It may not have been the most artistic week of hockey in NHL history, but it was a hellaciously competitive one. Three seven-game series went the limit during a Stanley Cup quarterfinal round that featured deathbed comebacks and quashed momentum, stakes through the heart, nonsluggin' cousins, backs to the wall and the Call. It was a week in which the New York Islanders nearly turned back the clock—yet again—and Le Petit Tigre, Quebec coach Michel Bergeron, nearly—yet again—turned blue.
There was even a bit of bathroom humor out of the sour old Norris Division, as Toronto coach John Brophy held a postgame press conference in a washroom following a loss. Meanwhile his archnemesis, Detroit coach Jacques Demers, interrupted one of his media sessions with this riveting inquiry: "Tell me, truthfully, do I look like Pee-wee Herman?"
It was a week when losers went away feeling like winners, and winners went away feeling, well, tired. The real winners? The Edmonton Oilers, who dispatched the Winnipeg Jets in four straight games almost a week before and thus could rest up and enjoy the exhausting proceedings from the sidelines. Nonetheless, it was a week to remember, as a single playoff round produced three seventh games.
In the Patrick Division, the Flyers had all they could handle in getting past the Islanders. "To kill this team, you have to put a stake through its heart," groaned Philadelphia forward Rick Tocchet. Added defenseman Mark Howe, "The Soviets are the best team in the world when they have the lead, and the Islanders are the best in the world when they are behind. The deeper they get into a hole, the better they play."
May 10, 1987
The hole seemed bottomless on Tuesday night before the Islanders, trailing three games to one for the second time in this year's playoffs, skated off with a 2-1 win at the Spectrum thanks to Kelly Hrudey's spectacular goaltending. Now it was back to the Nassau Coliseum. Home ice, to that point, had not been much of an advantage in any of the series—52% of this year's playoff games have been won by the visiting teams—and it had been particularly disadvantageous to the Islanders, who had won only one of their last nine home games. But other forces were at work—namely, New York's 21-8 record in postseason games in which the team has faced playoff elimination.
On Thursday night the Islanders responded to yet one more impending season-ender with a convincing 4-2 win that G.M. Bill Torrey called "our best game of the year." Mike Bossy, who had just returned from an injury to his left knee, had a goal and skated like a teenager; Bryan Trottier had two tallies; and Denis Potvin, who was coming off a back injury, was rock solid on defense and confident on point for Islander power plays. As the series wore on, the ageless Islanders seemed to be getting stronger.
The Flyers, meanwhile, were wearing down. Tim Kerr, who had scored five goals in the first five games, aggravated an injury to his left shoulder in the second period of Game 6 and was out for the remainder of the series. Brian Propp had scored only one goal in his last eight games. And captain and spark plug Dave Poulin had been out for two weeks with a broken rib.
But the Flyers still had their fists, and after sticking to hockey for most of the series, they used them in the final seconds of Game 6. Dave Brown—who is a cult hero on a par with Rocky Balboa in the City of Brotherly Shove—got the call and jumped the Islanders' pesky Alan Kerr after a face-off. Brown's assault touched off a round of mass ugliness. Tocchet called Brown's decidedly un-spontaneous outburst "a message," and said, "When we get these guys back in our building, we're going to play the kind of hockey that people are used to seeing from the Philadelphia Flyers."
Which shouldn't have bothered New York at all, because in these playoffs it seemed that the only time the Flyers lost the game was when they lost their tempers first. The Islanders had hurt Philly badly in games 2 and 6 with power plays reminiscent of their dynasty days. Trottier, Bossy, Potvin, Pat LaFontaine and Mikko Makela used ticktacktoe passes to score on 7 of 17 opportunities in the first six games.
But in the finale, the power play—and, wonder of wonders, Brown—undid New York. Brown opened the scoring six minutes into the game, tipping in a shot by Propp for his first goal of the playoffs. Then the Flyers added two shorthanded goals on the same power play to end the suspense before the game was 11 minutes old. The first, scored by Propp, was set up by the indomitable Poulin, whose return to the lineup gave his teammates a lift. "That was valiant; cracked ribs don't heal in two weeks," said Lindsay Carson, who smothered Bossy all night and who was the guy sitting in the penalty box—for hooking, at 9:30 in the first period—when Propp scored.
Carson was still serving his penalty when defenseman Brad Marsh carried the puck into the Islander zone less than a minute later. Marsh pulled up at the top of the left face-off circle and unleashed a slap shot that probably would have sailed wide of the net had Hrudey not deflected it into his own goal with the handle of his stick. "Whoever gets the bang-bang type of goals, the fluky goals, will win," Hrudey had predicted before the seventh game. He was right.
"They just overwhelmed us," said Bossy. "They came out playing a couple of notches above us, and we weren't ready for it. Being down 3-0, having given up two goals on your own power play—I guess it was a little too much for us to handle." Ilkka Sinisalo added two third-period goals to cement the 5-1 win for the Flyers.
In the Norris final the Red Wings looked like dead things until they outdid the Islanders and stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. Only two teams in NHL history—the Islanders in 1975 and against Washington in the opening round of this year's playoffs, and the Maple Leafs in 1942—had overcome such a deficit.
The series turned in Detroit's favor five minutes before the warmups for Game 5 when Demers told right wing Joey Kocur that his job for the remainder of the series was to shadow Toronto's young leader, Wendel Clark. "Aww-right!" was Kocur's reaction. "I didn't want to tell him too early, or he'd have gone crazy worrying about it," said Demers. "We treated Clark like a superstar because he is one."
It was a stroke of near genius. Until then Kocur had been known as a goon. His 653 penalty minutes in his first two full NHL seasons and a right hand that had open cuts on eight knuckles attested to Kocur's proficiency as a fighter. But unbeknownst to many, he can also play hockey. In 1983-84 he scored 40 goals in the juniors for the Saskatoon Blades, while Clark, his teammate that season, had only 23. Furthermore, Kocur and Clark are cousins through marriage—"aunts marrying aunts, or something," says Kocur—and fast friends back in the farming hamlet (pop. 1,000) of Kelvington, Saskatchewan, where they have known each other since Kocur was five years old and Clark was three. Kocur's father, a welder, repairs machinery for Clark's father, a grain farmer. They, too, are best friends.
"I never had brothers," says Kocur. "Wendel has always been like a brother to me."
Clark, who is only 20 and who has scored 71 goals in his first two years in the NHL, had never been shadowed for an entire game. And make no mistake: Clark is the Toronto Maple Leafs. "He's their spark plug; he's their everything," says Kocur. Clark won Game 4 for the Leafs practically single-handedly, scoring twice and setting up the game-winner in the 3-2 overtime win that gave Toronto a three-games-to-one lead in the series. Now he was going to be hounded by his old pal and playmate. Kocur threw him completely off his game. "He's faster than I am," said Kocur. "But I'm clutching and grabbing him all the time, and it's hard to skate when someone is holding your ankles."
If it had been anyone else, Clark probably would have dropped his gloves and leveled his shadow to get himself a little playing room—in Kelvington they are not shy about using their fists. But he wouldn't fight Kocur, and as a result both Clark and the Leafs did a disappearing act. The Wings won 3-0, as goalie Glen Hanlon turned in Detroit's first playoff shutout in 21 years. When an insistent radio reporter asked Clark three times why he wouldn't fight Kocur, Clark finally glowered at the man with the mike and snarled, "Do you want me to fight you?"
Demers stuck with the strategy in Game 6, and the Wings came away with a tight-checking 4-2 victory. The hockey was dreadful—neither team had any sort of transition game nor, for that matter, a .500 record in the regular season—but the teams were at least well matched. And the game-within-a-game was worth the price of admission, as Clark and Kocur often dallied two zones behind the puck, circling like dancers, while play labored on without them, four-on-four. Clark did score once, but it was after a penalty, while Kocur was on the bench. "I'm glad Joey got the opportunity to show he can play like that in this league," said Clark. "There aren't too many guys who can be the toughest guy in the league and play a regular shift."
In Game 7, Kocur again shut down Clark, and Hanlon did the same to the rest of the Maple Leafs as the Red Wings beat Toronto 3-0. When the teams were at even strength in the final three games, Detroit outscored Toronto 10-0. Adam Oates, who had three goals and three assists in the series and was the Red Wings' most effective offensive player, opened the scoring in Game 7 by stuffing his own rebound past goalie Ken Wregget at 2:51 of the first period. Steve Yzerman and Darren Veitch added second-period goals. Hanlon, meanwhile, was outstanding as he turned aside 30 shots.
After the game, Demers and Brophy, who had been antagonists all season, embraced each other near the Maple Leaf bench. "I congratulated him and wished them luck against Edmonton," Brophy said. "His team played great hockey for him when they got it going."
All the usually loquacious Demers could say was, "The miracle that couldn't happen, happened."
The Battle of Quebec between the Canadiens and the Nordiques turned on an inflammatory moment in Game 5 that will henceforth be known as the Call. It came at 17:07 of the third period, with the game and the series tied at two apiece. Quebec's Alain Cote came down and slid a shot past fallen Montreal goalie Brian Hayward for an apparent goal and a 3-2 lead. But referee Kerry Fraser waved the goal off, ruling that he was in the process of calling offsetting penalties against Montreal's Mats Naslund and Quebec's Paul Gillis. Then, just 14 seconds later, Ryan Walter of the Canadiens scored the game-winner. The Nordiques went nuts.
"All I want is justice," screamed Bergeron, who had to be restrained by police as he pursued Fraser down a hallway to the official's dressing room after the game. "Am I crazy? Am I crazy?" the coach asked.
For years Bergeron has claimed that the Canadiens are the favored children of the NHL power structure, specifically the referees, FRASER'S CALL LENDS CREDENCE TO CHARGES OF FAVORITISM FOR HABS read a headline in The (Montreal) Gazette the next morning. Everyone was coming down on Fraser. Even NHL executive vice-president Brian O'Neill wouldn't support Fraser's judgment. "I have my personal opinion about the call itself," O'Neill told Tim Burke of The Gazette. "But I won't discuss it."
Attaway to take a stand, Brian. This is the guy who's in charge of giving fines and suspensions for the league?
You know what's really funny? The Call was right. Fraser had to disallow the goal. Photographs show that just before Cote shot, Gillis had interfered with Hayward by kicking Hayward's left skate out from under him while the goalie was in the crease. Nor had Gillis been forced into the crease by Naslund, who was on Gillis's inside and was trying to push him away. Give Fraser credit—he displayed guts, not favoritism, with his call. The NHL so seldom sees that in its referees that the league hardly knows how to act when it happens.
The series shifted back to Quebec for Game 6, and for two periods the Nordiques were playing as if they were still shell-shocked from the Call. Trailing 2-0 and having mustered only 12 shots on goal, they seemed to have called it quits. The Canadiens had taken three consecutive games from them and were 4-0 on the road since the start of the playoffs. Moreover, no team is better than Montreal at protecting a lead. But Bergeron's troops didn't quit. Fired up by a childish taunting gesture toward the scoreboard by the Canadiens' Claude Lemieux and by a between-periods tongue-lashing from normally reticent assistant coach Guy Lapointe, the Nordiques scored three unanswered third-period goals to send the Battle of Quebec back to Montreal for a seventh game on Saturday.
After a breathtaking first period in which Quebec grabbed a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal by John Ogrodnick, the Canadiens took charge of that final game with a barrage of five unanswered second-period goals on just eight shots. Walter scored the first two, his fifth and sixth of the series, and then assisted on another by Bobby Smith. The stunned Nordiques sank into a lull, and in the final 32 seconds of the period, Shayne Corson and Mike McPhee coasted in unmolested and beat Quebec goalie Mario Gosselin on high drives from the slot.
The game, which teetered precariously on the edge of mayhem for two periods, could have gone out of control. The emotions on both sides were still high, and the score was out of hand. But to his credit, Bergeron had his team stick to playing hockey, and Quebec scored twice in the third period before losing 5-3.
Afterward, Bergeron was asked why he had not shaken the hand of Jean Perron, the winning coach. "Don't ask me to act like a hypocrite," he snapped, still feeling that Game 5, and the series, should have been his. "I'm supposed to be the winner of that series. I hope everybody in the league is happy now. We're not playing anymore."
Too true, Petit Tigre. A bient‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•t.