The most sought-after interview during the Smythe Division finals was not one with the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Gretzky or Luc Robitaille, or with the Edmonton Oilers' Mark Messier or Esa Tikkanen. Even before the last ice packs and bandages were discarded and the steam from the whirlpools had cleared, the media darling of the series, which was clinched by the Oilers with a 4-3 win at 16:57 of overtime in Game 6 on Sunday night, was Stephen Lombardo, the Kings' team physician. As L.A.'s injuries mounted—Tomas Sandstrom's "small compression fracture" of the right knee in Game 2; Sprained ligaments in Bob Kudelski's right knee in the same game; Gretzky's widely publicized lacerated left ear (25 stitches) in Game 3—Dr. Steve was always there with a diagnosis or prognosis. But the good doctor never had to answer the series's deeper questions:
•Both Sandstrom and Kudelski were injured on nasty, open-ice checks meted out by Oiler defenseman Craig Muni, who fed his reputation as a cheap-shot artist. By some counts Muni has injured at least seven other foes in his five full NHL seasons with similarly suspect hits. Should he have been disciplined? Referee Denis Morel thought no, but Angelenos wanted Muni's head on a platter. Bored by the fracas, Muni said, "L.A. is just one more city where they don't like me."
•After skating into teammate Steve Duchesne's shot in Game 3 and injuring his ear, Gretzky was doomed to answer this question: Would a younger Great One have avoided that puck? Had Gretzky lost a step?
Gretzky, who had only five assists in the series, hadn't lost a step so much as he'd gained a Siamese twin, in the nattering person of Tikkanen, a squat, gap-toothed Finn with a more-than-passing resemblance to the Tasmanian Devil of Looney Tunesdom. While Gretzky was getting sewn up in the medical room during Game 3, Tikkanen was able to tend to his offense. He all but singlehandedly won the game for the Oilers, putting it into overtime with a Herculean, rink-length rush for a goal and ending it with another score, 48 seconds into the second OT.
Edmonton also won Game 4, 4-2, but then, for once, Dr. Steve had some good news. His original prognosis on Sandstrom—out at least four weeks—had been wildly pessimistic. The knee fracture, it turned out, was in a "nonvital area of the bone." After missing two games, Sandstrom played in Game 5 and assisted on the first of Robitaille's three goals as the Kings thrashed the Oilers 5-2.
But Sandstrom couldn't prevent L.A. from being ousted on Sunday. Edmonton, which finished 22 points behind the Kings in the regular season, is no longer a great team capable of playing fire-wagon hockey. Still, the Oilers could well win the Cup again with what they do have: depth along the forward lines and an aging but extremely able corps of defensemen. They also were getting spectacular goaltending from a clean and sober Grant Fuhr, but he suffered a badly bruised right arm in Game 6. The netminding burden may now have to be carried by Bill Ranford. While Ranford was last season's playoff MVP, he's no Fuhr.
Even so, the Oilers won't get sympathy from Dr. Steve and the Kings.