The death of the defending Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames in double overtime in Los Angeles last Saturday was not sudden at all. The winning shot, flicked toward the net by Mike Krushelnyski of the Kings while he was lying under Calgary's 215-pound Brian MacLellan, blooped into the air in slow motion. Flame goalie Mike Vernon, who had raised himself to only a sitting position after having stopped a shot by Steve Duchesne, saw the puck all the way.
End over end it tumbled, turning only slightly less frequently than had the game, one of the most riveting and controversial in Stanley Cup history. "I was hoping it was going to go over the net," said Vernon. He soon realized, however, that the puck had the approximate trajectory of Calgary's season. Which is to say it started badly and ended worse, with an apex in the middle.
Now, to Vernon's horror, the puck was coming down behind him, between the crossbar and his left glove, which was thrust as high as he could reach. At 3:14 of the second overtime, the puck went splat in the goal, like an egg dropped onto a kitchen floor, dashing Calgary's dreams of a second straight championship. "I wish my arms were 10 feet long," said Vernon, "but they aren't."
Only in the NHL—well, maybe the NBA, too—can a fourth-place team make its entire season in ten days by knocking off a first-place club. And on a prayer of a shot no less. Vernon's arms, long and strong enough to have carried Calgary to the Stanley Cup title a year ago, were too short to box with fate this time.
After Krushelnyski's goal gave Los Angeles a 4-3 victory and this first-round playoff series in six games, the Flames dressed without any visible emotion. They had been angry over a disallowed goal by Doug Gilmour that would have won the game for them late in the first overtime, but now they were quiet. They did not curse their luck, which, considering the bloop game-winner, their territorial dominance in overtime and referee Denis Morel's quick whistle on the Gilmour shot, was abysmal. Still, after having fallen behind 3-1 in a series they had figured to win decisively, they knew the perils of playing on the edge. "We didn't lose the series tonight," said defenseman Jamie Macoun. "We lost it by playing badly earlier in the series."
Nevertheless, Calgary could have prevailed had Gilmour's goal-that-wasn't been allowed to stand. Gilmour chipped the puck from behind the L.A. net. The puck ricocheted off the back of goalie Kelly Hrudey's right leg and slithered toward the goal line. Goal judge Ted Metcalfe illuminated the goal light, and the entire Flame team rushed onto the ice in celebration. But Morel talked to Metcalfe on a phone and ruled no goal. Morel had lost sight of the puck and apparently assumed that Hrudey had covered it, so he whistled the play dead. "The goal judge saw it [the puck] in after it [the play] was killed [whistled dead]," Morel said later. "I had killed play." If that's the case, why did Morel need to consult with Metcalfe before making his ruling?
"Some things are to be," said Calgary defenseman Ric Nattress, "and some things are not to be." That is an observation that can be made whenever Wayne Gretzky appears in a postseason series.
Gretzky's power-play goal 1:08 into the action opened the scoring in Game 6. And his feed to Duchesne, through a lane that appeared to have been shut off by Nattress, enabled Los Angeles to tie the score 2-2 just 1:01 into the third period. Joe Mullen's goal had given Calgary a 3-2 lead at 15:48 of the third period, and it appeared that the Flames, who would have played Game 7 back home in the Olympic Saddledome, finally had the series under control. But Gretzky got a second chance following a face-off, which he had lost an instant earlier to Joel Otto. When Otto, who was quicker on the draw than Gretzky, backhanded the puck against his own shins, Gretzky pounced on the carom and flicked it to Duchesne, whose shot went past Vernon and forced the overtime.
On his way to becoming the NHL's all-time point producer, Gretzky never failed to rise to the occasion. The series against the Flames further embellished his mystical reputation. Gretzky's spirit has always been willing, but he had never before entered a series with his flesh so weak.
Two weeks ago he was stretched out on a physical therapist's table, receiving treatment for lower back spasms. The Kings, who won only two of their final eight regular-season games, were awaiting a kind of team autopsy. Buoyed by last season's second-place finish to Calgary in the Smythe Division, followed by a first-round playoff victory over the Edmonton Oilers, the Kings began 1989-90 believing themselves to be a rising power. Instead, they showed themselves to be nothing more than a fourth-place team.
As the schedule wound down, the Kings clearly lacked the kind of patient defensive approach that pays off so handsomely in Stanley Cup play. Indeed, they finished 18th among 21 teams in goals allowed. The addition of veteran defense-man Larry Robinson, who signed as a free agent in the off-season after 17 years with the Montreal Canadiens, had made Los Angeles older, not steadier. What's more, wingers Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato, who were acquired from the New York Rangers in the much-questioned January trade of high-scoring center Bernie Nicholls, missed chunks of playing time because of injuries.
Though the Flames struggled through parts of the season, they finished strong and easily won the division title. The performance gap between the Kings and the Flames, which was so large a year ago that Calgary swept their second-round series, appeared to have widened, if anything. "During the regular season, a lot of guys have different things going for them," said Robinson. "Like bonuses and other reasons to score 50 goals."
In the playoffs, compensation is equal. Each King, for example, earned $6,000 for beating Calgary. So right from the opening face-off of Game 1, the Kings selflessly began rowing together. Robinson, who had missed the end of the regular season with a groin pull, seemed to have had his batteries recharged. Defenseman Rob Blake, a 1988 draft choice who signed late last month after his Bowling Green team was eliminated from the NCAA playoffs, showed unexpected poise. Suddenly the Kings were doing nothing more than what coach Tom Webster and his aides had been pleading with them to do much of the season—think defense first.
Finally, Gretzky's absence may have opened the Kings' eyes. "I think when you lose your best player," says assistant coach Cap Raeder, "the other players ask themselves, 'What do we do now?' It helped force them to think."
The Kings and the Flames split the series' first two games, at the Saddledome, L.A. winning the opener 5-3 and Calgary the second game 8-5. For the playoffs, the Kings had installed an aggressive penalty-killing system, which pressured Al MacInnis and Gary Suter, Calgary's twin cannons, at the points. That should have given the Flames more options down near the goal, but as their confidence flagged with each power-play failure (Calgary capitalized on only two of 34 manpower advantages), they stopped making the kinds of reads that could have trapped L.A.'s penalty killers.
Back in Los Angeles, Gretzky was undergoing 90 minutes of back therapy daily. The day between Games 2 and 3, he determined that he could play at least some shifts the following night. It was obvious to anyone who saw him skating stiffly in pregame warmups at the Forum that he would have to accomplish the task without bending from the waist.
His forays onto the ice turned out to be highly valuable. In the first minute of the second period, he retrieved a rebound in the corner and quickly put the puck on the stick of Sandstrom, whose tip-in put Los Angeles ahead 1-0. The Kings, who checked as never before, made the lead stand up until 14:05 of the third period, when Mullen turned a bad rebound into the tying score.
Granato further embarrassed the suddenly inept Calgary power play by winning the game in overtime on a shorthanded goal. He looked through Vernon's legs, but the Calgary netminder squeezed his pads tight. Granato held the puck for an extra stride as Vernon, having committed himself, was frozen. So was the moment. Granato shot the puck around Vernon 8:37 into OT, ending a game that had defined Stanley Cup drama—at least until Game 6.
The 2-1 win put the Kings in position to go for the Flames' throats. The pressure on the Flames was apparent early in Game 4. MacInnis, who left Game 3 with a slight knee sprain and was a step slow to the outside, hauled down the Kings" Jay Miller, who is far quicker with his fists than his legs. With MacInnis in the penalty box, Nattress had the audacity to put a retaliatory crosscheck on L.A. winger John Tonelli as Tonelli was lying on the ice. Nattress then displayed even more audacity by chasing down referee Andy vanHellemond to complain about the call. The Flames killed the 5-on-3 created by the cross-checking penalty but not the unsportsmanlike conduct call Nattress earned for yapping. When L.A.'s Dave Taylor scored at 6:38 of the first period, feeding time in the Forum shark tank had begun, and the Kings romped to a 12-4 win.
Granato, Sandstrom and Taylor each had three goals, and Gretzky had a goal and four assists. The Kings' fans turned the Forum ice into a hatters' convention. Some of them even bowed in the direction of the box of Kings owner Bruce McNall. After the game, glad-handing Hollywood stars like John Candy and Tony Danza worked the L.A. locker room. "I don't know the word for this," said Nattress afterward. "I thought we were ready, but for the first five or six minutes, our energy was directed toward frustration."
When the Flames returned home the next day, the local newspapers compared their fate with that of the Hindenburg and Brent Musburger. After a TV camera caught Flames coach Terry Crisp holding his tie up to his nose in subtle protest of a referee's call in Game 3, one columnist ridiculed him for blowing his nose into his cravat. Another called for Crisp to be replaced and suggested he undergo a "root canal without any novocaine."
The Calgary fans, normally quiet but judgmental, changed character by giving the Flames a standing ovation as they came out for Game 5. The team responded with the effort it had meant to give in Game 4. "The fans really helped," said Suter. "We had no idea what to expect."
Crisp yanked Sergei Makarov from his accustomed position on a line with center Joe Nieuwendyk and left wing Gary Roberts and replaced him with Theoren Fleury, a 5'6" keg of dynamite, who ran over Hrudey at the first opportunity. When the Flames had stayed alive with a 5-1 win, several Calgary players told the athlete's favorite white lie about not being concerned about what's in the newspaper. Robinson knew better. "I think the Flames would have had to be illiterate not to win tonight," he said.
In Game 6, the Flames would have won had their luck not been so wretched. Their fortune probably ran out when Gretzky's spirit overcame his flesh. Until then, Calgary had been merely sloppy and undermotivated. Once Gretzky, at first as stiff as Frankenstein's monster, staggered off the table, the Flames became vulnerable. "Is that luck or skill when I beat him on the face-off, and he still plays the puck off my shins for the tying goal?" said Otto. "I guess his skill brings luck."