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The 1990 playoff plot twist that went from disappointment to destiny

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Playoff disappointment came to the Penguins, Flyers, and Red Wings this week, but sometimes those clouds part quickly.

Pittsburgh is out for the second straight year in the Sidney Crosby era, and the New York Islanders squeaked in as the No. 3 team in the Metropolitan Division. The same scenario happened in 1990, but Pittsburgh's short-term disappointment turned into a franchise-altering opportunity.

In that Islanders era, the team was trying to rekindle the magic of its run of four consecutive Stanley Cup victories in the 1980s and reinstalled coach Al Arbour behind the bench midway through the previous season.

"We were just a young team, just trying to figure ourselves out," says Glenn Healy, who was in his first season with the Islanders and is now the president and executive director of the NHL Alumni Association. "We were all trying to make the league or stay in the league."

Glenn Healy clears the puck for the Islanders in March 1990 Mitchell Layton / Getty Images

New York still had a chance to make the playoffs on the final day. The Islanders took care of their business by beating Philadelphia 6-2 to reach 73 points in the standings. If Buffalo, riding in second place in the Prince of Wales Conference, could pull out a win against Mario Lemieux's Penguins, who had 72 points, New York would be in. Islanders players crammed into the bowels of the Nassau Coliseum to watch their fate unfold on TV.

"We didn't have your vaulted television rooms where you can watch team videos and watch tape," Healy says. "We were in this tiny room. It, maybe, sat six comfortably. It had a couch, a chair, and a coffee maker."

He guesses there were about 27 grown men crowded together, hanging on every play. The anticipation and tension were palpable.

The game was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation after Lemieux scored early in the third period. With no shootout back then, a tie would've been enough to put Pittsburgh into the playoffs.

"Both teams were mailing it in," Healy says. "The season was basically over for both. The clock was ticking and our hopes were going with it."

A minute into overtime, seemingly out of nowhere, Buffalo defenseman Uwe Krupp put a shot on net from just inside the blue line. Shockingly, it got by Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso.

"The entire room erupted," Healy says. "Imagine the euphoria of 27 guys all in a room, jumping up and down. We were a playoff-bound team. It was the first time for a lot of those guys to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs."

The Islanders lost in Round 1 against the Rangers, but they had reversed their recent decline that saw them finish with the fewest points in the NHL in 1988-89. It was a pyrrhic victory, though. They didn't know it then, but the biggest twist was still to come.

Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr stand with the Stanley Cup, early 1990s. The Pens won the championship trophy in 1991 and 1992 Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

That overtime loss to Buffalo may have pushed the Penguins out of the playoffs, but it also moved them ahead of the Islanders in the draft order. Only five teams missed the playoffs in the 21-team NHL, so Pittsburgh had the fifth pick while the Islanders had the sixth.

The Penguins used the selection on another generational player to skate alongside Lemieux. Jaromir Jagr went on to play 1,733 NHL games, make seven All-Star appearances, and win two Stanley Cups. The Islanders, meanwhile, selected Scott Scissons, who played just three games due to injuries.

"That's why you tune in, right?" Healy says. "It's not wrestling. I kind of know at the end of Titanic, the ship gets hit with an iceberg. I don't even need to watch the movie, I figured that out. But sports isn't that way."

Jolene Latimer is a features writer at theScore

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