|Wednesday, November 28
Updated: November 29, 12:28 PM ET
Close games call for masters of organized chaos
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
It was the rare absolutely electric moments in NHL regular-season history, and it came 13 seconds after the clock hit 1:00 in the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The New York Islanders were coming off two straight Stanley Cup championships. They were playing one of the worst teams in the league, the Colorado Rockies. And yet the Long Island crowd was so into this, so on the edge of their seats or balancing on tiptoes, you'd have thought the Isles were playing the Rangers -- minus the derision for the opposition.
At 19:13, John Tonelli scored to break the tie, and you'd have thought it was a seventh game in a playoff series. Against those Rangers. And that Denis Potvin, who -- despite what the Rangers fans chant, does not inhale -- scored the clincher.
That's the only negative in the overtime format: It changes the dynamic during the final minute of regulation, eliminates that test of desire to get a second point. Now, the act of desperation usually involves trying to get the tying goal, to get the game into overtime and guarantee the one point.
But even now, the final minute, at least in the third period, can be compressed excitement, and it can play games with the mental clocks. If you're ahead, it can seem as if the clown running the official time has hit the button that means it takes 1.75 seconds to roll off a second, or scratches his nose three times before starting the clock on faceoffs. If you're behind, it's as if the fast-talking guy in the Federal Express commercials is running the clock, or he's hit fast forward on the clock's remote control.
Playing in the final minute can be an art form, and Bryan Trottier, the Hall of Fame center from those Islanders dynastic teams, says Mario Lemieux was -- and is -- the master.
"He's a man who wanted who the puck, to create the play and take the shot," says Trottier, who also played with and coached Lemieux in Pittsburgh and now is a Colorado Avalanche assistant coach. "And he's even better than normal in the situation where you pull the goaltender and he's on your team. I tell you, I've seen him score a lot in those situations.
"And when you're trying to score against him with your goalie out, he can be unbelievable. One time when I was with the Islanders, he cleverly chipped the puck about four or five times out of danger zones in 45 seconds because of his reach. He just keeps the puck alive and out of danger, without wasting any energy. Then at the last second, it's almost like he says, 'Oh well, you guys had your fun,' and he goes down and scores."
With the goalie out, Lemieux is a tower of strength, controlling the puck in the opposition zone.
"He can protect it, and he has soft hands and just wait to draw two guys to him, or even protect it from a third guy," Trottier says. "He can make the play, then even get a good solid whack at the rebound. It's his reach, and I call him Mr. Liquid because he finds a way to sneak around and pull at pucks and get bad-angle shots and throw pucks at the net. In the last minute once, I think he hit two posts before he tucked one. It was like it was inevitable."
The first rule about the last minute of a tight game: There are no rules, especially for the team trying to retain -- or add to -- that one-goal lead.
Even two referees usually swallow the whistles, and they're so good at it, they can retrieve them later from their stomachs without having to have their stomachs pumped.
It often is the time to utilize the single timeout, to keep the top line out on the ice. The team with the goalie out is crashing, and you're leaning forward in the seats, your reaction depending on which team you're pulling for, and the blue line seems the proverbial edge of a pre-Christopher Columbus flat world. The puck gets outside the attacking zone, the world -- and the chance to win -- often has come to an end.
"When you're trying to score, it's a full, all-out pinch," Blake says. "A lot of times, you don't see two 'D' back on the blue line." (At other times in a game, this is known as the "Sandis Ozolinsh gambit"; in the final minute, it's SOP.) Blake adds, "You have to keep the puck down low. You set plays on draws, but for the most part, it's just all-out. I'm usually back, but I'm keeping an eye on the clock. If it's under 15 seconds, you have to forget everything and go down there, too."
When you're trying to hold the lead, you're outnumbered, but amid the aggressive play triggered by the knowledge that anything goes, you're also thinking geometry. More than ever, you're trying to protect the "prime" ice, and reacting after every shot as if the crush to the net will be on. Because of the math, you have to be conscious that your "man" now is one-plus. And now more than ever, it's paramount that you avoid having your stick tied up; and that can even mean defensively, because if an attacker "sacrifices" his stick at the right place at the right time, it eliminates one defender.
And when you're behind, all hell has broken loose.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His feedback address for e-mails signed with names and cities is ChipHilton23@hotmail.com