Did you notice who was the second Oiler who got to skate with the Stanley Cup, after captain Wayne Gretzky had welcomed it back to Edmonton on Sunday night? It was defenseman Steve Smith, whose grin outshone the silver trophy. Smith hung on to the Cup with both hands, as if to prevent its escape, and shook it as he circled Northlands Arena, until all memories of last season had been dislodged.
In the view of Smith and his teammates, they had closed out last year's campaign prematurely, losing to the Calgary Flames in seven games in the semifinal of the playoffs. In the deciding game, Smith had banked the puck off the back of Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr's leg and into the Oilers' net. The calamity stood up as Calgary's winning goal.
One year and one month later, in the seventh game of the '87 finals, Edmonton reclaimed the Cup by beating the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1. The win not only gave the Oilers their third Stanley Cup in four years, but it also showed that last season was an aberration, that Edmonton is the home of the NHL's dynasty in progress. Or as Gretzky put it, "The Oilers proved that their hockey—emphasizing speed, offense, skating—is the kind of hockey that wins Stanley Cup championships."
Then there is Flyers hockey: guts, opportunism, relentless forechecking and cortisone shots for the asking, the kind of hockey that rallied Philadelphia from a three-games-to-one deficit to a three-three series tie and a 1-1 score with 35 minutes to play in Game 7. The thunderous applause that filled the Northlands Coliseum Sunday night as Gretzky and his teammates skated triumphantly with the Cup was an expression of relief as much as it was of jubilation.
After all, the Oilers had been expected to win the Cup five nights before. The champagne was on ice, the parades and parties planned. And when the Oilers, who have always been able to smell blood in the water, skated to a quick 2-0 lead in Game 5, it was time to start the countdown to the cork-popping. But the Flyers spoiled all the party plans. That morning, coming off the Northlands ice after a light workout, they had seen the workers carting cases of champagne into the Edmonton dressing room. They had read in the local papers that Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore had already scheduled the Oilers' victory parade to begin at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Behind the din of anticipation, like the woman in the Monty Python skit, the Flyers could be heard objecting stridently in the background: I'm not dead yet!
Now, down 2-0 to the Oilers, Philadelphia coach Mike Keenan slapped together a line consisting of Pelle Eklund, Rick Tocchet and Brian Propp, his three best available offensive players. (Tim Kerr, whose 58 goals were second only to Gretzky's 62 in the NHL regular season, sat out the last month of the playoffs with a shoulder injury.) By the end of the game Eklund, Tocchet and Propp had been christened the Life Line, because they had allowed the Flyers to live another day. With the feisty Tocchet scoring two goals and Propp getting four assists, the Flyers overcame 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to win 4-3. There would be no hangovers this night in northern Alberta.
Gretzky was understandably miserable. He has a tremendous fear of flying and clearly preferred a ride in a convertible through the streets of Edmonton to two five-hour plane rides in two days. Still, the Oilers were confident because they had overwhelmed the Flyers by a 4-1 score in Game 4 at the Spectrum.
Thursday night, in Game 6, they again jumped ahead 2-0, on goals by Kevin Lowe—off a spectacular setup from Gretzky—and Kevin McClelland. The Oilers defense then took charge and checked the Life Line into a comatose state. Things seemed under control at 7:12 of the second period when—what's this?—Lindsay Carson cut the lead in half when he scored on a sparkling pass from, of all people, Dave Brown, the Flyers' archgoon. "A lot of times when I do something skilled, people are surprised, because they pay so much attention to my other, uhh, responsibilities," said Brown.
Edmonton kept its cool while killing off an inordinate number of power plays. In this game the Philadelphia aggressors escaped penalties while the Edmonton retaliators received them. In fact, the Oilers found themselves in twice as many shorthanded situations as the Flyers—six to three. It was while Edmonton's Glenn Anderson was serving a penalty for retaliating after being high-sticked that the Flyers tied the score at 2-2, Propp taking a perfect pass from Eklund and beating Fuhr from the slot with seven minutes to play. It was only the fifth man-advantage score of the series for Philadelphia, whose power play this season was essentially one man: Tim Kerr. The 17,222 Spectrum fanatics were still celebrating Propp's score when reserve defenseman J.J. Daigneault unloaded a blast from the blue line that flew past the screened Fuhr for the goal that gave the Flyers a 3-2 victory and a tied series.
The Oilers were thoroughly spooked. For the second straight game the Anderson-Mark Messier-Kent Nilsson line had not scored a point. Having the roughest time was Anderson, who had five penalties called on him in Game 6 and, of course, got to watch Propp's tying goal from the penalty box. Edmonton coach and general manager Glen Sather was seething about the officiating of Dave Newell, and not without reason. When Anderson and Flyer defenseman Brad McCrimmon jousted in the Philadelphia end, Newell chose to ignore McCrimmon's flagrant head butt and meted out matching four-minute penalties. McCrimmon should have received a five-minute major penalty for the, ahem, love tap with his helmet.
The officiating aside, Edmonton's real problem was Philadelphia rookie goaltender Ron Hextall, who had flat-out stonewalled Gretzky & Co. for two straight games and hardly seemed bothered by the pressure. Instead, the normally combative Hextall grew more confident—and more irascible—as the series wore on. Oilers who dared skate near his crease came away with welts on their legs. Right, Kent Nilsson?
"Ron Hextall is the best goaltender I've ever played against," said Gretzky. For his part, Fuhr was only slightly less brilliant and infinitely more composed. He relaxed between games by playing golf. Asked why he played 36 holes one day, he replied, "Because it got too dark to play 54."
As Fuhr and the wounded Oilers headed home to Edmonton for Game 7, Sather tried to play down any home-ice advantage his team might have. "It's going to be a great game in Edmonton," he said. "I just hope the mayor has enough brains to keep his mouth shut."
The people of Edmonton were hardly brimming with confidence by this point. Before the face-off for Game 7, the Northlands P.A. beseeched the crowd: "Let's have fun tonight...all right?" No response. "All right?" Tentative, meager response. Having seen one victory parade canceled, the fans seemed to fear the worst, and less than two minutes into the game their nightmare seemed to be becoming reality. With both Paul Coffey and Messier serving minor penalties, Philadelphia forward Murray Craven beat Fuhr from alongside the net to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. It was the first time in the series that they had been ahead in the first period.
Six minutes later Anderson returned to the form he had demonstrated in the first four games, when he scored three goals. Clearing the puck from his own end, he skated by Carson and fed Nilsson, who passed to Messier flying up the right side. Hextall had no chance on Messier's backhander: 1-1. Late in the second period, Edmonton's Old Reliables, Gretzky and linemate Jari Kurri, came through as they had so many times before. Gretzky whirled around in the corner to Hextall's right, spotted Kurri and hit him with a pass on his forehand. In a flash Kurri turned his stick and wristed a low shot that beat Hextall between his left skate and the post. It was the type of goal that only natural scorers regularly produce, and Kurri, who has scored 354 goals in seven seasons in the NHL, certainly was born with the scorer's hands.
Edmonton led 2-1 with 20 minutes to play, but would this be just dèjà vu for the Flyers? Indeed, they were in their all-too-familiar position for another comeback, this one for the Cup. In Games 5 and 6, Edmonton had contributed to Philadelphia's victories by abandoning its attacking style and trying to sit on its lead. On Sunday night, however, the Oilers came out shooting on Hextall in the third period, and in no time at all the Flyers were dead on their feet. The puck seemed to be in the Philadelphia end for the entire 20 minutes.
"It was their best period of hockey in the entire series," said Flyer alternate captain Mark Howe.
"They just wouldn't let us get to the net," added Keenan. "We couldn't get an offensive opportunity."
It wasn't that bad, but it was close. The Flyers managed two shots at Fuhr in the period; the Oilers blasted 12 at Hextall, including a slapper by Anderson that broke through the goalie's pads to make the score 3-1. Hextall stopped 40 of 43 shots in Game 7—204 of 229 overall—and was named series MVP.
But the parties—and the Stanley Cup—were in the room down the hall.