Late Saturday night, moments after Wayne Gretzky left the press conference stage, Philadelphia Flyers coach Mike Keenan approached the microphone and smiled grimly in the direction of the departing Great One. The Edmonton Oilers' star had all but single-handedly dismantled the Flyers that night, scoring a hat trick and adding an assist in a 4-3 victory that gave the Oilers a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series for the Stanley Cup. Gretzky had also helped kill eight Philadelphia power plays and, for good measure, had won a critical face-off with 14 seconds remaining in the game to snuff out a gritty Flyers' comeback. And he easily could have had another three or four points if he hadn't missed two open nets, or if Jari Kurri hadn't blown two scoring opportunities on Gretzky passes. One was a kick pass Gretzky sent halfway across the rink that caught Kurri in stride. The other was a bank pass off the side of the goal. "At least he was sweating," Keenan noted wryly.
Exhilarated to be back on the home ice of the Northlands Coliseum, where the ice surface doesn't look like a topographical map of Vermont, Gretzky scored all of his goals in the opening period—two of them coming 15 seconds apart before the game was a minute and a half old—for the first hat trick against the Flyers all season. Not coincidentally, he scored the goals while both teams had a man in the penalty box. "When we play four-on-four hockey and get open ice, that's the way we like it," Gretzky said afterward. "I had some extra zip and jump out there tonight. We're two wins away, and we can smell that Cup."
Four days earlier the predominant scent was that of the Oilers stinking up the Philadelphia Spectrum in Game 1. The ever-entertaining Glen Sather, Edmonton's coach-G.M., had threatened not to let his defending Stanley Cup champs play that game after hearing that the Flyers wanted to have water bottles attached to the top of the goal nets. HO flasks. A little refreshment for the poor goaltenders. It seemed a simple enough consideration—almost humane—except to Sather, who knew that Philadelphia netminder Pelle Lindbergh had been the stingiest goalie throughout the playoffs (a 2.26 goals-against average, in 14 games, with three earlier shutouts). He was looking for any little means to throw Lindbergh off his game. Sather refused to approve the experiment, which the Flyers had conducted throughout the playoffs. "Maybe we want a bucket of chicken on our net," Sather said sarcastically. "Or a bucket of chicken on their net. Maybe hamburgers. I mean, if you have a water bottle out there, let's have lunch."
Hmmm. Not a bad idea. "Sure, that would be nice," said Lindbergh when told of Sather's proposal. "Sometimes I get hungry out there."
Lindbergh, as it turned out, could have gone out for a Swedish meatball hoagie in Game l, so thoroughly did the Flyers dominate the action. The final score was just 4-1, but the game should have been a rout. Only the play of Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr, who faced five breakaways on this steamy night, kept the score respectable. Philadelphia outskated, out-hustled and outchecked the defending champions. Gretzky, covered by the dogged Ron Sutter, was denied so much as a shot on goal, and Kurri, the Great One's linemate and a 71-goal scorer in the regular season, was reduced to anonymity by his shadow. Flyer rookie Derrick Smith. Sutter capped a brilliant game by picking off defenseman Paul Coffey's errant third-period pass and beating Fuhr for the eventual game-winner.
Philly added an insurance goal when a disoriented Fuhr—could he have been suffering from dehydration, Coach?—grabbed a rolling puck, looked left, looked right and then tossed it directly to Flyer captain Dave Poulin, who fed Tim Kerr, who shoveled it into the empty Oiler net. Philadelphia outshot the usually prepotent Oilers 41-26. More significant, when the good scoring chances were reviewed on videotape the next day, the totals were 17 for the Flyers, four for the Oilers.
After the game Sather, who has been dubbed the Prince of Wails by a member of his own staff, coolly took aim at a number of the NHL's sacred and not so sacred cows, beginning with the Boy Wonder himself. "Have you ever seen Wayne not skate?" he asked. "Have you ever seen him go through a whole game without getting a shot on goal? Taking nothing away from Sutter or the play of the Flyers, Wayne stopped himself."
That is, with a little help, according to Sather, from:
•the pucks: "They're awful. They seem to wobble when you shoot them. Sometimes you see a puck like that hit the post, and it will come back warped."
•the ice: "Horsebleep."
•referee Andy Van Hellemond, who awarded the Flyers seven power-play opportunities—including a two-man advantage that led to their first goal—while giving the Oilers only three: "I don't want to start criticizing the referee, but he was about as good as the ice."
Vintage Sather nonsense? Well, Gretzky wasn't skating the way he normally does. The pucks, which Sather later accused the Flyers of purposely not freezing as home teams are supposed to do, were bouncing around the ice like Super Balls. And the ice was rough. This is what can happen when the Stanley Cup—supposedly the NHL's showcase event—is played in a sweltering arena in the dog days of May.
Sather's contention that the pucks in Philly weren't frozen may have merit. "The puck hit the boards on one play and bounced straight up over," said Scotty Morrison, head of officials for the league. "No way that could happen with a frozen puck." But Gordon Smith, the off-ice official in charge of pucks, maintained they all were properly iced, even the one that glanced off the back of his head. "It sure felt frozen," he said.
Sather was clearly wrong, however, about the refereeing. The difference in the number of power-play opportunities reflected on the disciplined play of the Flyers, who through Saturday had 94 power-play chances in the playoffs to their opponents' 69. Keenan's team is a far cry from the Broad Street Bullies of yore. This season's Flyers seldom take dumb penalties and, with the glaring exception of defenseman Ed Hospodar, who extracted two of Mark Napier's teeth with a cross-check in Game 3, usually keep their sticks down when administering checks. Hospodar's dentistry prompted the always restrained Sather to warn that the Flyers would need two boxes in which to return Hospodar to Philadelphia—one for his head and one for his body.
The day after Game 1, the Edmonton dressing room was "like a morgue," said Sather. "I've never seen our guys so flat and depressed." They should have been. In their nine-year history, the Oilers have never won a playoff series in which they have trailed. To get the players' minds off the loss—and to infuse them with some much-needed spark—Sather added Esa Tikkanen, a 19-year-old Finnish player, to the lineup for Game 2, placing him on the left side of Gretzky and Kurri. It was a gutsy move. Tikkanen, the MVP of this year's world junior championships, had never played an NHL game. "I've skated 20 minutes with him," Gretzky told reporters the morning before game day. "As far as hockey goes, you guys probably know more about him than I do."
Sather also told his team to abandon the fancy passing and to throw the puck in and chase it, much as the Flyers had done in Game 1. "When the ice is like this," said Edmonton defenseman Kevin Lowe, "if you make more than two passes, you're going to stop yourself."
The Oilers looked more like the Flyers in Game 2 than the Flyers did. Clogging the middle of the ice, closing off the Flyers' passing lanes and winning most of the face-offs, Edmonton held Philadelphia to 18 shots on goal. The Flyers got only four in the third period, when they were battling to overcome a 2-1 deficit. Gretzky, responding to Sather's criticism, put the Oilers on top 1-0 when he wheeled around the Philly net in yet another four-on-four situation to stuff his own rebound past Lindbergh and a sprawling Mark Howe. Kerr, limping because of strained ligaments in his right knee, tied the game in the second period, but then Edmonton veteran Willy Lindstrom scored the game-winner off a feed from Mike Krushelnyski, who had been booted off Gretzky's line to make room for Tikkanen. Though he didn't figure in the scoring, Tikkanen looked far better on the ice than off it, where he wandered around like a giant Finnish titmouse after having received a ritual hair-shearing from his Oiler teammates by way of welcome.
For the remainder of the game, the high-powered Oilers played impeccable defense. Edmonton first showed it could play well in its own end in its 1-0 defeat of the Islanders in the opening game of last year's finals. When the highest-scoring team in NHL history shows that it can also play pluperfect defense, it makes a fairly attractive package.
The mood in the Edmonton dressing room following the win was more of relief than jubilation. "Being Stanley Cup champions and playing like that in Game 1 was just a joke," said Coffey, who filled the pauses by muttering about how much weight he had lost playing in the heat of the Spectrum. "We were just being lazy, that's all there was to it."
The victory was the Oilers' first over the Flyers in 10 meetings dating back to November 1982. More important, it put the Oilers in position to win their second straight Cup by sweeping the next three games at home, where they had won 13 straight in the playoffs. "They'll loosen up on their pond," predicted Flyer assistant coach E.J. McGuire. "But we like a fast sheet. We play well on it."
Not as well as Edmonton does. Game 3 looked like a different sport from the slop and grind that had passed for hockey in the Spectrum. Unfortunately for the Flyers, they did not get into the swing of things until seven minutes into the second period, after the Oilers—thanks to Gretzky's dazzling show—had built a 4-1 lead. At that point Edmonton merely wanted to coast home to the barn. "We started to get cute and overpass," said Sather, whose team was held to just six shots on goal in the final two periods, one fewer than Gretzky's total for the first period alone. "We retreated a little bit, and Philadelphia is not a team that quits."
Indeed, Philadelphia came very close to stealing a game that seemed destined to be another of those 8-2 Oiler laughers. The Flyers pulled to 4-3 on third-period goals by Howe and Brian Propp and in the final 20 seconds had a chance to tie the game on a two-on-one break that went awry. "Our club came back with some true grit," said Keenan, who accused Edmonton of deliberately engineering four-on-four situations by pushing and shoving after the whistle, the sort of nonsense that leads to simultaneous roughing penalties. "First is first and second is nothing, and we were second again tonight. But I do think we established something in those last two periods."
Philadelphia's problem is to overcome all the damage that Gretzky can do in just one period.