Since April 6, the day the Stanley Cup playoffs began, a photograph has been hanging in the New York Islanders' dressing room. It shows Toe Blake, the legendary coach of the Montreal Canadiens, standing beside the Stanley Cup in 1959. He's holding up four fingers—for the four straight Cups that Montreal had won. Beneath the photo Islander General Manager Bill Torrey had written, "History is yours for the making. Let's put Radar in this picture."
Last Saturday night, Radar, better known as Islander Coach Al Arbour, was as good as standing beside Blake, four thick fingers of his own in the air. New York had just defeated the heralded Edmonton Oilers 5-1 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals to move within a victory of sweeping "Canada's team" and more important, of winning a fourth straight Cup. Only the Canadiens, who won five Cups from 1956 to '60 and four more from 1976 to to '79, have had as many consecutive championships.
As for the Oilers, after getting better than six goals a game and setting 16 scoring records during the three previous rounds of postseason play, they were held to just four goals by the Islanders and their rambunctious, implacable goaltender, Billy Smith, who flayed and played his way to center stage and was the single biggest factor in the first three games of the series. Said Edmonton Coach and General Manager Glen Sather after Game 3, "The slashing and chippy play isn't what's distracting us. Smith is. I'll say this: He's one whale of a goaltender."
That was one of the few reasonable statements that Sather made all week. Certainly those were the only nice words he had for Smith. But even all the vitriolic rhetoric and on-ice shenanigans could not—close as they came—diminish the drama of a meeting between the NHL's best defensive team this season, the Islanders, and the highest-scoring club in league history, the Oilers. Throw in a matchup, often head-to-head, of the two finest centers in hockey, Wayne Gretzky and Bryan Trottier, and you had a final that had the hockey world buzzing.
Before facing New York, Edmonton had breezed through the playoffs so effortlessly that many observers reported the Oilers were playing hockey on a different level from any other NHL team. In eliminating Winnipeg, Calgary and Chicago, the Oilers had won 11 of 12 games and had outscored their opponents 74-33. "We heard from a lot of different sources that Edmonton was unbeatable," said Islander Forward Duane Sutter. "Maybe because of that we prepared ourselves better mentally for this series than we had for any series since winning our first Cup."
Not that the mental preparation was difficult for Duane or his brother Brent, who come from Viking, Alberta, a small town 65 miles outside of Edmonton. Losing to the Oilers would be something they could look forward to hearing about all summer. To add a little extra pressure, Duane was quoted in an Edmonton paper as saying his friends in Viking were "two-faced" for cheering for the Oilers while cozying up to Brent and him every summer.
Indeed, all of Canada seemed to be pulling for Edmonton. More than 14,000 names appeared on two Oilergrams in the local newspapers. The city of Moncton, New Brunswick—2,864 miles away—sent a 178-foot-long telegram with another 8,468 names wishing Gretzky & Co. good luck. Calgary, home of the hated Flames, sent best wishes. It has been 58 years since a team from Western Canada won the Stanley Cup—the Victoria Cougars did it in 1925—and the Oilers sensed that, in just their fourth NHL season, their time had come. Local businesses went slightly batty. Regal Furs by Marcus on Jasper Avenue dressed one of its mannequins in an Oiler uniform—skates, helmet, the works—right there beside a full-length silver fox. The lead editorial in The Edmonton Journal on May 10, the day the final series opened, referred to the three-time Stanley Cup champs as "these Bozos from Long Island." Even the skin joints bared their enthusiasm, EXOTIC DANCERS—NOON-6 P.M.—GO OILERS GO read one marquee opposite the Northlands Coliseum.
Edmonton's hopes were further lifted when, shortly before the start of Game 1, the Islanders announced that Mike Bossy, their goal scorer par excellence, was suffering from tonsillitis and would not dress. Said New York Center Butch Goring afterward, "When the rifle's not there, you get out the pistol."
The pistol in this case turned out to be Duane Sutter. At 5:36 of the first period he pounced on a rebound left by Oiler Goalie Andy Moog and flipped it into the open net. Sutter's name, when announced as the scorer, was roundly booed. Thereafter, Smith stopped Edmonton cold—Gretzky, Glenn Anderson, Gretzky again. Kevin Lowe hit the post. Time and again the Oilers fired on Smith, but no one could get the puck past him. The Islanders were clogging the slot with three, sometimes four defenders, which enabled them to deflect crossing passes and pick up the Edmonton defensemen as they broke in from the blue line. New York did little forechecking, allowing the Oilers easy egress from their own zone but preventing dangerous two-on-one and three-on-two breaks, which Edmonton executes with deadly efficiency. "We tried to plug up the areas they use best," said Arbour. "Once we found out Boss wasn't playing, we went from Plan A to Plan B very quickly."
The tactic was hockey's version of the rope-a-dope—an experienced, patient team hanging on in the face of a furious assault. The Islanders allowed Edmonton to take long shots from poor angles, but cleared the rebounds and kept the front of the net open so Smith could see. Defenseman Denis Potvin was particularly adept at both tasks. No one was assigned to shadow Gretzky. Instead, the nearest Islander checked him as soon as the Great One touched the puck. New York checked. And checked. And checked.
Smith was flawless, and the Oilers, increasingly frustrated, tried to force passes into lanes jammed with blue Islander jerseys. Edmonton couldn't buy a lucky bounce. With 12 seconds left Ken Morrow slid the puck down the ice into the open net—Moog having been pulled—to complete the scoring. It was the first time the Oilers had been shut out in 199 games. In a way, that final goal was unfortunate, because this was, in the very best sense, a 1-0 game and would have been the first by that score in the final round since Bernie Parent of the Flyers held Bobby Orr and the Bruins scoreless to win the 1974 Stanley Cup. Game 1, a gem, belonged in that sort of company.
Unfortunately, it ended up in the gutter. The next day at practice Sather began ranting about an incident that had occurred in the first period. Anderson had been carrying the puck behind the Islander net when Smith swung his stick back, striking Anderson above the knee. Referee Andy van Hellemond properly called Smith for a two-minute slashing penalty. The Oilers, who were 0 for 7 on the power play for the night, failed to convert, and the incident was forgotten.
Until Sather slept on it. Suddenly he thought of a way to incite his charges. He demanded, and got, a meeting with John McCauley, the league's assistant director of officiating. Sather thought Smith, who regularly flails at players coming around from behind the net, deserved an at-tempt-to-injure match penalty for slashing Anderson, whose knee had swollen to such an extent overnight that he was unable to skate in practice the next day. When he didn't get anywhere with McCauley, Sather took his case to the press. "Smith plays like a maniac," he said. "He swings that stick around like a hatchet, and if the referees don't stop it, hopefully we'll have someone on our club who will eliminate the problem."
When informed of Sather's remarks, Smith, who claimed to have hit Anderson in the arm, not the knee, and is never one to dampen a controversy, said, "Let's face it. If [Dave] Semenko runs at me and hurts me, anything could happen, and the victim could be Gretzky. If they want blood...."
Oh, dear. The NHL's model series was swiftly becoming "a lot of baloney," said Arbour. "This isn't the Ringling Brothers Circus. It's the Stanley Cup finals." Added Torrey, correctly identifying the culprit, "Sather was a yapping player, and now he's a yapping coach and a yapping general manager. Nothing's changed."
Edmonton may be the oil capital of Canada, but the black crude that began to gush before the second game was ink. PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1 was the front-page headline in the Journal. Underneath was a picture of Smith, screaming. The accompanying story, every line of which ran on page 1, referred to Smith as "Mr. Obnoxious," "Samaurai [sic] Billy," "Jack the Ripper" and "a creep."
Anderson was ready for Game 2, and he played at his usual thrilling pace. "I really felt bad," said an unrepentant Smith. "I thought the way they were carrying on they were going to bury him before the game."
The second game started in much the same way as the first had ended, with Edmonton dominating. Semenko finally solved the riddle of Smith by firing home a long wrist shot to give the Oilers their first and only lead of the opening three games. That 1-0 advantage lasted less than six minutes. Shortly after Gretzky hit the crossbar on a breakaway, the Islanders scored three unanswered goals, the second and third of which were flubbed by Moog. "I was brutal," he said later. The Oilers closed to 3-2 in the second period, but then the Sutter-Sutter-Bob Bourne line put the game away with two goals in 38 seconds. Both came after Oiler giveaways in the defensive zone.
The teams traded goals in the third period, and with two minutes to go New York led 6-3. Suddenly Samurai Billy struck again. This time the victim was Gretzky, who was circling behind the net with the puck exactly as Anderson had done in Game 1. Smith swung his stick backward, hitting Gretzky in the thigh pad with no special ferocity, and the Boy Wonder crumpled as if shot by a dumdum bullet. "Anybody else in the league wouldn't have gone down," Referee Wally Harris said later. On the advice of his linesmen, however, Harris gave Smith a five-minute major penalty for slashing. Goalies don't serve their own penalty time, of course, and during the ensuing power play Oiler Winger Dave Lumley wreaked revenge. With 36 seconds remaining, he speared Smith in the chest. Smith, who had seen him coming, fell like a doll whose arms, legs and head are all attached to springs, waiting only for the press of a button. Were it not for the time and place. Smith's collapse would almost have been funny.
Needless to say, analysis of the game was secondary to the vituperation afterward. The bottom line, however, was that the Islanders had won twice on Edmonton ice with patience, composure and an uncanny knack for not frittering away their opportunities. With Sather showing the way, the Oilers had come unglued under pressure. "How can you ask discipline of your players if you don't show it yourself?" said Eddie Westfall, a former Islander and now the team's television analyst. Said Torrey, "What gets me mad is that we had two great games, and because of Sather's blathering, the good that might have come from them is lost. When are we going to do something smart about our sport?"
In Game 3, on Long Island, the Oilers were looking to break free from New York's checking yoke. Gretzky, who already had set a record for most points in a playoff year (36), had only two assists so far in this series. Edmonton, which had the NHL's best road record during the regular season, began strongly, but Smith made stunning saves on Gretzky, Charlie Huddy and Dave Hunter. As the first period was drawing to a close. Bossy saved a goal by knocking a bouncing puck out of the Islander crease. Just moments after that, he broke down on a two-on-one. Moog managed to stop Bossy's shot, but Anders Kallur put in the rebound to give New York a 1-0 lead.
The Oilers responded with a power-play goal at 1:05 of the next period and, for the rest of the period, were in control, outshooting the Islanders 15-5. Smith held fast, though, and the score was 1-1 at intermission. "Some of the forwards mentioned that we weren't forcing the Oilers at their blue line," said Morrow later, explaining the Islanders' change in strategy in the third period. Suddenly, after backing off for the bulk of three games, the New York defensemen began pinching into the Edmonton zone. The strategy led to the game winner, put in by Bourne at 5:11 off a rebound of a shot by Defenseman Stefan Persson. A minute later Morrow scored, and the Islanders' four-goal third-period barrage was completed by Duane and Brent Sutter.
Said a disconsolate Gretzky, who had been held to one assist, "We've learned a lot from this team and the main thing is composure. We've got them on the ropes in the second period, and they come out in the third and score four goals. What are you going to do? We've played good hockey and had plenty of chances—hit two posts. We're just not scoring." Added Sather, "Seems like we're a fraction of an inch off. But those are the sort of fractions that decide championships."
One of the appealing aspects of this tainted final is the feeling it leaves of a changing of the guard. The Islanders clearly are nearing the end of their reign. In the first three games they played virtually flawless hockey and still weren't easy winners. The Oilers aren't yet ready to take their place, but Edmonton's talent is only too apparent. Even the players are aware of it. Said Bourne, who was the Islanders' top postseason scorer through Game 3, with 28 points in 19 games, "I was talking to my wife, and I told her that the Oilers were going to win a Stanley Cup very soon. Maybe next year or maybe the year after that. I just hope it's not against us when they do it."