SPORTS

Parity on ice

A tight race looms in the NHL playoffs

April 23 1990
SPORTS

Parity on ice

A tight race looms in the NHL playoffs

April 23 1990

Parity on ice

A tight race looms in the NHL playoffs

SPORTS

At the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, hockey fans traditionally mark a hat trick by skimming their Day-Glo-colored caps and hats onto the ice. Last week, a sellout Forum crowd of 16,005 ran out of hats as no fewer than three of the Los Angeles Kings gave three-goal performances in a humiliating, 12-4 blitzing of reigning Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames. The win, with the second-highest score in National Hockey League (NHL) playoff history, put the underdog Kings in a position to upset the Flames. As well, it reflected the overall level of parity among the 16 teams in the 21club league that entered postseason play in four divisions. “You used to have some easy nights off with some teams,” said the Kings’ acrobatic goalie, Kelly Hrudey. “But now, you have to be on all season in this league.” As the playoffs entered their third week, other teams, including the top-finishing Boston Bruins and the highly rated Edmonton Oilers, were also

having difficulty with less-favored teams.

The Kings received a major lift by the return of injured captain-superstar Wayne Gretzky, who missed the last two weeks of the season and the Kings’ first two playoff games in Calgary (split 1-1) as the result of a hyperextended back. Upon returning to action, Gretzky won a thunderous three-minute ovation from the Forum crowd. “Gretzky’s back is back,” wrote Los Angeles Times hockey writer Steve Springer in the day’s top sports story, which overshadowed reports on baseball and basketball in the paper. Although Gretzky did not score a goal, the Kings won 2-1 in overtime. “But that is okay as long as the

team is winning,” said Gretzky. In Game 4 of the Los Angeles-Calgary series, the league’s regular-season top point scorer (142 points) had a goal and four assists in the Kings’ 12-goal splurge.

In the other Smythe Division playoff, the Winnipeg Jets shocked the 1988 Stanley Cupwinning Oilers by winning the opening game on the road in Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum. Edmonton entered the playoffs without its allstar goalie, Grant Fuhr, who injured a shoulder earlier in the season, and then injured it again before the start of the playoffs. In the Adams Division playoffs, the Buffalo Sabres were locked in a grinding series with the rival Montreal Canadiens, whom they led by only five points in the regular season.

The NHL’S newly achieved parity was dramatically illustrated by Boston’s desperate g struggle with the Hartford I Whalers. The Bruins won the President’s Trophy by finishg ing first overall during the 8 80-game regular season with 1/1 101 points, while the Whalers earned only 85 points. Boston took a 3-2 lead into weekend play. “The teams generally are a lot closer and not segregated into strong and weak,” said Doug Risebrough, a former Montreal Canadien who played on four Stanley Cup teams and who

is now the Calgary Flames’ assistant general manager. “One team does not dominate this league. Anyone can beat anyone on any night.” Hockey experts attribute the league’s growing parity to several trends. The pool of available talent has grown dramatically over the past decade with the influx of European and American players. As well, most NHL managers keep their draft choices and use them to select top-notch players coming out of junior hockey rather than trading for older, veteran players. Since NHL rules ensure that teams scoring the fewest points during the regular season get first pick at the annual league player draft, weak teams can improve quickly. “This helps parity and builds the weaker teams, especially since the quality of top draft picks falls off quickly,” said Risebrough.

The league’s parity was evident in the regular season when only one team earned over 100 points and all 16 playoff qualifiers had over 72 points.

In the five-team Norris Division, a club’s performance during the regular season also proved to be an uncertain

indicator of its playoff chances. St. Louis lost seven of eight regular season games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but led by the league’s top goal scorer, right-winger Brett Hull (72 goals), the Blues eliminated Toronto last week, four games to one. Facing a tough challenge from the Minnesota North Stars (76 points), the Norris leader Chicago Blackhawks

(88) led by three games to two heading into the weekend.

In the Patrick Division playoffs, the New York Rangers, savoring their first divisional title in 48 years, were too deep in talent for their crosstown rivals, the New York Islanders, especially after a check by the Rangers’ James Patrick knocked the Islanders’ only real star, centre Pat LaFontaine, unconscious in the opening game. And an on-ice brawl after that opening game, described by league president John Ziegler as “shameful, disgraceful, degrading,” resulted in a $25,000 fine for the offending Islanders and a $5,000 fine for their coach, AÍ Arbour. The Rangers eliminated the Islanders on Friday night.

All in all, it has been an unpredictable playoff season with half of the first 20 games decided by one goal. “Before any of these series began, the bookies were ready to jump off the buildings,” said Kings defenceman Larry Robinson, g Without clear favorites, hockg ey fans were in for a susg penseful season of vintage ïï playoff hockey.

JOHN HOWSE in Los Angeles

JOHN HOWSE