An All-Canadian Stanley cup finals, such as the one going on between the Calgary Flames and the Montreal Canadiens, has at least three advantages:
•It means one less national anthem to listen to before each game. Should this series go seven games—which seemed a distinct possibility after the Flames squeaked out a 3-2 win on their home ice in Game 1 on Sunday night—the time saved could exceed 20 minutes.
•Fans traveling back and forth between Alberta and Quebec will rack up thousands of frequent flier miles on Air Canada. They can cash them in for tickets to such exotic spots as Yellowknife and Inuvik.
•Most important, the Calgary-Montreal finals means that justice has finally prevailed in the NHL. The Flames and the Canadiens finished with the best and second-best records, respectively, in the regular season. Their meeting in the Cup finals vindicates the NHL's oft-maligned playoff system, which in past years has been as equitable as a Panamanian election.
But there is a downside to this matchup: Montreal was the best defensive team in the league this season; Calgary was a close second. The players went into the series promising to "work the corners" and "finish our checks," and professing fidelity to "our commitment to defense." It was possible that the 20,062 narcoleptics who regularly fill Calgary's Saddledome—and applaud only when the scoreboard begs, A LITTLE RACKET, PLEASE—would have to resort to the Wave early and often to keep themselves awake.
No Waves were necessary for Game 1 on Sunday. To quote Flame coach Terry Crisp's pithy summary of the four-goal first period, "Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing!" After 10 minutes the score was 2-2, and the P.A. announcer at the Saddledome was getting hoarse from reciting goals and assists. On the bench, Crisp wondered, Where did our defensive style go?
"Everyone was flying around, bumping into everyone else," said Calgary defenseman Al MacInnis, a soft-spoken fellow who is widely believed to have the hardest slap shot in the league. When MacInnis uncoils his 6'2", 196-pound frame into a puck, it is often impossible to see the ensuing shot: A defenseman crumples or the net bulges, but a slow-motion replay is required to spot the flying rubber disk.
MacInnis rocketed just such a missile past Habs goalie Patrick Roy at 6:51 of the first period to tie the game at one. "That shot would have gone through a piece of Plexiglas." said Montreal coach Pat Burns. The goal was balm for MacInnis's troubled conscience: He had allowed Habs sniper Stèphane Richer to waltz past him and put Montreal on the scoreboard first. "I felt I owed the team one," said MacInnis.
Less than two minutes after his first goal, MacInnis took Joel Otto's drop pass and buried another laser in the Canadiens' net for a series-leading 23rd playoff point. At 10:02, when Flame defenseman Jamie Macoun kicked a cross-crease pass from Montreal's Larry Robinson past his own goalie, Mike Vernon, the score was 2-2. That was where the wild and woolly first period ended.
After those 20 minutes of fire-wagon hockey, the teams remembered themselves and reverted to form. As Crisp said, it was "back to good old blockade hockey." The game was tied, but the Flames had demonstrated that Montreal's renowned defense could not keep them out of the slot.
"Our forwards are going to have to arrive, and arrive in ill humor," Crisp said last Friday. Crisp was not in the best of moods himself. When it was suggested before Game 1 that the Canadiens had a monopoly on discipline, he answered with a one-word expletive.
When it was pointed out that Calgary would have the home-ice advantage, he said, "That is the most overused, misused phrase in the playoffs."
When it was implied that the Montreal Mystique, the Habs' 23 Stanley Cups in 72 years (including their most recent one, a five-game drubbing of the Flames in 1986), gave his opponents the advantage in '89, Crisp said, "Twenty-three Stanley Cups, no Stanley Cups, ghosts—it doesn't amount to a hill of beans."
Flame center Joe Nieuwendyk was less decorous, calling the Mystique "a crock."
No one could blame the Flames for not wanting to lose to a passel of poltergeists, but undeniably, there is something to the Mystique. It is embodied by the Habs' elder statesmen—defenseman Robinson, 37, and team captain Bob Gainey, 35, who together have dignified NHL arenas for a total of 33 years and have played in a total of 11 Stanley Cup finals. Robinson has been in six finals, Gainey in five; neither has ever played for a team that lost the Cup.
The Flames have their own antique rallying point, Lanny McDonald, the 36-year-old left wing and tonsorial curiosity. McDonald's flaming red beard and handlebar mustache give him the look of the chuck-wagon cook in a Grade B Western. Crisp uses him for only a few shifts a game, but McDonald hits the ice like a dervish and gives the Flames an instant lift. He is much beloved in Calgary—LANNY FOR MAYOR buttons abound in the city. He all but admits that after 15 years in the NHL without winning it all, he is hanging on in hopes of finally wearing a Stanley Cup ring.
Robinson, despite his years, still takes his full share of shifts for Montreal's league-leading defense, and that stifling D shut down the prolific Joes—Nieuwendyk and Mullen—who scored more than 100 goals between them during the regular season. The Flames' Doug Gilmour and Hakan Loob were also kept off the scoreboard. So it was left to Calgary center Theoren Fleury to decide matters.
Fleury is listed in the Flames' media guide as 5'6"—which he is, when wearing ice skates and a helmet. Halfway through the second period he skated up the left side, took a pass from Macoun and flipped the puck between Roy's legs to make it 3-2, Calgary. For the next 28 minutes, the Flames—"borrowing a chapter from Montreal's book," according to Otto—made it stand up.
Fleury now had 10 points in the playoffs, a respectable total for someone who spent half the season with Salt Lake City in the International Hockey League. "We never questioned his abilities," said Flame assistant general manager Al MacNeil. "We just wondered if he could survive at this level, at his size."
Called up on New Year's Day, Fleury got his chance to play four days later in Calgary and picked up three assists, two in the third period, in an 8-6 win over Wayne Gretzky and the L.A. Kings. "Who was that guy?" the Great One asked afterward. Two nights later, Fleury scored two goals in a 7-2 laugher over the Edmonton Oilers. He has missed only two games since.
"He scoots in right behind the big snowplows and does his damage that way," says Crisp. The problem is, Fleury thinks he's one of the snowplows; he picks fights with some of the NHL's roughest customers. His most recent battle occurred in the Campbell Conference finals, when he took on Dave (Charlie) Manson, the Chicago Black-hawks' 6'2", 190-pound defenseman. Fleury, as usual, held his own. He had a much scarier moment when the Blackhawks' Adam Creighton accidentally caught Fleury above the right eye with a stick blade. He fell to the ice, writhing and blinded by his own blood. "I thought, Holy god, I lost my eye," says Fleury. Five stitches later he was back in the game for more.
Once Fleury gave Calgary the lead on Sunday, the third period of Game 1 became the exam for which the Flames had studied all season. Since August, Crisp had preached the importance of reducing the club's goals-against average. That tack was a result of the team's humiliating sweep by the Oilers in the 1988 playoffs. The Flames had finished the '87-88 season with more goals than any other team, a feat that, as MacInnis says, "didn't get us anywhere."
The idea was to make the Flames, who were fast gaining the label of choke artists, comfortable with a one-goal lead late in the game. Says Crisp, "We used to play Edmonton to a 1-1 tie with two minutes to go and think, How are they going to win this game? We knew we were going to lose."
Goaltending was another troublesome area for Calgary. Though Vernon led the league in wins this season, with 37, in most preseries assessments the Canadiens were deemed to have the superior goalie in the flailing, twitching, yet uncannily effective Roy. "Maybe it's my size," said Vernon on Saturday. Of course, he knew the real reason: He had had a brutal series against the Oilers in the 1987-88 season and was as responsible as any Flame for Calgary's hasty departure from last spring's playoffs. Most memorable was the shorthanded, bad-angle goal that Vernon surrendered to Gretzky to put the Flames in a two-games-to-nil canyon from which there was no escape.
This year, with a little help from the guys in front of him, Vernon has come of age. He shut out the Vancouver Canucks twice in the first round of the playoffs. And when the Canucks refused to die and forced a seventh game, which went into overtime, Vernon dispatched them single-handedly. In that OT—with everything about his playoff history suggesting he would wind up wearing the goat horns—Vernon made three miraculous saves. The Flames pulled the series out, and they have not looked back.
Sunday night, Vernon was pulling pucks out of the air like Doug Henning. Montreal's Chris Chelios or Petr Svoboda would crank a slap shot—and Vernon's extended glove hand would magically snap backward. "He's been doing that all year," said Crisp.
If Vernon can keep it up for another week, he will have taken from the Habs the only real advantage they brought to the finals—aside, of course, from the Mystique.