We should all beso fortunate to slump the way Wayne Gretzky slumps. When the Edmonton Oilers'No. 99 went without a goal in five straight Stanley Cup playoff games, hisscoring drought took on the tenor of a national emergency in Western Canada.Newspapers ran big headlines: WHAT'S WRONG WITH WAYNE? Maybe he hadn'trecovered from the mugging Dale Hawerchuk had given him during the Winnipegseries. The talk shows rang with speculation that the 26-year-old Gretzky hadlost it. Why, he hadn't won a new automobile in almost a week. Indeed about theonly unconcerned man in town seemed to be Oiler president/G.M./coachGlenSather.
"I laugh whenpeople say something's wrong with Wayne," Sather said. "Personally I'venever seen him have a bad game. A lot of nights he's a decoy, opening thingsfor the other guys. And over the last five weeks, we've asked him to do a lotmore defensively. Slump? He's been great!"
On Sunday nightin Philadelphia, Gretzky was ethereal against the Flyers as Edmonton scored asolid 4-1 victory to take a three-games-to-one lead in the Stanley Cup finals.The Great One's play shone with the glow he takes on when everything's workingand he's seven steps ahead of everyone else. After Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe andRandy Gregg each scored off pinpoint passes from Gretzky, both locker roomspaid tribute to the man who has been named the NHL's Most Valuable Player for arecord seven straight seasons. "There will never be another player likehim," said teammate Kent Nilsson. "He dominated," said Flyergoaltender Ron Hextall.
"I had itpretty good tonight," Gretzky admitted. "I don't know what happens orwhen it happens...the night before the game, the morning of it. Sometimes ittakes a hard hit on your first shift to get your head in the game. I feltconfident tonight. I wanted the puck."
And then Gretzkytook his puck back home to Edmonton, where the Oilers hoped to wrap up theirthird Cup championship in four years on Tuesday night.
When it started,the Cup final seemed to have something for everyone. The freewheeling andspeedy Oilers against the steady, grind-it-out (or goon-it-up) Flyers. NorthAmericans from Beaverlodge, Alberta, to Marcus Hook, Pa., could sit back andenjoy. That pleased the TV folks. Moreover, the series pitted the NHL's twobest regular-season teams. That made the league happy. The final wasvindication, as the NHL saw it, of its profitable, protracted and decidedlyunpopular playoff format. Even the weather cooperated: Six inches of snow fellon Edmonton one day last week, making it easy to forget that the baseballseason was almost two months old. To top it all off, the final featured thesport's most scintillating player, slump or no slump.
In Game 1,Philadelphia mistakenly tried to skate with the much faster Oilers. Catastrophestruck early in the third period when Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and JariKurri scored three unanswered goals in nine minutes to give Edmonton a 4-2 win.Cured of any delusions about team speed, the Flyers returned to their roots forGame 2: They hit hard, finished their checks and scored when they had goodchances. And Flyer coach Mike Keenan had the needle out for Gretzky. At onepoint he stood on his bench to give Gretzky a tongue-lashing. "We had averbal exchange," said Keenan, who objected to Gretzky's "takingdives." Keenan's concern, as he later explained it, was not so much thatthe referee might be influenced by one of Gretzky's alleged snow jobs but thatthe long-term welfare of the game would suffer. "It's poor conduct,"lectured Keenan. "You expect more from the best hockey player in the world.All he's doing is embarrassing the officials, and this is the second game in arow he's done that."
Gretzky latersaid that he hadn't heard Keenan, and he laughed at his allegations. "Whenyou're 160 [pounds] and you get hooked," said Gretzky, "you generallygo down."
Much to Keenan'schagrin, Gretzky was clearly upright when he scored a tap-in goal off a perfectpass from Kurri to give the Oilers a 1-0 lead. But the Flyers rallied for a 2-1lead after two periods and had reason to feel a bit smug. Fifty times thisseason they had taken leads into the third period, and only once had they lostthe game.
Make that twice.Anderson's spectacular game-tying goal illustrated the difference between theseteams. Gathering in Gregg's long, cross-ice pass, Anderson burst through twodark jerseys at the blue line. Doug Crossman, the Flyers' last line of defense,tried to ride him off the puck, but Anderson hopped left, tucked the puckbeneath Crossman's stick, windmilling his own stick over Crossman's head, metthe puck on the other side of Crossman and slid it past Hextall—a goal for the11 o'clock news. "Along the ice, stick side—that's the best shot inhockey," said Anderson. "I'll use that one once in a blue moon. Maybewhen I'm playing on the pond."
Whatever, it wasthe type of goal that Edmonton seems to score with regularity and Philadelphiacan only dream about—or see on the Oilers' highlight film.
The ensuingovertime was history as soon as Gretzky crossed the Flyer blue line, pulled upand began stickhandling, daring the Flyers to converge. Holding the puck,holding it longer—Gretzky possesses what has been described as the highest"panic point" in the game—rattling the Flyers with his calm, the GreatOne found Coffey open on the point. Coffey faked a slap shot and, with bodieshurtling toward him, tapped the puck to the uncovered Kurri, who one-timed itpast Hextall on the short side. Ticktacktoe, three men in a row, 3-2.
The Flyers hadturned in two strong performances but trailed in the series two games to none."We're running out of adjustments," said forward Rick Tocchet. And eventhough the Flyers were traveling home to the raucous confines of the Spectrum,their demise was taking on a not-if-but-when inevitability.
The Spectrumlends literal meaning to the expression "home-ice advantage," with anice surface reputed to be the NHL's worst, more easily gouged and more quicklyrutted than any other in the league. "Put on my skates and see foryourself," says Philly defenseman Brad Marsh. Rough ice, of course, isbetter suited for a grind-it-out bunch than for a team of fancy-footedartistes.
Adding to thehome advantage for Game 3 Friday night was a macabre pregame rite concocted byFlyer officials. The Spectrum was plunged into complete darkness, save forcones of hard white light that focused on players while they were introduced.Then the vision of Kate Smith appeared on the giant video screen. As the latesongstress belted out God Bless America, all good Flyer fans sang along:"...to dee oceans, white wit' foam...." The Flyers had a 56-9-2 recordin games that followed Ms. Smith's rendition, and did they ever need hernow.
Twenty-twominutes into Game 3, the drama appeared to be over. Though the Flyers hadplayed valiantly, they trailed 3-0. Worse, Anderson had just scored his 13thgoal of the playoffs without taking a shot. "He came in, tried to go to hisleft and missed the puck," said Hextall, shaking his head. "It fooledboth of us." Anderson's non-shot crawled between Hextall's pads, and Flyerfans, deafening from the opening face-off, went mute. You could hear thevendors across the rink hawking their soft pretzels.
Then, as Satherobserved, "The water started to tip out of the bucket." Sittingcomfortably on their fat lead, the Oilers let the Flyers back into the game.Center Murray Craven, making only his second appearance since breaking his leftfoot in April, swept an off-speed backhander past goaltender Grant Fuhr: 3-1.Peter Zezel's pass across the crease caromed off Craig Muni and skidded overthe line: 3-2. Scott Mellanby's blast grazed Fuhr's pads and found the back ofthe net: 3-3. Brad McCrimmon deflected Mellanby's pass for a score: 4-3. BrianPropp drove home a 90-footer into an empty net: 5-3. It was a Flyer comebackfor the ages.
The startlingturn of events was not well received by Sather. "That first goal wascreated by a very borderline penalty call," he said. Craven had scored on apower play after linesman Kevin Collins called the Oilers for too many men onthe ice. "I guess Collins just wanted to have his name in the paper,"said Sather, who perhaps had forgotten that a holding call with no time left inthe first period of Game 2 had provided Edmonton a two-man advantage—and agoal.
On Sunday night,tensions boiled over in the pregame warmups—sound familiar?—when Edmonton'sKevin Lowe shot a puck in Hextall's direction. "To tell the truth, Ithought it was [backup goalie] Chico Resch," said Lowe. "I guess Ronthought I was trying to disrupt him." Both teams massed troops at the redline. Skirmishes broke out, but nothing serious erupted.
And then it wasthe Great Gretzky show. First he set up Kurri in the slot: 1-0. Next he luredtwo Flyers away from Hextall and fed a goalmouth pass to Lowe for an easyscore: 2-0. After the Flyers cut the Oilers' lead to 2-1 on a goal byMcCrimmon, Gretzky found Gregg in the slot and Hextall was beat again: 3-1.Mike Krushelnyski put the Flyers to rest with a third-period breakaway goal forthe final 4-1 margin. Unfortunately Hextall then tried to take out hisfrustrations on perhaps the most timid player on the ice, Oiler forward KentNilsson. As Nilsson skated past the Flyer net, Hextall grabbed his stick inboth hands and gave the Swede a vicious chop behind the right knee that lefthim crumpled on the ice in pain.
"If that hadbeen Mike Schmidt, it would have been out of the park," Nilsson said afterthe game, an ice pack strapped to his leg. Nilsson's complaint? "Whengoaltenders do it, they don't serve their penalty. They stay in the net. He got15 minutes and never left the ice!"
This night,however, belonged to Gretzky and the Oilers. As the last seconds ticked off theclock, fans in the Spectrum rose to applaud the defeated Flyers. It was as ifthey didn't expect to see them again this season.