Thanks mainly to the annual Superstar Raffle held by their owner, Peter Pocklington, the Edmonton Oilers are no longer the NHL's most talented team. They are, however, its most jaded.
Each winter the Oilers skate nonchalantly into slumps and losing streaks that are most unbecoming to a defending Stanley Cup championship team, which Edmonton has been for four of the past five years. Don't mind us, the Oilers tell their faithful, we're just working out the kinks and waiting for our injured players to heal. This year the Oilers limped to a seventh-place finish in the NHL's overall regular-season standings and, thus, were right on schedule.
The Oilers always seem to crank it up when April arrives and hit the postseason in full stride. So it was last week, as they opened a three-games-to-one lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the Smythe Division semifinals. When Kings owner Bruce McNall flew south after the Oilers' gut-wrenching 4-3 victory on Sunday—defenseman Steve Smith backhanded a loose puck over Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey with 26 seconds left on the clock—the portly tycoon was confronted with a grim reality. Even with Wayne Gretzky, for whom he paid most of the value of the franchise, and Hrudey, the former New York Islander goaltender for whom he cashed in the rest of it, the Kings are still one forward, one defenseman and one head coach away from a Stanley Cup.
The Oilers have staged their April reawakening act so often that it should come as no surprise. Yet this season they really had the look of a dynasty in collapse. The Gretzky trade last August seemed to have ushered in an era of decay in Edmonton. And the team's injuries were rampant and serious. All-galaxy goalie Grant Fuhr reported to training camp 10 pounds overweight and was merely mortal in the regular season, losing more games than he won. Glenn Anderson, the high-scoring, speedy stick-smith of Stanley Cup championship teams past, was dubbed the league's "biggest disappointment of the season" by The Hockey News.
Craig Simpson and Jimmy Carson, who together represent the Oiler future, finished the season in scoring droughts. And the Gretzky-led Kings beat the Oilers in their final three meetings, thrusting the league champions into the ignominy of a third-place finish in the Smythe Division. Said coach and general manager Glen Sather, sarcastically, "It's been a beauty of a season."
Said Fuhr, "We accepted defeat more easily than ever before. It took awhile for us to regain the fear of losing. We've got that fear back, and now we'll be tough to beat."
Most Oilers don't know which is worse—losing or having to share close quarters with team captain Mark Messier after a loss. With due respect to Gretzky, Messier was the series' most dominant player through four games. On every shift, it seemed, the muscular center set up a scoring opportunity by making a slick pass or by drilling either a shot or a King. Sometimes he did all three.
But on Sunday night, the man his teammates call Moose saved his best shift for last. With the final minute ebbing away and the score tied 3-3, Messier took a pass from Craig MacTavish and—oblivious to Dave Taylor, who was draped on him—bore down mooselike on the net. Hrudey stopped Messier's hard wrist shot, but the rebound rolled just out of the goalie's reach. Smith, playing in his fourth game after missing 10 weeks because of surgery on his left shoulder, tapped in the game-winner and put the Kings into a deep hole.
It was Messier's deft cross-ice pass to Carson last Saturday night in Edmonton that had set up the game-winning goal during the Oilers' 4-0 shutout in Game 3. Messier also orchestrated the Oilers' third goal that night when he stripped Kings center Dave Taylor of the puck and sent Jari Kurri in to score. And he made a prophet of Gretzky, who had said, "The formalities and friendships are over, and they're the enemy now. I expect to get hit. I expect Mark Messier to run me over." To the delight of the usually catatonic crowd at Northlands Coliseum, Messier did just that in the first period Saturday, riding the Great One into the boards with a thud and depositing Gretzky on his keister.
The Edmonton fans booed Gretzky every time he touched the puck. "I expect it," he said after the game, but there was hurt in his voice. Gretzky had turned the fans against him with shrill criticisms of Sather and Pocklington late in the season. Sather, he told The Edmonton Journal, was never satisfied with Gretzky's accomplishments. He also said that Sather had more to do with the trade than he publicly let on.
"As far as pushing him to go beyond his limits—that's a coach's job," Sather said last week. With respect to the trade, "I tried to talk Peter out of it. That trade broke my heart. No matter what [Gretzky] said, he can't take away that we all won those four Stanley Cups."
Added Sather as an afterthought, "If he's doing it as a playoff ploy, then I respect it."
Of course he does. Sather, who puts scruples aside come playoff time, was at his heartless best when he complained to officials before Game 1 on April 5 in Los Angeles that Hrudey, one of the 21 Kings who dressed for the game, was not on the bench; the Kings goalie had the flu and was all but delirious with a 103° fever. Aware of Hrudey's condition, referee Terry Gregson let him rest in the locker room during the game—technically a violation of NHL rules, which state that each team must have a backup goaltender in uniform and on the bench.
When it was announced over the Forum address system that Glenn Healy would start in goal for Los Angeles, the Kings fans demonstrated their newfound hockey savvy by letting out a collective groan. The reaction proved to be unfair, for Healy, who had just recovered from the flu himself, played a strong game under difficult circumstances. With the arena temperature soaring because of the record 100° heat outside, Healy lost 14 pounds, yet made 31 saves. Edmonton scored two late goals to win the game 4-3, but neither one was Healy's fault.
Twice Fuhr denied Gretzky from in close during Game 1, which set the tone for the series. "That's just Grant," shrugged Gretzky. "I've been saying it for years. He's the best in the world."
In Game 2 at the Forum the next night, the Kings won 5-2, but Fuhr again was magnificent. The Kings bombarded him with 44 shots, and journeyman free-agent Chris Kontos got a hat trick, but Fuhr made half a dozen saves that did not seem humanly possible.
Eight seconds into Game 3, Gretzky stole the puck from Simpson and broke in on Fuhr for the first of what would be eight quality scoring chances. Trying to pick a corner, however, he missed the net. As it turned out, every other shot he took was stonewalled by Fuhr or missed the net. Fuhr was so tough that by the third period the Kings were passing up point-blank shots, searching in vain for the perfect scoring chance. The world's best goalie had climbed into the Kings' heads and was playing with their minds.
Messier, Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen & Co. took care of the Kings' bodies. After their defeat in Game 2 the Oilers said their most pressing mission was to "finish our checks," a euphemism for hitting an opponent so hard that his shoulder blades precede his backside to the ice. Gretzky and Kings center Bernie Nicholls were singled out as having escaped physical "attention."
Said Lowe, the Oiler defenseman, "After he makes a play in the neutral zone, Gretz sort of looks away with that expression that says, 'O.K., the play's over,' so guys don't hit him. What we need to realize is that checking him—or anyone—in that situation is going to take its toll. We can't afford not to."
Thus the Great One took an unaccustomed pounding in Games 3 and 4. Though he was held pointless in Game 3, it was not entirely his fault. Twice Gretzky left perfect feeds for his occasional linemate Jay Miller—"pearls before swine," wags in the press box called them—but on each occasion Miller's shot missed the goal by yards. In his four-year career, Miller has 41 points and 991 penalty minutes. Why was Miller on Gretzky's right wing in a critical playoff game? Kings coach Robbie Ftorek evidently sees something that previous coaches have not been able to. Heretofore in his career Miller has been used exclusively as a hired thug. Privately, several Oilers were scratching their heads over some of Ftorek's line combinations.
All season, Ftorek has used Gretzky's talents to jump-start the egos of almost every winger in the Kings' organization, including such nonentities as Paul Fenton, Bob Kudelski, Hubie McDonough and Tim Tookey. The joke in the Kings' press box earlier this season was that if you were the New Haven farm club's player of the week, your prize would be round-trip airfare to L.A., a trip to Disneyland and a week playing on Gretzky's line.
Edmonton's fourth goal in Game 3—scored by Kurri after he, Tikkanen and Mark Lamb played catch with the puck as if the Kings' defensemen weren't on the ice—made one wonder where Los Angeles's veteran defenseman Doug Crossman was. Crossman was good enough to make the 1987 Canada Cup team, but his style isn't sufficiently physical for Ftorek. So he doesn't play much.
In contrast, Sather and Edmonton co-coach John Muckler, who have won 17 of the last 18 Oiler playoff series, are pressing all the right buttons. "When I played in Montreal," says Sather, "[then head coach] Scotty Bowman used to say, 'A coach's job is to take away all the crutches.' "
As the series returned to Los Angeles, the Gretzky-less Oilers had replaced their crutches with the old fear of losing. The regular season was all but forgotten; April was nearly two weeks old, and the Oilers were right on schedule.