A stanley cup that had been marked down for easy sale was rescued from the bargain basement last Thursday night by the Edmonton Oilers. This season of parity in the NHL had portended a cheap championship, but in the end a richly deserving team won the Cup.
The strong arms of the Oilers—those of goalie Bill Ranford and left wing Esa Tikkanen, in particular—served as grand pedestals for the big silver trophy as it was passed around after Edmonton's 4-1 victory over the Bruins in Game 5 at Boston Garden, which wrapped up the best-of-seven series. A fifth championship in seven years, accomplished just 21 months after the sale/trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, spoke especially for the pride and skill of the core players who remain from the Gretzky years.
Regaining the Cup after last year's first-round loss to the Great One and the Kings also provided powerful testament to the shrewdness of Oiler president and general manager Glen Sather. Thanks to several spin-offs of the Gretzky deal, Sather acquired fine young players who starred in the playoffs—and he still has two extra No. 1 draft choices coming to him from Los Angeles.
"I asked [former Montreal Canadien great] Henri Richard at the All-Star Game how many Stanley Cups he had won, and he said 11," Edmonton defense-man Kevin Lowe said on Thursday night. "That's my goal now." And a lofty goal it is, because even though the Oilers certainly have made a brilliant recovery, whether they will resume winning championships with the regularity of the Gretzky era is another matter altogether.
The real world, which revolves around money, has twice intruded into what was once a Northlands Camelot. Expect it to do so again. In November 1987, Paul Coffey, a defenseman with unique offensive ability, was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins because Oiler owner Peter Pocklington refused to pay Coffey the $500,000 a year that Coffey felt he was worth. Then in August 1988, the Gretzky deal, from which Pocklington pocketed $15 million, was consummated—reportedly to offset cash-flow problems in Pocklington's other business holdings. Now, star right wing Jari Kurri wants $1 million a year and may play in Europe next season so he can come back to the NHL in 1991-92 as an unfettered free agent.
The Oilers eventually must find worthy successors to their core group—29-year-old center Mark Messier, Edmonton's brilliant and brawny captain; 29-year-old winger Glenn Anderson; the 30-year-old Kurri; and the 31-year-old Lowe. Players acquired in the Gretzky and Coffey deals have given Edmonton a good start. And a potential deal involving Grant Fuhr, 27, the star goalie who missed most of the season with an ailing shoulder and appears expendable following the playoff MVP performance by the 23-year-old Ranford, will give Sather an opportunity to cash in another valuable commodity.
Despite the 1986 and '89 interruptions in the Oilers' string of championships, it is reasonable to compare their run of titles with those of the Montreal teams that won five (1956-60) and four (1976-79) in a row, the New York Islander clubs that won four straight (1980-83), and the Toronto Maple Leafs that won five in seven years (1945-51). It is too early to precisely define the Oilers' place in NHL history, but the 1989-90 team regained a high standard in a league that has come to expect one from its champions.
Since 1973, four teams—the Philadelphia Flyers, the Canadiens, the Islanders and the Oilers—have won 17 of the 18 Stanley Cups. Lucky teams do not often win the Cup. Even a talented club must mature over a number of years to earn one. And successfully defending a championship requires more pride than winning a first one. As champions age gracefully, they can be hard to bring down.
In this regular season, there wasn't an exceptional team in the NHL. For the second time since 1967—when the league doubled in size to 12 teams—only one club, Boston, surpassed the 100-point barrier. Four teams finished with 90 to 99 points and another seven clubs had 80 to 89, so there was every reason to forecast a wide-open battle for the Cup. All of which may sound good, but parity is not desirable if it is a euphemism for mediocrity.
As far back as November—when Sather unloaded sulking center Jimmy Carson, the prime acquisition in the Gretzky trade, for four young players from the Detroit Red Wings—hockey cognoscenti were whispering that Edmonton might be the team to beat. But the Oilers' regular season (38-28-14, 90 points) didn't scare anybody, particularly first-round opponent Winnipeg, which in Game 5 had Edmonton down 3-1 in games and 3-1 on the scoreboard. The Jets lost in seven games.
After sweeping the Kings, who had exhausted themselves against Calgary, for the Smythe Division crown, Edmonton fell behind 2-1 against the hard-fore-checking Chicago Blackhawks. But the Oilers were much the better team in the three straight victories that wrapped up the Campbell Conference title. Still, they entered the Stanley Cup finals only a slight favorite against the Bruins. Once more, as the series progressed, the gap between Edmonton and its opponent grew wider, in this case wider than the gap the Oilers consistently found between the legs of Boston goalie Andy Moog.
Edmonton proved to be faster, deeper, smarter and stronger than Boston, which simply could not get enough quality shots to have any hope of changing the outcome. Even when the Bruins got some good scoring chances in Game 1, they lost 3-2 in the third overtime on Petr Klima's goal at 1:23 a.m. An Oiler defensive unit that lacked an offensive threat and was a bit long in the tooth drew from a deep well of playoff experience and smothered Boston with simple, astute play. And Ranford, who might have suffered a crisis of confidence after allowing seven goals in the first game against Winnipeg, was as intimidating as Fuhr had ever been.
"Whenever I wasn't seeing the puck, it was finding a way to hit me," Ranford said after the Cup was won. Sometimes that's luck. More often it's technique and positioning. Always, goaltending is confidence. "You just have to get it and put a string together," he said. "That's just what this club did."
Ranford, a former Bruin deemed expendable by Boston president and general manager Harry Sinden, who traded him and Geoff Courtnall for the more experienced Moog in 1988, was a deserving winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the MVP of the playoffs. But a case could also have been made for Tikkanen, who, after effectively shadowing Gretzky and Denis Savard of Chicago in previous rounds, thoroughly spooked Boston's sterling young center, Craig Janney, in the finals. Most of the time, Tikkanen, a Finn, got up close and personal enough with the young Bruin playmaker to fog his visor. Turning whenever Janney turned, constantly shouldering him and sometimes tripping him, Tikkanen ventured away from Janney and into the Oiler offense only on the most obvious Edmonton scoring opportunities. He also amplified Janney's nightmare with a steady stream of trash talk and a maniacal grin.
The Oilers broke open Game 2, a 7-2 victory, late in the second period. In Game 3, their only loss, they played catchup from the start. Neither situation called for a shadow, so coach John Muckler freed Tikkanen to rejoin the offense. He responded with a goal in each game. Janney was so out of it by Game 4 that Muckler didn't bother with the shadow, and Tikkanen scored again. But in Game 5, Tikkanen reattached himself to Janney. He leaped over the boards after face-offs to thwart Boston coach Mike Milbury's home-ice right to the last change and climbed right back under Janney's skin.
Tikkanen, a nonstop yakker who was described by Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal as "capable of giving Woody Woodpecker a headache," said that either the offensive or the defensive role was fine with him. Championship teams have interchangeable parts. Tikkanen, a productive scorer and deeply annoying human being, proved to be a unique double-edged sword.
"Tik is so smart we can use him in a defensive role and still not give up much offense," Muckler said. "At worst, we're playing four-on-four, and with our speed we'll take our chances that way. At best, the player Tik is checking usually isn't a player who thinks defense first, which means when the puck gets turned over, Tik will get scoring chances. He's the best I've ever seen doing this. He's so obnoxious, too. I love him."
Milbury tried to minimize what was virtually the elimination of Janney's game by playing him on the wing. But Janney's struggles and the loss of Dave Poulin to a sprained knee in Game 2 left Milbury, in effect, without his best two centers. No other Bruin could fill the void. Right wing Cam Neely, a 55-goal scorer, overcarried the puck in trying to do too much. Brian Propp, Dave Christian and Bobby Gould, veterans whose in-season acquisitions at minimal costs preserved Sinden's reputation as a master welder of scrap metal, played like rusted junk. Boston was clearly the best team in the Wales Conference, which tells you something about the weak state of the conference.
The strength of the Campbell Conference was evident in the fact that the Oilers didn't even finish first in the Smythe Division. To the end, it was experience that made the difference. Having proved to themselves in past years that they had an extra gear—and a deeper level of concentration—the Oiler veterans had no problem shifting into overdrive when three of their four series reached turning points. "Winnipeg hadn't been through this before," Muckler said. "We knew we could kick it up another notch, and the Jets didn't. Even when they came back to tie us in Game 6, we just took over the game from that point. Jari scored a great goal, and that was the end of Winnipeg."
The Blackhawks won two of the first three games of the Campbell Conference final but met their doom when Messier surfaced with a two-goal, two-assist, 46-elbow performance to give Edmonton a 4-2 victory in Game 4 at Chicago Stadium. And Boston, which had cashed two early goals and hung on by its fingernails for a 2-1 victory in Game 3 of the finals, was overwhelmed from start to finish in the ensuing 5-1 Edmonton victory in Northlands Coliseum.
The Oilers braced for the Bruins' final burst of home adrenaline in Game 5 and matched it in the opening minutes, in what might have been the most exciting period of the series. When Boston not only failed to get a lead in that period but also did not get a superior chance to score, the series was all but over.
Janney got to the net before Tikkanen could get over the boards on the first shift of the second period, but Ranford stoned what turned out to be the Bruins' last chance to grab a lead. A minute later, Anderson broke away, put the puck between Bruin defenseman Don Sweeney's legs, went around the flopping Moog and scored. Eight minutes after that, Anderson stripped forward Bob Sweeney and made a spectacular behind-the-back pass to Craig Simpson, who finished off the two-on-one break with ease.
The cream had risen to the top of the Cup after all. It usually does in the NHL. Some years, it just takes a little longer.