For a dynasty-in-the-offing, it had been a disquieting, indeed, a humbling season for the Edmonton Oilers. Wayne Gretzky lost the scoring title that had been his for seven years, and, suddenly, the Oilers—missing half a dozen stars from last year's dream team—weren't even the best club in the Smythe Division. That honor went to the up-and-coming Calgary Flames, who had the NHL's best regular-season record. Long oppressed by Edmonton, their hostile intra-Alberta neighbor to the north, the Flames were hungry. They had depth. They had momentum. And now the Flames, unceremoniously swept from the Stanley Cup playoffs in four games by the Oilers, have learned the hard way that all-world players like Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr tend to offset those little difficulties. And like the Montreal Canadiens, Calgary now knows that come April, regular-season standings have a way of fading into irrelevance.
Montreal had the next-best record behind Calgary, but they trailed the Boston Bruins three games to one, having scored but one goal in two games at Boston Garden. The Bruins appeared to be coping successfully with the ghosts of ugly playoff performances past.
Amid all the combat, it was the NHL's efforts to tidy its image that took it on the chin. Indeed, it was fortunate for Edmonton's Marty McSorley, for the Oilers and for the league that Edmonton won Game 3 by more than a single goal (4-2), because the Oilers' second goal, which was allowed to stand, stank to high heaven. Midway through the second period with the score tied 1-1, McSorley was walloped hard into the boards by Gary Roberts. He got up groggily, all the while grousing to referee Andy van Hellemond that a penalty should have been called. In fact, the check was clean, if painful—precisely the kind of check by which the minimally skilled McSorley has earned his livelihood for four NHL seasons. Van Hellemond properly ignored him and followed play up the ice. Skating toward his bench, McSorley speared the first red jersey he saw, that of Mike Bullard, a former teammate on the Pittsburgh Penguins. McSorley jammed his stick into Bullard's lower abdomen with such force that the blade snapped. Bullard crumpled to the ice and lay motionless. Meanwhile, before linesman Gord Broseker, who had seen the spear, could whistle the play dead, Oiler Charlie Huddy's slap shot from the point eluded Flames goaltender Mike Vernon and made the score 2-1. Bullard was subsequently taken off the ice on a stretcher.
Although McSorley, who should be suspended for his cold-blooded assault, was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct and was ejected from the game, Huddy's goal stood. Calgary assistant general manager Al MacNeil later labeled the ref "Andy van Solomon. I guess you could call that splitting the baby in half. He gave them something [the goal], and he gave us something [the power play]. They got the gold mine, we got the shaft."
May 1, 1988
Still, the Flames managed to undermine themselves, failing to score then and seven other times they were a man up. As throughout the series, Calgary's uncharacteristically limp power play—during the regular season it had been the NHL's best—did more to demoralize the team than to help it. "We're living on borrowed time," Calgary coach Terry Crisp said after Saturday's game.
McSorley's pitchfork aside, the Oilers, who have been quietly reminding people all season that Lord Stanley's Cup still belongs to Edmonton, must now be considered the Cup favorites. The Oilers defensemen, as disciplined as Gretzky & Co. were dazzling, stonewalled the Flames' big guns: Hakan Loob, Joe Nieuwendyk, Joey Mullen and Bullard.
Gretzky played like a superstar with a chip on his shoulder. The Great One had missed 16 regular-season games because of injuries and, consequently, had yielded the scoring title to Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux. Ever gracious, Gretzky frequently congratulated Lemieux. But there was always an edge to his voice. Says Oilers coach Glen Sather, "Wayne is very proud, very aware of everything he's accomplished. Believe me, he's not about to give anything away." The Flames will concur.
Did the Oilers respect Calgary? Gretzky, who does not make such statements lightly, called his team's 3-1 win in Game 1, which he sealed with a breakaway goal late in the game, "the biggest in team history." Twice in Game 2 the Oilers found themselves trailing by two goals; twice they came back. Kurri, sensational in the playoffs after a disappointing season, waltzed around Flames defenseman Paul Reinhart and beat Vernon with a low, 25-foot slap with four minutes left in regulation, tying the game 4-4. Then, with his team short-handed in overtime, Gretzky took a long outlet pass from Kurri at center ice, swooped down on Vernon and, at a nearly impossible angle, rocketed the puck into the far left corner of the net.
"Maybe getting hurt was a blessing in disguise," said Gretzky. "Not just for this year, but for my whole career. I've played a lot of hockey over the last 10 years, Canada Cups, All-Star games, exhibition games, playoff games. This year I missed a good six weeks. The more Slats [Sather] played me tonight, the better I felt."
This series had seemed the likeliest of the NHL's four divisional finals to go seven games, which made the Flames' failure to win at home all the more shocking. With Boston dominating Montreal—after losing all 18 of its postseason series with the Habs since 1943—and New Jersey, the worst team in the NHL last season, two wins from the Patrick Division championship after splitting four games with Washington, it appeared this season's quota of playoff miracles had been filled. In the Norris Division, the favored Detroit Red Wings led St. Louis three games to one.
Boston got a rude reception on April 18, the night the Adams Division finals began, when an ice storm damaged a transmission line in northern Quebec, plunging most of the province into darkness. Emergency generators helped light the Montreal Forum, enabling Game 1 between the Canadiens and Bruins to continue uninterrupted. "It was a good thing the game was blacked out [on TV], because we stunk out the joint," said Bruins center Bob Sweeney.
Early the next morning the power came back, as did the Bruins a day after that. Replacing Andy Moog, the loser in Game 1, goalie Rejean Lemelin stole Game 2 for the Bruins. Boston got off just 14 shots on goal but still won 4-3. "My glove was hot tonight," said Lemelin, 33, the Calgary reject whom the Bruins signed as a free agent last summer. In the first 10 minutes, Lemelin made three highlight-film saves on 50-goal scorer Stephane Richer. On Richer's fourth breakaway the Forum crowd figured surely he would solve Lemelin this time. But Boston defenseman Michael Thelven took a two-handed chop that fractured Richer's right thumb and put him out for the series.
Vicious and premeditated, screamed the Habs.
"Vicious?" asked Thelven, a hardnosed, but hardly dirty, Swede. "Translation, please?"
"They should call them the Boston Villains," said Montreal coach Jean Perron, accusing the Bruins, who crashed Montreal defensemen Chris Chelios and Petr Svoboda into the boards all night, of using "goon tactics."
"He said that?" asked Boston's Ken (the Rat) Linseman. "What a bleeping hypocrite!"
Perron's coaching acumen notwithstanding, the Rat was right. Anybody who issues a uniform to the likes of John Kordic—who has zero hockey talent but a strong repertoire of jabs and uppercuts—leaves himself very little room for sanctimony.
Montreal sought retribution in Game 3 at Boston Garden. But while the Habs took runs at them, the Bruins took the game. Defenseman Ray Bourque was everywhere, throwing himself in front of shots and checking—cleanly—every Canadien in sight. Montreal was muffled as Lemelin was airtight again. The fact is, without Richer the Canadiens were just a bunch of grinders. The Bruins, on the other hand, were grinders with a mission, winning 3-1.
"They're playing like they think it's their year," said Perron, worriedly, before Game 4. His concern was well-founded. After 31 minutes of scoreless, breathless hockey, with Habs netminder Patrick Roy matching Lemelin save for save, Boston scored the only goal it would need. Bourque split Montreal's defense with a splendid breakout pass to Lyndon Byers, who found Middleton open on his left wing. Middleton, a former 51-goal scorer recently reduced to a bit part because of the presence of rookies Sweeney, Craig Janney and Bob Joyce, found his old touch, backhanding the puck over Roy's right leg pad for a 1-0 Bruins lead. Lemelin needed nothing more for Boston to win 2-0.
Lemelin has been the best goaltender in the playoffs—less spectacular than New Jersey prodigy Sean Burke, perhaps, but more consistent. The Devils, who flat out bullied the New York Islanders into submission in the first round, were themselves dominated by the Capitals in Game 1 of the Patrick Division finals. The Caps were sure they had arrived.
Maybe, but they didn't stay long. New Jersey won Games 2 and 3 by a combined score of 15-6. In Game 3, the teams danced their way to a playoff-record 62 penalties. Washington recovered to win Game 4 by a 4-1 score, but lost goalie Pete Peeters when he was hit on the mask, over his left eyebrow, by a John MacLean wrist shot. He suffered a concussion.
After his team was knocked out of the playoffs, Islanders general manager Bill Torrey was distressed because, as he put it, this year "someone is going to steal the Cup." Indeed, as a new week began, the Oilers, Bruins, Devils and Caps all had the look of thieves.