With nearly every sports organization on the planet on pause at the moment as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, we feel it’s an opportune time to reminisce about some special moments in sports history.
On this day in 1987, Kelly Hrudey made an NHL-record 73 saves as the New York Islanders defeated the Washington Capitals 3-2 in quadruple overtime to win their Patrick Division Semifinals series in seven games. The longest Game 7 in NHL history, it is forever known as the Easter Epic because it ended just before 2 a.m. on Easter Sunday.
“It was such a great game to be a part of and great memories,” Hrudey recalls now. “I think all of us recognized the magnitude of the game and how unique it is and we knew it was going to be a game that was going to be talked about for a very long time.”
The game was on a Saturday night and as the only first-round series left looking for a winner, it was broadcast nationally on both Hockey Night in Canada with Bob Cole and Harry Neale as well as in the U.S. on ESPN with Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick and Bill Clement.
Hrudey says he arrived about two hours before the 7:30 p.m. puck drop and went about his normal routine, drinking two coffees and stretching a lot. The Capitals, playing in front of their home fans at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD., were the favourites but the Islanders had forced Game 7 by winning two straight games after going down 3-1 in the series. The two sides had faced each other in each of the four previous playoffs too, with New York winning three of those series, so there was a lot of familiarity between the combatants.
The Capitals came out flying to start the game and kept Hrudey busy early. “Hrudey seems to know where everyone is going to be,” Cole said after a flurry of chances near the Islanders net early in the game, almost as if he knew history was about to be made.
Mike Gartner opened the scoring for Washington with a goal off a rebound in the final minute of the first period. “Of all the shots I faced in the first period, I didn’t think that one should have gotten past me,” Hrudey says. “I didn’t think that was a great way to go into the intermission but we were able to regroup and came back and tied on a goal by Pat Flatley in the second.”
Flatley’s goal came mid-way through the second off a wrist shot on the rush but another late goal, this time from Grant Martin, put the Capitals up by one again after two periods.
The score remained 2-1 for most of the third period before Bryan Trottier, who was playing with a dislocated left shoulder, evened the score with under five minutes to play on a backhander that fooled Mason. It would take more than 74 minutes of gameplay before the next goal was scored.
When the horn sounded for the end of regulation, Hrudey says Islanders coach Terry Simpson didn’t have to say much to get his players ready for overtime. “I think we kind of knew what we had to do and we were expecting great hockey, intense hockey,” Hrudey says. “So everybody was just preparing mentally to get ramped up.”
Both goalies stood on their heads in overtime. Hrudey robbed Bobby Gould with an incredible glove save late in the second and kept the puck out even with Lou Franceschetti sliding into him in the third overtime. His counterpart Bob Mason had big saves on the Islanders’ Mikko Makela and Bob Bassen, and robbed Randy Wood of a goal after losing his helmet. Mason finished the game with 54 saves.
“It’s been a while since we’ve seen pressure goaltending like this,” Cole said after a flurry of saves by Hrudey in the second overtime.
Hrudey admits now that there were times in the third and fourth overtimes where it was hard to stay focused but, “it’s just human nature,” he says of all the saves he had to make. “I think when you’re a fighter and a guy that battles like all of us were at the time, I think you find a way to just drag that out of your body.”
In the end, Pat LaFontaine scored the winner at 8:47 of the fourth overtime, off assists from defencemen Ken Leiter and Gord Dineen, who got the play started by pinching in. LaFontaine, covering for Dineen on the point, spun and fired a shot past a screened Mason and in to send a still-packed Capital Centre home disappointed.
“It was surreal,” LaFontaine said in a 2017 interview with NHL.com. “I’ll never forget just before the goal, (former Islanders equipment manager) Jim Picker was squeezing a water bottle down the back of my neck and he was like, ‘Hey Pop, you’re gonna get one, I can feel it.’ The organist had played music from ‘The Twilight Zone.’ We were kind of sitting back and there’s 75 shots to 57. It’s almost 2 o’clock in the morning and I looked in the stands and there were people sleeping in the stands. I was wondering, ‘Is this really happening?’ But sure enough, we were able to score that goal and come back from down three games to one.”
Hrudey waited a few seconds to make sure the puck was in before fully appreciating the moment. Half the Islanders stormed off the bench to LaFontaine to celebrate his goal while the others went right to their goalie, who had just added his name to the record books.
“Randy Boyd was the first and we had a big embrace, we may have even fallen to the ice, I can’t recall, but it was sheer disbelief that went into total elation,” Hrudey says.
After the handshake line and some post-game interviews, Hrudey was finally able to take his skates off around 2:10 a.m. He says his toes curled under his feet from dehydration and he’s “never had two beers go to my head like that.”
“I certainly don’t remember much of a celebration,” Hrudey says. “I don’t remember it being loud in there. I think all of us were just so thoroughly exhausted we didn’t have any energy to hug each other or whoop it up or anything.”
The Islanders flew home that same night but had to wait for fog to clear in Baltimore before their plane could take off. Hrudey estimates he got home around 9 a.m. on Easter Sunday and only got three-to-four hours of sleep because he had to do a TV interview in the afternoon.
After the interview, he packed his stuff and the team headed on a bus to Philadelphia for Game 1 of the Patrick Division Finals against the Flyers on Monday.
“(Game 1) was the only game impacted by the Easter Epic,” Hrudey says. “I felt really good in warmup and then I just lost my energy really quickly and I was yanked after one period, we were down 3-0 and I had nothing left to give.”
The Flyers ultimately won that series in seven games after the Islanders again erased a 3-1 deficit.
Ed Belfour (2003) and Roberto Luongo (2007) have both made 72 saves in playoff games but no one has touched Hrudey’s 73 yet. Hrudey is honoured to hold that record but can’t believe that, with all the improvements to the goaltending position, the mark still stands 33 years later.
“It’s a cool feeling having that record, knowing that nobody has ever made more saves in an NHL playoff game than yourself, which is phenomenal to think about and hard to believe,” he says. “(But) I am completely shocked that not only hasn’t anyone made more saves but that the record hasn’t been shattered.”
Hrudey ranks this game as one of his career highlights along with reaching the Stanley Cup Final with Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in 1993. But, he says, the Easter Epic is the rare game where he felt some sympathy for an opponent after beating them.
“I rarely ever felt sorry for the losing team but there was a tinge of sorrow for the Capitals in that one simply because when it goes that long it’s a toss-up, who knows who’s going to win that game,” he says. “I think both teams really proved a lot that night.”