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'War of attrition' leaves lasting memories

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There have been epic postseason pro games through the ages, such as the 1971 double-overtime Christmas Day NFL showdown between Kansas City and Miami and the 1976 triple-OT NBA Finals battle in Game 5 between the Celtics and Phoenix in Boston.

But in modern times, when it comes to marathon length and extreme player hardship under playoff pressure, little compares to the five-OT NHL marathon between the Philadelphia Flyers and Penguins in Pittsburgh in 2000. It’s the third longest game in league history and longest since 1936.

The 13th anniversary of the seven-hour “war of attrition” that started on May 4 and ended May 5, 2000, at 2:35 a.m. EDT is celebrated this weekend. Even viewers in Albuquerque who tuned in late in the afternoon didn’t get to sleep till well past midnight. And it was a school night.

NHL’s longest games
- March 24, 1936: Detroit Red Wings 1, Montreal Maroons (winning goal at 16:30 of 6th OT)
- April 3, 1933: Toronto Maple Leafs 1, Boston Bruins 0 (winning goal at 4:46 of 6th OT)
- May 4, 2000: Philadelphia Flyers 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (winning goal scored at 12:01 of 5th OT)

Philadelphia’s Chris Therien, who played defense for 12 years, said in a phone interview Friday: “My legs were cramping and I was on IVs. I was going on fumes and the fumes were running out.”

Added the Flyers’ Keith Primeau: “Your legs were so filled with lactic acid they were hard to lift.”

And should a foe prepare to rip a slap shot, there wasn’t always a great sense of urgency to make a block.

“Oh my gosh, no,” said Primeau, a center who played 15 seasons. “I wasn’t going anywhere near a puck that was being shot.”

Toward the end, the teams rivaled kids playing pond hockey in dress shoes.

Setting the scene

The instrastate rivals didn’t need a big stage to bring their “A” games. Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal already had the nation’s hockey fans abuzz.

In Games 1 and 2, the Flyers had the home-ice edge, but lost 2-0 and 4-1. In Game 3 in Pittsburgh, on May 2, Philly prevailed 4-3 at 11:01 of overtime.

But the teams surely had no inkling what was before them.

Innocent beginning

Two days later, the Penguins got off to a rousing start when Alex Kovalev beat Flyers goalie Brian Boucher with a shot 2:22 into the game.

For the next 42 minutes, Boucher and Pittsburgh’s Ron Tugnutt were unbeatable sentries. But at 4:47 of the third period, Philadelphia tied it when an Eric Desjardins slap shot deflected off John LeClair while he was fighting to retain his balance in front of the net. The Pens screamed his stick was illegally above his shoulders, to no avail.

Only 30 seconds into the first extra 20-minute session, Philadelphia’s Daymond Langkow hit the crossbar, and at 1:40 of the second OT, Kovalev hit the right post. The score stayed 1-1.

Hungry folks

By this time, food was running low.

“There’s always pizza for after games, with about 10 or 12 delivered to the locker room,” Therien said. “But at around midnight, our bodies were calling for food and we started eating them then. There were also PowerBars and whatever the trainer would bring. …

“But after a while, there was nowhere to get energy. The concessions had been closed for three hours.”

Pittsburgh’s Matthew Barnaby was quoted after the game as saying he was past the point of exhaustion and reaching down for his “ninth wind.”

Play picks up

The third OT proved to be a good show, with the Flyers taking 13 shots and the Pens nine. In the fourth OT, Philadelphia again outshot Pittsburgh, this time 10-9, but the players clearly had lost a step or two.

“I just got a sense that it got to a point after the fourth overtime that I thought nobody was going to physically be able to score a goal,” said Therien, who finished with 71 shifts – second most on the team – and 50-plus minutes of ice time. “At that point, I didn’t know if I had five shifts left. I thought my knees were going to buckle.”

Tugnutt, meanwhile, was quoted: “After a while, guys were saying, ‘What period is this? The sixth, no, it’s the eighth.’ Your mind starts playing tricks on you.”

Primeau to the rescue

A little past the halfway point of the fifth overtime, with the sun due up in three hours, Primeau controlled of the puck in the Pens’ zone and made a quick move to shake defenseman Darius Kasparaitis and snap a wrist shot past Tugnutt at 12:01.

Primeau said he didn’t even see the shot go in – a score that brought the Flyers equal parts joy and relief.

“It was 2:30 in the morning, I don’t’ think anyone was seeing anything at the time,” he said Friday.

Therien, meanwhile, had just jumped on the ice.

“I remember thinking, ‘Holy (moly), we won this game,’” he said. “What a great feeling.”

Tugnutt, who stopped 70 shots, wound up as the losing goalie. Yet he was the game’s “first star.” Boucher had 57 saves and was the second star. Primeau was the third.

Later that day

There were no whirlpools for the Game 4 hero, whose parents were visiting.

“We walked on the Jersey Shore boardwalk,” Primeau said. “It was important to be out of bed.”

Therien, meanwhile, met a friend for lunch.

“The game was the talk of the world,” Therien said. “It was all anyone was talking about on morning drive shows. It felt like we had won the Super Bowl.”

He said the Flyers were lucky to have two days off before Game 5 in Philadelphia.

“I couldn’t have imagined playing the next night – it would have been the sloppiest game ever,” Therien said. “Coffee and (painkillers) would have been flying around the locker room.”

An ibuprofen smoothie might have been popular.

In Game 5, Philly won 6-3. Two days later the Flyers ousted the Pens 2-1 in Pittsburgh.

“They didn’t recover” from that five-OT game, Primeau said of Pittsburgh. “We could have played a week later. The damage was already done.”

But in retrospect …

“It certainly was one of the most memorable points of my career,” Primeau said. “… Living and residing in Philadelphia after my career, it carries a lot of memories.”

Therien also relishes his experience.

“I don’t wish five overtimes on anyone,” he said. “But as I look at it now, I’m proud to be a part of it.”

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