All else having failed, the Boston Bruins had hoped a change of rinks could save them from being blown out by the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup finals. That notion evanesced in Game 3 Sunday night as a surreal, Murders in the Rue Morgue mist, caused by 80° temperatures in Boston Garden, swirled around the players' ankles, sometimes floating up to their waists. The Oilers dominated every aspect of play, winning 6-3 for an all-but-insurmountable 3-0 lead in the series.
"We have to play our hearts out," said Bruins coach Terry O'Reilly, anticipating Game 4 at the Garden Tuesday night. "But you have to be realistic. The Oilers haven't even been tested yet."
Edmonton had outskated the Bruins when they tried to skate, outmuscled them when they tried to grind out goals. The only remaining suspense for Wayne Gretzky and Friends was whether they would sweep the Bruins and end it all in Boston. Of the three Cups Edmonton has won in the last four seasons, none was clinched on the road.
Gretzky had helped break the monotony by showing up for practice one day in Edmonton with a Billy Idol-Brian Bosworth brush cut that left his not-so-small ears uncovered and conspicuous and his legion of followers asking, why?
"I heard it's hot in Boston Garden," answered the Great One, running a hand over the stubble on the back of his neck. "Hey, it's just a haircut." For most of 1987, Gretzky had worn a style—short bangs, long in the back—favored by indoor soccer players and early '80s garage bands.
Their captain's coiffure was only part of the new look the Oilers sported against the outmanned, outgunned and outclassed Bruins. General manager and coach Glen Sather's charges were acting less like their run-and-gun selves and more like the 1975-76-1978-79 Montreal Canadiens, who won four straight Stanley Cups by making defense an art. In Games 1 and 2, which the Oilers won 2-1 and 4-2, they allowed a mere 14 and 12 shots, respectively—on average, not quite one every five minutes.
"I'm not sure if we were playing that well on defense, or if they were playing that cautiously on offense." said Sather. He was just being polite. And indeed, by attacking the Oilers with all the subtlety and imagination of bull elephants in mating season, and by taking a host of dumb penalties, the Bruins did help make Edmonton look even better. The result was that the Oilers out-Bruined the Bruins. We've beaten you our way, they seemed to be saying, now we'll beat you your way.
In 1983-84 and '84-85, the young and reckless Oilers had ridden their wideopen style to two Stanley Cups. Recalling the wild old days of five-man rushes, razzle-dazzle passing and scores right out of slo-pitch softball. Oiler co-coach John Muckler said, "They'd win 7-6 and never worry about the six."
Then in '86 the Calgary Flames ousted Edmonton in seven games in the Smythe Division finals—chiefly by catching Oiler defensemen up ice and cashing in. After recovering the Stanley Cup last season, the Oilers lost, via trades or defections to Europe, defensemen Paul Coffey, Reijo Ruotsalainen and Kent Nilsson, flashy players all—and said goodbye to the brand of hockey that had won them those three Cups. Instead of grieving, Sather went out and signed some big bodies. The current Oilers, as Gretzky says, "are adaptable. We've learned to compensate for different styles and different buildings." Indeed, their '88 playoff record stood at 15-2 (10-0 at home, 5-2 on the road).
And the nucleus remains. Gretzky, goalie Grant Fuhr, center Mark Messier, left wing Glenn Anderson, right wing Jari Kurri and defenseman Kevin Lowe have now reached a ripe NHL maturity; all are in their mid-to late-20's, and have a total of 50 years in the league. It has taken time, but they have discovered how much fun it is to beat an opponent at both ends of the ice. "If you're going to play a defensive game, you're going to give up a little offense." says Gretzky.
So there was Lowe in Game 1, rocking Bruins forward Keith Crowder's world as Crowder crossed the blue line. There was Oiler defenseman Steve Smith, between titanic collisions with Boston right wing Cam Neely, driving center Craig Janney into the ice. There was—could it be?—perennial Lady Byng trophy candidate Kurri rubbing Ken Linseman's face in the ice, knocking the caps off two of the Rat's teeth. In Game 2, there was Gretzky saving the Oilers by kicking Bruins forward Moe Lemay's shot out of the crease. And seldom were the Oilers caught out of position. "We get no clear three-on-twos or two-on-ones—they always have people back," despaired Bruins center Steve Kasper.
O'Reilly had sent goalie Andy Moog out against Edmonton for Game 1, hoping to tap into the ex-Oiler's ill-disguised dislike of Sather, his former coach. Tired of watching Fuhr get all the playoff action, Moog had asked to be traded last summer after five full seasons with Edmonton. Sather refused the goalie's request, and Moog left to play for the Canadian Olympic team, where it was his lot to play backup to Sean Burke, who would later turn the New Jersey Devils into a playoff power. Finally, in March, Sather traded Moog to Boston.
Moog stopped 20 of 22 Oiler shots in the opener, missing a Gretzky chop that hit no fewer than seven other objects—skates, sticks, etc.—before trickling wounded into the net, and a Keith Acton tip-in. Fuhr one-upped him, turning away 13 of the Bruins' paltry 14 shots.
Before Game 2, the chastened Bruins spoke of how they would need to be "more physical," to "fight through their checks" and "take the play to them." Said O'Reilly, "I have some ideas, but I'm not going to get too technical right now. They might not even work."
Unfortunately, who was listening but referee Don Koharski, one of the protagonists in Doughnutgate, the black eye the NHL suffered during the Boston-New Jersey Wales Conference finals. For the first two periods, Koharski was in a hair-trigger mode. He whistled the Bruins for eight of the first period's 11 penalties, including the last five in a row, twice giving the Oilers a two-man advantage. Gretzky manufactured a goal each time, first setting up Anderson for a deflection score from the left, then doing the same for Messier from the right.
Playing in a trance early in the third period, the Oilers gave up two quick goals. Koharski, too, appeared to fall into a trance, whistling not a single penalty until the game's last minute, even though play appeared to be as chippy as in the first two periods. "Where's the logic in that?" asked Boston defenseman Gord Kluzak. O'Reilly was equally outraged by the inconsistency, and he was still harping on it two nights later, describing the officiating as "not good enough for a Stanley Cup final." But the Bruins could not blame all their problems on Koharski. Again, the Oiler defense was smothering. So smothering that after the second of the Bruins' third-period goals, on which Linseman knocked Lowe to the ice, shot, then lifted his own rebound over Fuhr to make the score 2-2, Boston did not get off a shot in the remaining 16:44 of play.
The Edmonton player who did most of the smothering was Smith. He set up both Oiler goals in Game 1 and has performed as well as Lowe, the All-Star, in the playoffs. "He had a great series against Calgary," said Gretzky of Smith's play in the Oilers' four-game sweep of the favored Flames.
That victory was especially sweet for Smith. When Calgary knocked Edmonton out of the playoffs in '86, the winning goal for the Flames was actually scored by Smith, when he attempted to clear a pass and the puck bounced off Fuhr's leg into the net.
"He's paid for that a million times," says Sather. Calgary fans shout "Shoot!" when Smith touches the puck.
But Sather stuck with the rough-edged Smith: He needed to. In addition to being a strong skater and passer, the Glasgow-born Smith has a nasty streak—his 286 penalty minutes this season are the most by an Oiler, ever—that comes in handy when rivals try to throw Gretzky off his game by roughing him up. Smith also quarterbacks the Oilers power play: he carries the puck out and, when opponents loiter in front of the Oiler net, Smith, at 6'4", 210 pounds, becomes a human front-loader. "The more ice time you get, the more you find yourself in the right position as play develops, as opposed to being on the outside looking in," says Smith.
After the first two games, the Bruins' party line sounded like this: "Just wait till we get 'em in our building. It's important for us to be going home. The crowd will be a big help." The speaker was forlorn defenseman Glen Wesley, whose third-period giveaway in Game 2 had allowed Oiler left wing Esa Tikkanen to make the blind backhand pass that set up No. 99's game-winner.
Yes, the Bruins believed their offensive blahs could be cured by a dose of pinball hockey, as Messier refers to the game as it is played in Boston Garden. The hopeful thinking was that the rink's miniature dimensions—191 feet by 83 feet as compared with a standard NHL size of 200 by 85—would prevent the Oilers from using their superior speed. Also, suggested Wesley wishfully, "It's going to be tougher for their defense to stand our forwards up at the blue line." The Garden would make the difference.
Things started out better when Boston left wing Randy Burridge lofted the first goal of Game 3 over Fuhr's right shoulder. Despite Oiler Kevin McClelland's goal 14 minutes later, Boston seemed in command, and the Beantown crowd was deafening. But the Bruins lost their starch, and the game, on a hammerhead penalty midway through the second period by forward Jay Miller. The penalty occurred after Marty McSorley, the Oilers' top tough guy, collided with Bruins defenseman Michael Thelven, coldcocking him in the process. Thelven left the ice on a stretcher and went straight to the hospital with a mild concussion. No penalty was called on McSorley, and the Bruins were enraged, none more so than Miller.
When play resumed, Miller immediately began spoiling for a piece of McSorley but settled instead for McClelland six seconds after the ensuing face-off. Referee Andy van Hellemond—indeed, all 14,451 people in the Garden—knew exactly what Miller was going to do, and van Hellemond raised his arm for a penalty before Miller's gloves were on the ice. Seventy-nine seconds into the power play, Tikkanen scored the first goal in what would become a hat trick, and the Garden crowd was deflated.
"I didn't see the point in conceding the physical aspect of the game," said O'Reilly, defending his decision to leave the agitated Miller on the ice. The traits that give the Bruins their personality and make them effective—their size and surliness—had undone them.
In the end, though, they were really undone by the confounding, adaptable Oilers, a bunch with a few effective traits of its own.