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Original Issue

What, The Oilers Worry?

Despite its injuries and off-ice woes, Edmonton is on track for a third straight Stanley Cup

Welcome to Dynasty III: The Oilers. In this week's episode, Mark Messier and Esa Tikkanen each break a foot ("Mess" his left, Tikkanen his right, if you're scoring at home), Craig MacTavish gets a charley horse for Christmas, Mike Krushelnyski hurts his knee, Glenn Anderson draws an eight-day suspension for a stick-swinging duel with Winnipeg's Dave Silk and Dave Hunter threatens to administer wood-and-fiberglass facials to various members of the Los Angeles Kings, who are taunting him. Tune in next week and see how Hunter does in appealing his conviction for a third impaired-driving offense, which has resulted in a pending four-month jail sentence.

Trouble in Saskatchewan River City? Yes and no. Edmonton's two-time Stanley Cup champions are taking a beating both in public image—"There's no question that it's been tarnished," says Wayne Gretzky—and in the infirmary. Yet despite the injuries, despite the stick-swinging incidents and off-ice escapades, the Oilers were nearly even with last season's pace after 35 games. As of Dec. 28, Edmonton had lost just three times in the last 18 games—twice they were stopped by great goaltending, by Buffalo's Darren Puppa on Nov. 1 and Washington's Al Jensen on Dec. 18—and had opened a 15-point lead over the fading Calgary Flames in the Smythe Division.

Faced with hardship for the first time in three years, the Oilers are proving there is substance and grit to go with all their flash. "It's called character," says co-coach John Muckler. The team's president/G.M./coach Glen Sather, agrees: "There are a lot of tough situations around here right now. Besides the pressure of trying to repeat as Stanley Cup champion and everybody chasing us, there's a helluva lot of adversity. It's just more and more and more. But they've reacted and handled it very well."

The Oilers will have other opportunities to test their mettle. Having survived injuries to goaltender Grant Fuhr and defenseman Randy Gregg in November, they must now wait until mid-January for the return of Messier, Krushelnyski and Tikkanen. Hunter's future rests in the courts. All of this has forced Sather to juggle his lineup more than ever. Steady line combinations? Forget it. In the 5-2 loss to Washington on Dec. 18 the Oilers were missing 127 points of production. Fielding a full squad is a trick. "You've got to read the transactions section of the sports page to keep track," said assistant coach Bob McCammon.

Sather has filled several holes, obtaining two former Oilers, center Mike Rogers from the Rangers and center/wing Gord Sherven from Minnesota, while trading center Billy Carroll to Detroit and unloading two malcontents, defense-man Larry Melnyk (who had gone AWOL from the Nova Scotia Oilers) and center Marc Habscheid (who had refused to report to the minors and was practicing with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology Ooks).

Given heavier burdens to carry, the great ones—Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri—have responded by raising their games to still higher levels. Gretzky, who is (gasp) 14 points behind last year's scoring pace, has a 25-game scoring streak going. In a 9-4 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 20, he played an incredible 32 minutes. Coffey has scored in 14 straight games and Kurri in 13 in a row, including a four-goal performance against L.A.

During that blowout, the Oilers' spectacular puck movement on a four-on-four rush stirred the normally reticent Northlands Coliseum fans to a standing ovation. "You can't really appreciate what those guys can do until you've played with them," said Rogers, who joined the team just before that game and scored a breakaway goal eight seconds into his first shift. "My legs are tired just from standing up, sitting down, standing up, sitting down, getting up each time they do something spectacular. The other players just sit there [on the bench] like they're used to it. I'll tell you, I've never seen players as good as this."

Some of the other Oilers, blue-collar performers like Kevin McClelland, Marty McSorley and Hunter, who has played well despite the cloud over him, have given the team a dimension it has never before exhibited. It can now dump and chase and grind, if need be. Fuhr has played only 15 games all season and Andy Moog has stepped in for 26. Moog has more than just backed Fuhr up; he has stolen the odd game. "I think we're discovering we have the capacity to do a lot of different things," says Gregg. "With so many people out, our defense is contributing more offensively, our forwards are contributing more defensively. This particular period of time will show what kind of team we are, whether we pull together."

So where do the Oilers stand midway through their run for a third straight Stanley Cup? Near the top of the standings (Philadelphia had a four-point edge at week's end), near the top of their game, yet subject to criticism that their successes haven't always been artistic enough. Says McCammon: "With the wide-open style that we play, when we look bad, we look really bad. But when we're good...."

They were bad last Friday when they lost to the Soviet Union's Central Red Army team 6-3. But when the Oilers are good, they are nearly unbeatable. There in lies the challenge before Sather: motivating a team that knows its only true enemy is itself. "For players who've accomplished as much as they have in the past couple of years, often there's not a whole lot of things to play for," says Sather. "Sometimes teams rise to a certain level and stay there, and then get complacent, happy with themselves. We want to make sure they don't."

In a league in which the regular season is little more than an 80-game fight for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, Sather has preached a return to fundamentals and has prodded his players with occasional public criticism. Not even Gretzky and Coffey are sacrosanct. "It's for motivation," says Gretzky. "The more we win, the more necessary it becomes."

Sather's objective, of course, is to have his team peak for the playoffs. The Oilers struggled through February and March last season and were fortunate to beat L.A. in the first round before reasserting their dominance in the Stanley Cup finals. "Things you'd do at the beginning of the year, maybe you wouldn't do after Christmas," Sather says. "You might let something slide, let them relax, then jump on them again, and away you go."

One way Sather keeps things from sliding too far is to closely monitor his players' off-ice activities. He urges them to curtail commitments when their play gets sloppy. And club policy prohibits all off-ice appearances after March 1, no small matter in a city of about 600,000 that makes considerable demands on the Oilers' time.

But there are no such restrictions now. And two weeks ago an estimated 10,000 people showed up for the Oilers' open practice/Christmas party at Northlands. Gretzky played goal against some Pee Wees, enforcer Dave Semenko got into mock fights with the youngsters and players balanced sticks on their noses. Trouble in Saskatchewan River City? What trouble?



Carroll and Coffey cooled it at the team's combined Christmas party/open practice.



No penalty was called when McSorley tussled at the party with a young adversary.



Despite his problems, Hunter's game is still strong.



Gretzky and Kurri are sitting pretty, and so are the Oilers in the current standings.