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FULL TILT
Austin Murphy
May 06, 1996
In the NHL's fiercest first-round playoff series, the Blues upended the Maple Leafs to earn a shot at the powerful Red Wings
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May 06, 1996

Full Tilt

In the NHL's fiercest first-round playoff series, the Blues upended the Maple Leafs to earn a shot at the powerful Red Wings

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The conventional wisdom among hockey observers was that without Fuhr the Blues were toast. An April 20 column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch likened Casey's five-hole to the Gateway Arch. At that day's practice, however, Gretzky could be overheard urging his teammates to clamp down defensively in Game 3. The Blues obeyed. In a 3-2 overtime win, Casey faced just 21 shots—none in OT.

Casey sparkled in a 5-1 laugher in the fourth game, and he wasn't nearly as awful in defeat as Game 5's 5-4 final score seemed to indicate: Four Toronto goals had come on uncontested rebounds in the crease. Casey turned away 23 of 24 shots in winning Game 6.

What the series lacked in scintillating play it made up for in rancor. There is no better theater than Keenan in full rant, and he found much to complain about. The bench in Maple Leaf Gardens was too low. The officials were incompetent. He even fired a volley at the Toronto police department, whose laxity, in Keenan's opinion, resulted in his being doused with a beer after Game 5. But Keenan complained most about the injury to Fuhr. He accused the Leafs of "electing" to employ a "strategy" to knock Fuhr out of the series and excoriated referee Paul Stewart for failing to penalize Kypreos. "If the league wants to tolerate that," Keenan said after Game 2, "I guess that's the kind of league they want." In a closed-door meeting with NHL officiating supervisor John D'Amico after that game, Keenan could be heard screaming a two-word obscenity that rhymes with the final two syllables of Timbuktu.

The feud provoked by the Kypreos incident was only one of a number that arose in the series. They included:

Nick Beverley versus Keenan: Beverley, who took over as Leafs coach after Pat Burns was fired in March, expressed his outrage at Keenan's accusations that Toronto was out to hurt Fuhr. He said the charges impugned his character and complained that the Kypreos suspension was the result of Keenan's manipulation of the media. Beverley pointed out that when Blues enforcer Tony Twist slammed into Leafs goalie Felix Potvin in Game 1, "we didn't run to the media and make a circus of it."

Beverley versus Gretzky: Before coming to Toronto as scouting director in 1994, Beverley was fired as general manager in Los Angeles. It was widely speculated that this termination bore the fingerprints of the Great One, as did most major decisions concerning the Kings made by then owner Bruce McNall, a Gretzky buddy.

Beverley versus the Almighty: After the Leafs were blown out in Game 4, Beverley went into a wide-ranging fulmination in which he sarcastically referred to Gretzky as "God Himself." In that interview Beverley also called his squad a bunch of "nimrods" and guaranteed a Team Nimrod win in Game 5.

Gretzky versus Gilmour: Though Gretzky ended up with nine assists and no goals in the series, every Leaf who saw half a chance took a run at him. At the head of the hit-99 parade was center Doug Gilmour, who butt-ended Gretzky in Game 1 in the spot where a man least wants to feel a hockey stick.

The punishment Gretzky took came after a regular season in which he had been decked in the open ice by Gilmour—that's the blow that caused the back injury—and coldcocked by an elbow to the head from Edmonton Oilers forward Kelly Buchburger. Why is Gretzky getting hit more than ever before? It's true that he's a half-step slower, meaning he can't avoid some of the hits he might once have dodged, but there's more to it. Gretzky says the instigator rule, which was enacted in 1992 and calls for the ejection of any player who starts a fight, has greatly reduced the role of bodyguards such as former Oilers enforcer Dave Semenko, who once roamed the ice just waiting for someone to look at Gretzky cross-eyed. "In those days," says Keenan, "the law of the jungle prevailed. If Dougie Gilmour hit Wayne, [then Oilers teammate] Mark Messier would not hesitate to cross-check Dougie Gilmour in the face."

More so than any other St. Louis player, Gretzky could use the five-day rest before the next round. But for two periods on Saturday night it looked as if he and his teammates would be headed back to Toronto for Game 7. The Blues were playing not to lose—and were losing anyway, 1-0. Then early in the third period, St. Louis defenseman Al MacInnis rifled a shot past Potvin to tie the score. Half a period later Leach found himself in the right place at the right time to win the game.

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