score was deadlocked at two apiece.
Both teams enjoyed great chances in the first overtime, but nothing was decided as both netminders were sensational. The second overtime period didn't result in a winner, either. The third overtime was scoreless, too. For the first time since Maurice 'Rocket' Richard's goal against the Detroit Red Wings on March 27, 1951, an NHL playoff contest was going into a fourth overtime period.
"It was two o'clock in the morning," recalls an amazed LaFontaine. "I'll never forget that game. There were fans sleeping in the stands, they were playing music from 'The Twilight Zone' and I thought, 'Is this truly happening?'"
Eight minutes into the fourth overtime period, the Islanders' Ken Leiter pinched in and kept the puck in the Capitals' zone. Carrying the puck behind Mason in the Washington net, Leiter passed the puck out to Gord Dineen. Pat LaFontaine dropped back to cover the vacant spot on the blueline, and picks up the remainder of that historic moment: "Gord Dineen was breaking for the net and the puck came out and I took a shot. Thank God the goaltender, Bob Mason, was screened because the puck went in." LaFontaine's goal, at 8:47 of the fourth overtime period, eliminated the Capitals and gave the New York Islanders a euphoric seventh game victory. LaFontaine's goal concluded the eighth longest game in NHL history.
"That was a special feeling to win that Game 7 and be a part of some history as far as the National Hockey League," admits Pat. "I look at that goal and it was really a stepping stone in my career."
A career, by the way, that led Pat LaFontaine to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Editor of Publications and Online Features.