They’re almost here.
Over the weekend, hockey fans will get this year’s first look at Game 6. We’ll get one on Saturday night, with the Hawks hosting the Blues. Depending on how things play out, we could have as many as four more on Sunday, and maybe even two more after that on Monday.
It goes without saying that a Game 6 is always crucial. A Game 6 means that one team is guaranteed to be looking to close out the series and move on to the next round. It also means that one team will be facing elimination, just one loss away from seeing everything they’ve worked for all season long end with the crushing disappointment of elimination.
But even more importantly, it means we have a chance to get overtime. And if we do, then the odds are good that we’ll see something truly strange. Because, for reasons nobody has ever been able to explain, Game 6 Overtime is the NHL’s version of the Twilight Zone.
Think back to the strangest, most controversial or just downright confusing moment you can remember witnessing as a hockey fan. The odds are good that it happened in a Game 6 Overtime. Nobody knows why this is. There’s no rational explanation for it. But somehow, when it’s Game 6 of a playoff series and we’re deadlocked after regulation, things get weird. Before the Zambonis have completed their intermission rounds, the generally accepted laws of society, justice and even basic physics are already resetting themselves.
For example, what’s the most controversial play in NHL history? Most fans would probably think of Brett Hull’s skate-in-the-crease goal to win the 1999 Stanley Cup. And when did that happen? Game 6 Overtime, of course.
That goal and its aftermath still stands as one of the strangest moments that hockey fans have ever seen. Then again, at least we did actually see it. In Game 6 Overtime, there are no guarantees. At any other time, a star player scoring the biggest goal in a decade would be an unforgettable moment. In Game 6 Overtime, you might not even notice that it happened.
This stuff has been going on for decades. And it’s not just about the winning goals. Go find the nearest Maple Leafs fan and ask them how their day is going. Then count the seconds until they manage to change the subject to the one play that every Leafs fan has been droning on about for 23 years: Wayne Gretzky’s missed high-stick on Doug Gilmour from the 1993 Conference Finals. And when did that happen? Of course.
You can’t really blame Gretzky, though. When it comes to Game 6 Overtime, something weird happens to the rulebook, and plays that would normally be illegal are suddenly just fine. Like, say, bowling over a goalie and then kicking the puck into his open net. Totally allowed, right Greg Adams?
Sure, that may not look like a standard way to score a series-winning goal. But Adams knew where he was, and he knew that the regular rules didn’t apply. Under normal circumstances, series-winning goals are scored by players taking slap shots, sliding home backhands or tipping in drives from the point. In Game 6 Overtime, you score with a gravity-defying chip shot from 20 feet out while you’re lying on the ice with an opponent sitting on top of you.
None of this is new, by the way. We’ve known about Game 6 Overtime’s penchant for weirdness for over a half-century, dating back to the 1964 final and one of the most famous goals ever scored. At any other time in the sport, breaking your leg means you get on a stretcher, leave the arena, go to the hospital and start thinking about being ready for next year. In Game 6 Overtime, Bobby Baun just went back out onto the ice and scored the winning goal.
Two years later, the 1966 final ended with Montreal’s Henri Richard sliding along the ice, swiping the puck past Joe Crozier with his glove for a winner that the Red Wings insisted should never have counted. And under ordinary circumstances, it wouldn’t. But this was Game 6 Overtime, so the Wings were out of luck.
And sure, every decade or so a Game 6 Overtime will play it straight, with an established name scoring a no-doubt-about-it winner. That’s where you get moments like Bob Nystrom, or Jason Arnott, or Peter Stastny, or even Jean Beliveau. But those are merely the exceptions that prove the rule. They’re only there to throw us off the trail.
Far more often, Game 6 Overtime is when up is down, left is right and Joe Thornton is clutch. It’s where a matchup packed with future Hall-of-Famers is ended by a rookie playing his 12th career game. It’s where Ville Leino takes the ice in Buffalo and actually does something. (Those last three games all happened within a day of each other, by the way. Once the Game 6 Overtime gremlins have arrived, they can spread quickly.)
Game 6 Overtime is where one minute you’re fighting for your playoff lives, and the next your own defenceman has kicked your goaltender in the groin, a checking winger has ended your season, and some crazy defenceman is mock-saluting your superstar.
Like all enchanted lands, Game 6 Overtime is a place where you’ll want to tread carefully. The very first one in NHL history came way back in 1940 at Maple Leaf Gardens. It lasted just two minutes, and ended with Bryan Hextall scoring the Stanley Cup winner for the Rangers. Needless to say, they wouldn’t win another title for 54 years. They had to pay the price for awakening the beast.
For those unfortunate players who find themselves trapped in one, Game 6 Overtime can lead to a lifetime of nightmare fuel. It’s the land of unforgivable turnovers, ridiculous bad bounces and too-many-men. It’s where a crowd-silencing crossbar at one end inevitably leads to a fluke goal at the other. It’s where players absorb crushing hits, and the play-by-play guy’s chair nearly ends up absorbing a potty accident. It’s where a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer’s brain cramp leads to the greatest celebration of all time.
And if all that isn’t enough to convince you that Game 6 Overtime is the strangest place of all, consider this: It’s the only thing that’s ever created a positive playoff memory for longtime St. Louis Blues fans. That’s what we call a miracle.
And sure, maybe none of this will come to be. Maybe all this weekend’s sixth games will be resolved in regulation, and we’ll avoid the madness lurking in sudden death. No craziness, no controversy, no deeply scarred fan bases left behind.
It could happen. Just don’t count on it. Because occasionally, Game 6 Overtime will even achieve self-awareness and find a way to will itself to life. It will reach its icy claws into regulation, altering the very space time continuum just to ensure a sudden death period where one doesn’t belong. It’s that powerful. It’s that hungry. Game 6 Overtime will even wipe out a Stanley Cup-winning goal, just to ensure its own existence.
And here’s a scary thought: There’s been at least one Game 6 Overtime every season since 1990, save for one. That lone exception: Last year. Why? What are they planning? What are they trying to lull us into a false sense of security for? Why now?
Be safe out there this weekend, everyone. The game sixes are almost here. This way lies madness.