There are upsets, and there are upsets. Then there are the current Stanley Cup playoffs, which are taking on the appearance of a wholesale purge, as one after another of the NHL's showcase teams tumbles home-ice over tea kettle onto the sidelines to watch—who?—The Maple Laffs? The Whalers? The Blues? The Rangers (1940! 1940!), for Muzz's sake, vie for the hallowed Cup?
In a weekend of upsets and near upsets, the Washington Capitals became the NHL's latest playoff casualty, falling four games to two to the New York Rangers—they of the sub-.500 record and the sublime goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck. "Vanbiesbrouck was incredible," said Washington forward Craig Laughlin after New York's 2-1 win Sunday night in pandemonious Madison Square Garden. "He stopped everything we threw at him. The guy was standing on his head." As Vanbiesbrouck smothered rush after rush, the Capitals' spirits sagged, until they were being dominated in all three zones. It was the Rangers' third straight win over the frustrated Caps—who had finished the whoop-de-do-for-you regular season with 107 points, third best in the NHL—and gave the Rangers, who had already knocked off the league's second-best team, the Philadelphia Flyers, their second major upset of the playoffs. "I never would have thought we had the horses to do this," said Rangers forward Don Maloney afterward. "I mean, this is unreal, beating these people. You look at our roster and think, 'Who are those guys?' "
Meanwhile, in the so-called Battle of Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers, Cup champions the past two years, were trying to buck the upset trend and keep their dynasty alive in the face of a terrific assault by the Calgary Flames. Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Anderson, Fuhr—all that eye-popping talent—fell behind a seemingly possessed Flames squad three games to two before clawing their way back even in the series with a come-from-behind 5-2 win Monday in Calgary's Saddledome. That set up a deciding seventh game Wednesday in Edmonton, where the Flames, shockingly, had won two of the three previous games.
Usually brilliant, occasionally absurd, the Calgary-Edmonton series shaped up as a playoff classic from the very start, contested as it was in an atmosphere of unbridled ill will. The two cities, separated by 180 miles, can't stand one another. "We're the City of Champions and the Oil Capital of Alberta," crowed Oilers forward Dave Lumley on the eve of the series that became aptly known as the Uncivil War. "All Calgary's got is a nickname: Cowtown."
We are talking a good old-fashioned rivalry, folks, both on the ice and off. Before last week was over, writers for Alberta's two major tabloids were slinging mud at each other. "In Cowtown, a two on one is what happens when your wife and your dog go after the same piece of meat," opined the Edmonton Sun. The Calgary Sun's rejoinder: "If five kids are playing in a sandbox, it's easy to pick out the one from Edmonton. He's the one the cats keep trying to cover up."
The two coaches were quick to join the fray. Before the series began, Calgary's Bob Johnson, who still answers to Badger, a nickname from his days as coach of the University of Wisconsin, put Oilers jerseys on his practice goalies. He wanted the Flames to get used to shooting the puck past someone who was at least dressed like Edmonton's All-Star netminder. Grant Fuhr. Glen Sather, the Oilers' coach, heard about the ploy and caustically termed it "adolescent." "That's probably something he learned in college," Sather said. "Of course, he's American. He thinks differently than I do. I'm Canadian. I probably think a little more logically than he does."
Not very friendly stuff. But beating the Oilers had amounted to a crusade for Johnson, who toted around a manila file an inch thick detailing his past game plans against the Oilers. To neutralize Gretzky and Edmonton's high-powered attack, Johnson concocted a seven-point plan that he absolutely forbade any of the Flames to discuss outside the dressing room. "This team is better prepared to play the Oilers than the Islanders ever were," said late-season acquisition John Tonelli, one of several new Flames who gave Calgary a very different look from the team whose futility against the Oilers the past three years—5-23-3—had become the stuff of frontier legend. In February the Flames had made a trade with St. Louis to get defensemen Terry Johnson and Rik Wilson and 44-goal sniper Joe Mullen, and they later added ex-Rangers tough guy Nick Fotiu to a lineup that was already replete with beef. But what may have been the most important addition came from the Flames' farm system. That was 23-year-old goalie Mike Vernon, who started the season with Salt Lake City in the International Hockey League, was brought up to the Flames to stay in midseason and, since Feb. 23, had started 11 games without a defeat. "He doesn't do anything spectacular," says Johnson of his stand-up goalie, "but he always seems to be there."
Vernon was certainly there in Game 1, which the Flames won 4-1. It was the first home playoff loss for the Oilers in exactly two years—a span of 18 games, an NHL record. While everyone had anticipated a slugfest—especially after Johnson started the game with three goons on the forward line, Fotiu, Tim Hunter and Neil Sheehy—the Flames won the game by beating the Oilers to almost every loose puck.
The Oilers evened the series in Game 2, overcoming a two-goal third-period deficit to win 6-5 on Glenn Anderson's goal in overtime, but the Flames regained the edge when the series shifted to the Saddledome, taking Game 3 by the score of 3-2. For the first time the Oilers seemed to suspect the Flames were for real. "They're hungrier than we are," said Gretzky, who was a horrific minus six in even-strength and shorthanded situations through the first three games. Gretzky had been serenaded mercilessly by the 16,000-plus fans in the Saddledome, who chanted "Whiner! Whiner!" whenever he opened his mouth.
The Edmonton coaching staff, which had repeatedly ordered the Oilers to skate wide and dump in the puck rather than make the fancy ticktacktoe passes that had been the bread and butter of their offense in the regular season, held a team meeting on Wednesday and then left the players to conduct their own practice. The message was clear: There's no sense in our being here if you won't listen to what we tell you. Sather said pointedly, "This isn't neurosurgery we're doing here. The only game plan that works in the playoffs is execution on the ice, and we're not getting it. Some of our players have been too stubborn to adapt."
They adapted in Game 4, silencing the Saddledome's red hordes—virtually every man, woman and child in the place came dressed in Santa Claus scarlet—with a virtuoso performance. Gretzky "had one of those games you could dream about," assessed Sather afterward, as The Great One scored three goals and two assists. The Oilers, dominating a game for the first time in the series, won 7-4 to square things at two apiece.
Asked what had been the key, Sather could not resist the needle: "We're going to keep that quiet. This is a very secretive series."
The Oilers had regained the home-ice advantage, they were playing as a team and they were playing with emotion. In the past that had proved to be an unbeatable combination. But the Flames, led by veterans Lanny McDonald, Doug Risebrough and Tonelli, were playing with the intensity of zealots. This was their Stanley Cup finals. Game 5, as a result, was a beauty. "The second period was probably the greatest period of hockey I've seen in my life," said Gary Dornhoefer, the former Philadelphia forward who is now a broadcaster on Hockey Night in Canada.
It was in that period that McDonald, with the score tied 1-1, put the Flames on top to stay with a 40-foot slap shot between Fuhr's legs. Later, center Joel Otto added an insurance goal with a turnaround slap shot. From then on it was virtually all Edmonton—everywhere but on the scoreboard. Clanging posts, hitting skate blades, the Oilers stormed the Calgary goal the entire third period without scoring. The pace left the Flames rubber-legged. Still, they stuck to their game plan, meeting Oilers rushes at the blue line, then sagging around Vernon in a protective shell.
Left with the difficult prospect of now having to beat the Flames twice in a row to avoid joining the NHL's other top four teams on the sidelines (the Flyers, Capitals, Nordiques and Islanders), Sather tipped his hat to the 5'9" Vernon. "We haven't run into that kind of goaltending for a long time." Nope, not since 1983, when the New York Islanders' Billy Smith shut them down in the finals.
It was another hot New York goalie, the Rangers' Vanbiesbrouck, who finished off Washington. "We get chance after chance after chance and don't score," moaned the Caps' Laughlin after they had dropped Game 5 at home, 4-2. "They get three chances, they score three times."
It was the same old story for the Caps, a 12-year-old franchise whose growing pains are starting to look like a terminal illness. Three straight seasons of better than 100 points. Three straight exits by the second round of the playoffs. Heavily favored over the 36-38-6 Rangers, who finished 29 points behind them in the Patrick Division, the Capitals—the second best defensive team in the league—blew two-goal leads four times during the series. "The Rangers didn't beat us," said Caps defenseman Scott Stevens. "We beat ourselves."
True, up to a point. In Game 1 the Caps led 3-1 before allowing the Rangers back into the contest by giving up a short-handed goal to Mark Osborne. The Caps eventually lost that one 4-3 on a Brian MacLellan goal in overtime. Then, after blowing out New York in Games 2 and 3, they held a 5-3 lead in the fourth game with a little more than 12 minutes remaining. Had they been able to hold it, the Caps would have returned home with the series in hand. But the Rangers' Bob Brooke, capitalizing on a Washington defensive lapse with 2:35 remaining, scored to tie and then won the game in overtime by picking off a Stevens pass and slamming the puck past goalie Pete Peeters. Washington, which had not lost in OT in two years, had now dropped two in a row to the Rangers, a team that was winless in 13 overtime games during the season. The teams returned to Washington tied at two-all.
In Game 5 the Caps again went out to a two-goal lead—Dave Christian and Stevens converting power-play goals—but 31 seconds after Stevens scored, Pierre Larouche got the Rangers back into it by ramming a rebound home beneath Peeters. Larouche assisted on the next Rangers goal, forcing Peeters to cough up a rebound, and New York grew progressively more confident. Conversely, the Caps—thwarted repeatedly by Vanbiesbrouck—found their hands turned to stone. The Rangers won it going away, 4-2. "Larouche was the dominant player," said Caps assistant coach Terry Murray on Sunday. "He was the difference."
Indeed, Larouche was one of the key men in the Rangers' late-season turnaround. Relegated to the minors at the start of the season by rookie coach Ted Sator, he was called up from Hershey in late January when the club was mired in fifth place. He scored 20 goals in the final 24 games as the Rangers finished with a spurt—clinching a playoff spot in the 79th game of the season.
On Sunday it was Larouche who finished off the Capitals, scoring both Rangers goals, his seventh and eighth of the playoffs, in the 2-1 clincher that sent the Madison Square Garden faithful into happy hysteria. Vanbiesbrouck was superb, so frustrating the Washington shooters that on one occasion Capitals forward Alan Haworth broke in on him two on none and practically fanned on the puck, sliding it harmlessly into the goalie's pads. The Rangers' defense controlled the front of the net; the checking by the Rangers' forwards neutralized Washington's superior speed. And when everything else broke down, Vanbiesbrouck was there to save the day. The Capitals did not give away this game or the one before it. They were beaten.
"This is crazy, but it's great," said Larouche of the postseason Rangers. "Le petit miracle."
Over in the Capitals' dressing room, team captain Rod Langway dejectedly summed up the entire playoffs: "Well, it's a Cinderella year for a lot of teams."
It was an upsetting state to think about.