The National Hockey League’s 7½month, 905-game elimination exercise is finally over, and the league’s two best teams are playing once again for the Stanley Cup. The New York Islanders have won the last four championships and are on the threshold of tying the Montreal Canadiens’ record of five straight (1956-60). The Edmonton Oilers have not won a Cup in their five years in the league, but they are in the final process of establishing a dynasty to rival Montreal’s and New York’s. It is a matchup worthy of the Cup’s storied 92-year history—a contest between poised veterans and young stars and a showdown between Islanders’ goalie Billy Smith and Edmonton’s incomparable Wayne Gretzky. And the bestof-seven final promises to be thrilling.
Standing between the Oilers and the Cup is one of the greatest teams professional hockey has ever produced. Going into this year’s final, the Islanders had won a record 19 consecutive playoff series. Superbly coached by AÍ Arbour and shrewdly managed by Bill Torrey, the Islanders are big, strong, relentless and punishing. Last year they defeated the Oilers in four straight games and, prior to last Thursday night, they had beaten the Oilers 10 times in a row. Indeed, in the dying minutes of their semifinal elimination of Montreal—the penultimate hurdle in their so-called “Drive for Five”—New York’s fans in the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island changed their victory chant from “Billy, Billy,” to “We want Gretzky.” But when Gretzky and his teammates left the ice after last Thursday’s opening game, the youngsters from Edmonton had signalled that their fans’ slogan—“Gun for One”—was not the immature boast it had been the
year before. The Oilers claimed a 1-0 victory.
Prior to the first game Islanders’ centre Bryan Trottier said: “We are sitting on a keg of dynamite. We know how they can explode. We have to do everything we can to hold the lid down.” And in typical New York fashion, the Islanders did. Smith was his usual bril-
liant and aggressive self; the Islanders’ forwards backchecked and slammed bodies, and the defencemen blocked shots and Oilers. But the Oilers did the same in return, and the league’s highest scoring team defeated the league’s best defensive team. Said Oiler Paul Coffey, the most skilled attacking defenceman in the NHL since Bobby Orr: “It was the biggest win of our careers. This is the best feeling I have had in my life.” The Oilers’ joy was understandable, and their newfound defensive skills marked a new maturity among players who four years ago laughed and sang on the bench before the Islanders brought them down to earth with a crash. Re-
called Trottier: “The Los Angeles Kings guys say it best. They say the Oilers are the kind of team that you want to shove it down their throats.” The Islanders got their chance on Saturday night and again justified their claim to greatness. They beat the Oilers to tie the series before it moved to Edmonton for three games this week.
But coming from behind is nothing new for the defending champions. The Islanders, facing the Oilers without four key, injured players—Bob Nystrom, Stefan Persson, Dave Langevin and Bob Bourne—have lost the opening game of their last three playoff series this spring. Said Arbour: “Obviously our back has to be against the wall before we start to play well. I guess we like the aggravation.” Once again, the Islanders were relying on feisty Billy Smith to bring them through. In the first game of last year’s final, Smith swung his stick at Oiler Glenn Anderson. In the second, the Oilers’ Dave Lumley hit Smith on the head with his
stick and Smith hit Gretzky with his. Said Smith after that game: “Lumley speared me in the throat. I just hit Gretzky in the pants. You can’t hurt somebody by hitting him in the pants.” But in Edmonton hitting the game’s most prolific scorer in history is a serious matter. The Edmonton Journal ran a front-page picture of Smith with the headline, “Public Enemy Number One.” But the confrontation between Smith’s goaltending and Gretzky’s goal-scoring holds the key to this year’s Stanley Cup.
Apart from his penchant for using his stick as a weapon, Smith, 33, is acknowledged as the best goalie in the NHL when the money is on the line. And despite having set almost every scoring
record possible in his five years in the NHL, Gretzky, 23, has the dubious record over the past two seasons of not scoring in the finals. Indeed, last Thursday’s game was the fifth consecutive finalseries game in which he has not scored a goal. Gretzky was fully aware that he was under pressure, and said: “If we lose and I don’t score, then I am the goat. There will be questions. I am ready to take that. My responsibility is scoring. It’s imperative. I’ve got to score.” For the Islanders to win, they must keep Gretzky and the Oilers under firm control. “We know they are the greatest skating team in the history of hockey,” said Trottier. “We have to
maintain a good healthy fear of what they can do.”
The struggle between the teams will entertain an estimated five million Canadian and 800,000 American television viewers as the series continues. Based on the record of 4.9 million viewers who watched the Oilers’ final game with the Calgary Flames on April 22, the CBC expects the Cup finals to attract record audiences. Viewers are being treated to angles provided by two additional cameras—fixed at either end of the rinkon the Hockey Night in Canada telecasts, an idea borrowed from the American Broadcasting Corp.’s coverage of the recent Winter Olympic hockey games in Yugoslavia.
But some fans, at least, were impatient because of the extended wait for the series to start. There was a five-day gap between the conclusion of the Islanders’ semifinal series and the finals, and the Oilers waited nine days. The fixed May 10 starting date for the final series, an NHL first, was established to “give the media time to get into position,” according to Phil Scheuer, the league’s director of administration.
Watching the series with intense interest are members of the 1950s Canadiens team, whose record of five straight Cups is in jeopardy. At a Montreal reunion last December of the 12 players who were part of all five victo-
ries, Hall of Fame left winger Dickie Moore, now 53, made an impassioned appeal to this year’s Montreal team. “Please do not let the Islanders tie our record. It is a very special record, and we do not want to share it.” Jean Beli -veau, now 52, the former slick centre of that legendary team, told Maclean’s last week: “We would like to be the only ones who have done it. It is not an easy accomplishment. But if the Islanders do it, I will be the first to congratulate them.”
For the Islanders, the “Drive for Five” is more than media hype. Islander John Tonelli, whose name is inscribed four times on the Cup, said: “Just being this close to five in a row is being in a dream world. I have nightmares thinking about losing it. I don’t know what it’s like to lose.” Said captain Denis Potvin, the defensive stalwart of the champions: “I would like for us to play as well as we possibly can, and if we lose, lose to a better team. When this ends, I would like to feel that the team that beats us earned the Cup like we have earned ours.” Potvin acknowledged the inevitable comparisons to the Montreal teams, but added, “I don’t think it is fair, and I don’t mean that it’s not fair to the Canadiens. They are different eras.” Explained ^ coach Arbour: “We have I won 19 straight series. I One year in their string Ö the Canadiens won the 1 Cup in eight straight
* games.” But if the Is| landers do win their fifth o straight, and whether or 5 not that could be com* pared to the Canadiens’ record, it will be, as Mike Bossy, the Islanders’ re-
markable winger, said, “something that will affect all of us for the rest of our lives.”
Henri Richard, now 48, the younger brother of the legendary Maurice (The Rocket), told Maclean ’s last week: “Everybody said it was impossible to repeat what the Canadiens did, but if the Islanders can do it, good for them. What is past is past.” If the Islanders cannot do it, the same challenge conceivably may face the Oilers five years from this spring.
With Terry Jones in Uniondale, N.Y., Dan Burke in Montreal and Ann Walmsley in Toronto.
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