The night of May 14, 1993 is one that Pittsburgh Penguins fans would love to forget.
David Volek’s goal at 5:16 of overtime gave the New York Islanders a monumental upset over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions in the second round of the Wales Conference Playoffs.
Many consider that 1992-93 Penguins team to be a better team than their Cup-winning sides. They won the Presidents' Trophy with 119 points. Mario Lemieux earned his fourth Art Ross Trophy with 160 points despite missing 24 games while receiving treatment for Hodgkin's Disease. Four players, Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet and Ron Francis, all finished with more than 100 points during the regular season. They were a juggernaut with a third straight Cup in sight.
But its place in history was forever altered by a winger who played 396 games in the NHL.
But what if he never had a chance to score that goal?
What if David Volek wasn’t an Islander and on the Civic Arena ice accepting that pass from Ray Ferraro?
It almost happened.
Seventeen months before Volek put himself into Islanders lore, he and the team were in a bitter contract dispute.
In the fourth year of a five-year deal after defecting from Czechoslovakia, Volek’s agent Ritch Winter, and Islanders general manager Bill Torrey could not agree on an extension. Why that happened ... well, you’d have to speak to more than one side to get an answer.
The only way out, Volek felt, was likely a trade, but even today he isn't sure just how close that came to being a reality.
“In that time, I didn’t know how close,” said Volek via phone from Prague on Thursday. “When I was scouting for Buffalo, I had the chance to talk to someone from the opposite side. I did know one or two teams were interested. I heard it was close.”
Volek remained an Islander, and through the 1991-92 season, he had compiled 82 goals and 214 points in 308 games in four years with the team.
Things didn’t get better for Volek during the 1992-93 season. He played a career-low 56 games and found himself watching from the press box as a healthy scratch for 18 straight at one point.
There was every reason for him to be disgruntled between the limited playing time and the stalled contract talks. But Volek used all of that negativity as fuel.
“I was thinking if I’m going to get another chance I want to prove to me and to everybody… they kind of didn’t trust me anymore,” said Volek. “I wasn’t valued as I thought. For me it wasn’t a fair situation. But it was more motivation. I didn’t give up. I was hoping and I was looking to get another chance.”
Volek would get that chance in Game 3 against the Penguins, when he returned to the lineup.
Four games later, he would find redemption and become a part of hockey history.
The Islanders had eliminated the Washington Capitals in the first round, but not before Dale Hunter’s late hit would cause leading scorer Pierre Turgeon to suffer a separated shoulder and be ruled out for the playoffs. Turgeon would surprise everyone and return to play in Game 7 against Pittsburgh.
While the Islanders prepared to face the mighty Penguins without Turgeon, Volek’s frustration grew. The team was calling up players from the minors, a sign that he still wouldn’t be getting his chance.
Inside the locker room, the mood was loose. It was David versus Goliath. The Islanders were supposed to be another victim for the Penguins en route to a third straight Cup. But they approached it like any other series, even without Turgeon.
“We didn’t feel pressure,” said Volek. “That’s how we played the series. Game-by-game. Period-by-period.”
Volek would return to the Islanders’ lineup for Game 3, but not make a mark on the scoresheet until Game 7.
Before the deciding game of the series, there were no nerves to be found in Volek’s body. He was still feeding off the adrenaline from getting out of the press box and back out onto the ice.
Pointless from Games 3-6, Volek scored at 6:10 in the third period of Game 7 to give the Islanders a 2-1 lead. It was his first goal since March 18. Benoit Hogue would beat Tom Barrasso three minutes later and suddenly the Islanders were ten minutes away from shocking the hockey world.
Of course, with a team like the 1993 Penguins, the desperate push back was going to happen; but the Islanders came close to fending off the Penguins comeback. Francis would cut the lead to 3-2 with 3:47 in regulation, then a Larry Murphy shot deflected off Tocchet and tied the game with exactly 60 seconds to go in regulation.
“It’s like, ‘OK, what’s going to happen now?’,” said Volek.
The intermission between the third period and overtime gave the Islanders time to re-group, re-focus and for Volek, to decide that he was going be the hero.
“When overtime started, I told Ray Ferraro, ‘If there’s any justice, I’m going to score the winner’,” Volek said.
“I told Ray that on the bench, then two or three shifts after that, there was that breakdown for the Penguins on the blueline and we were a 2-on-1.”
“I just instinctively one-timed the pass and shot the puck. I don’t know how tired I was. I felt I’m just going to take the shot. It was a well-timed pass from Ray and it kind of surprised the goalie.”
That night, Volek couldn’t fall asleep, and for good reason. The goal was replaying in his mind like a highlight film. Over and over. It was the best restless night he'd ever experienced.
He and his teammates would have to quickly wake up from their dream as two days later they began their Wales Conference Final series against the eventual-champion Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. They would fall in five games, but that wouldn't diminish a memorable run.
The next season, a back injury failed to respond to treatment and after playing just 32 games, Volek retired at the age of 28.
Today, he serves as a European scout for the Calgary Flames and his son, Dominik, recently finished up his second season in the Western Hockey League with the Red Deer Rebels.
Volek has been back to Pittsburgh twice since that famous Friday night in May 1993. The Islanders traveled to the Igloo the following season where he was welcomed with boos. Last June, he was across the street inside CONSOL Energy Center for the NHL Draft sitting at the Flames’ table. He was recognized that weekend from fans looking for autographs, but none shared with him their years of sleepless nights because of that goal.
Twenty years will have passed in on May 14, 2013, time since that goal. The Islanders haven’t had many things to smile since that night inside Civic Arena. Eliminating the Penguins in 1993 was their last victory in a playoff series. Four tries since have failed. Now, the 2013 version of the club face a similar daunting task in trying to knock-off a heavily favored Pittsburgh side.
It took Volek a while to understand the magnitude of his goal outside of the Islanders locker room. Today he can still laugh off how his name is received in the Steel City.
“I’ve realized that through the years," he said.
"I think I understand how important and how big of a goal it was for the Islanders fans and on the opposite side, how much they didn’t like me in Pittsburgh.”
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy