As good as it gets
Two legendary teams met in the 1987 Canada Cup
Posted: Friday July 20, 2007 2:00PM; Updated: Friday July 20, 2007 4:19PM
They were still the Soviets in those days. We Canadians were familiar with their stars, but they weren't yet allowed to play in the NHL. To us, they were the bad guys, although the rivalry was clearly evolving. The outright animosity present in the legendary 1972 Summit Series was missing, replaced by a grudging, mutual respect. These two teams now knew each other intimately, and used the other as their sole measuring stick. Fear of losing, and what it would mean to live with that failure for years, clearly motivated both sides.
And what magnificent sides! The three-game Canada Cup finals in '87, won by Canada, featured perhaps the greatest confluence of talent in its prime that has ever been part of a hockey matchup. The Russians were led by the fabled Green Unit, with Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov up front, and Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov on the blueline. This deep team was loaded with future NHLers such as Valeri Kamensky, Sergei Nemchinov and Alexei Semenov.
Team Canada boasted the finest forward corps ever assembled. Led by Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier, with Michel Goulet, Mike Gartner, Glenn Anderson and Dale Hawerchuk in support roles, they were an offensive juggernaut so deep in talent that Steve Yzerman and Denis Savard were training camp cuts. The defense was equally stout, led by Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy, with Grant Fuhr in net.
What set Game 2 apart from every other I've seen was the pace. Every game has a natural rhythm, with inevitable ebbs. Not this one. You know that frantic, all-hands-on-deck action when a team is desperately trying to tie it up in the dying moments? That was this game -- for 60 minutes of regulation and another 30 of overtime. End-to-end assaults launched by both sides led to 11 goals and at least twice as many more exceptional scoring opportunities. It was exhausting just to watch.
Fuhr made a brilliant pad save on Makarov on the opening shift. Defensive stalwart Normand Rochefort scored the biggest goal of his life at the 43-second mark after converting a clever cross-ice feed from Messier. The Russians tied it less than a minute later when Andrei Khomutov scored on a rebound, exploiting an opening that was created when Fuhr went after Nemchinov, who had bumped him in the goal crease.
Desperate for an edge, Team Canada coach Mike Keenan made the decision everyone had been waiting for: inserting Lemieux onto Gretzky's right wing midway through the first period. Lemieux, a supremely talented young player of questionable motivation, had come into his own in the tournament. The inspirational effect of Gretzky was obvious, the chemistry instant. Displaying a new intensity, Lemieux clearly wanted to impress the Great One. Before the game was over, he would.
A remarkable passing play by Gartner and Gretzky set up Coffey for the 3-1 goal late in the first. Fetisov cut it to 3-2 midway through the second with a low shot from the point on a power play. Krutov silenced that crowd with a brilliant shorthanded effort that tied the game just minutes later. Canada retook the lead late in the second on a textbook two-on-one with Gretzky feeding Lemieux for a one-timer that rocketed over Evgeny Beloshejkin's right pad. Slava Bykov tied it early in the third on a nasty backhand that beat Fuhr to the short side. Lemieux converted a goalmouth pass from Gretzky on the power play midway through the third, but Kamensky responded late, sending the game to OT. A goal by the Soviets, and the Cup was theirs.
The first OT frame produced plenty of chances. Beloshejkin robbed Lemieux on a tip in close. Fuhr stopped Krutov on a two-on-none chance from three feet out. Gartner shot wide on an empty net from 10 feet away.
The game ended dramatically, exactly as it should have, at 10:06 of the second OT. Lemieux, standing just off the right post, pounced on the rebound of a Gretzky shot and gave Canada the 6-5 win, sending the series to a decisive Game 3. For Lemieux, it was his third goal of the game. For Gretzky, his fifth assist. It's possible that neither legendary player ever had a better game.
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