If the Philadelphia Flyers are to return the Stanley Cup to Broad Street for the first time in a decade—and the prediction here is that they will because of their superior defense and goaltending—they must stop Wayne Gretzky. Let's say hold him to two points a game, which is exactly what Gretzky averaged (two goals, four assists) in Edmonton's three losses to the Flyers this season. Indeed, the Oilers have not beaten the Flyers since Nov. 13, 1982. In the last eight meetings between the teams, the defending Stanley Cup champions have a record of 0-7-1 against Philadelphia.
"Gretzky gets so much ice time that we won't assign just one man to cover him," says the Flyers' rookie coach, Mike Keenan. "Ron Sutter will play a great deal against him."
It has been Sutter's play as much as anyone's that has led the Flyers in their march to the finals. In the second round of the playoffs he shut down the Islanders' Bryan Trottier, holding him to just one assist in five games. Then in the semifinals Sutter's checking completely frustrated Quebec's Peter Stastny, limiting the Nordiques' star center to a single goal and three assists in the six-game series.
Gretzky, of course, is a different kettle of quiche. He cannot be lured into roughhousing, as Stastny was (two five-minute major penalties and four stitches against Philly), and his mobility is such that he is nearly impossible to hit with a legal body check in open ice. That means it's tough to wear him down.
"What you have to do is reduce the space he has to work in," says Keenan.
Translation: Stop up the middle, force him to the boards. One of Gretzky's favorite ploys is to pull up as he crosses the blue line, letting the pursuit pass by him and the defense sag goalward—in effect creating open ice within which to work his wonders. When he does this, the Flyer defense must stay up and force Gretzky wide. That requires quickness, and the only Flyer defenseman who has the speed to match Gretzky's is Mark Howe. His performance—and Howe has been spectacular in the playoffs—will be the key to keeping Gretzky off a spree.
Howe, along with Edmonton's Paul Coffey, is probably the finest skating defenseman in the NHL. Unlike Coffey, he seldom gets so involved in his team's offensive thrusts that he is out of position defensively. That should make it difficult for the Oilers to spring Gretzky on breakaways. Howe is also accustomed to an inordinate amount of ice time, especially now that Brad McCrimmon is out for the duration with a separated left shoulder. Look for Keenan to have Howe on the ice whenever Gretzky's there; and for Edmonton coach Glen Sather to counteract by getting his team to throw the puck into Howe's corner time and again in an effort to tire him out. How well Howe holds up may determine the outcome of the series.