They adapted in Game 4, silencing the Saddledome's red hordes—virtually every man, woman and child in the place came dressed in Santa Claus scarlet—with a virtuoso performance. Gretzky "had one of those games you could dream about," assessed Sather afterward, as The Great One scored three goals and two assists. The Oilers, dominating a game for the first time in the series, won 7-4 to square things at two apiece.
Asked what had been the key, Sather could not resist the needle: "We're going to keep that quiet. This is a very secretive series."
The Oilers had regained the home-ice advantage, they were playing as a team and they were playing with emotion. In the past that had proved to be an unbeatable combination. But the Flames, led by veterans Lanny McDonald, Doug Risebrough and Tonelli, were playing with the intensity of zealots. This was their Stanley Cup finals. Game 5, as a result, was a beauty. "The second period was probably the greatest period of hockey I've seen in my life," said Gary Dornhoefer, the former Philadelphia forward who is now a broadcaster on Hockey Night in Canada.
It was in that period that McDonald, with the score tied 1-1, put the Flames on top to stay with a 40-foot slap shot between Fuhr's legs. Later, center Joel Otto added an insurance goal with a turnaround slap shot. From then on it was virtually all Edmonton—everywhere but on the scoreboard. Clanging posts, hitting skate blades, the Oilers stormed the Calgary goal the entire third period without scoring. The pace left the Flames rubber-legged. Still, they stuck to their game plan, meeting Oilers rushes at the blue line, then sagging around Vernon in a protective shell.
Left with the difficult prospect of now having to beat the Flames twice in a row to avoid joining the NHL's other top four teams on the sidelines (the Flyers, Capitals, Nordiques and Islanders), Sather tipped his hat to the 5'9" Vernon. "We haven't run into that kind of goaltending for a long time." Nope, not since 1983, when the New York Islanders' Billy Smith shut them down in the finals.
It was another hot New York goalie, the Rangers' Vanbiesbrouck, who finished off Washington. "We get chance after chance after chance and don't score," moaned the Caps' Laughlin after they had dropped Game 5 at home, 4-2. "They get three chances, they score three times."
It was the same old story for the Caps, a 12-year-old franchise whose growing pains are starting to look like a terminal illness. Three straight seasons of better than 100 points. Three straight exits by the second round of the playoffs. Heavily favored over the 36-38-6 Rangers, who finished 29 points behind them in the Patrick Division, the Capitals—the second best defensive team in the league—blew two-goal leads four times during the series. "The Rangers didn't beat us," said Caps defenseman Scott Stevens. "We beat ourselves."
True, up to a point. In Game 1 the Caps led 3-1 before allowing the Rangers back into the contest by giving up a short-handed goal to Mark Osborne. The Caps eventually lost that one 4-3 on a Brian MacLellan goal in overtime. Then, after blowing out New York in Games 2 and 3, they held a 5-3 lead in the fourth game with a little more than 12 minutes remaining. Had they been able to hold it, the Caps would have returned home with the series in hand. But the Rangers' Bob Brooke, capitalizing on a Washington defensive lapse with 2:35 remaining, scored to tie and then won the game in overtime by picking off a Stevens pass and slamming the puck past goalie Pete Peeters. Washington, which had not lost in OT in two years, had now dropped two in a row to the Rangers, a team that was winless in 13 overtime games during the season. The teams returned to Washington tied at two-all.
In Game 5 the Caps again went out to a two-goal lead—Dave Christian and Stevens converting power-play goals—but 31 seconds after Stevens scored, Pierre Larouche got the Rangers back into it by ramming a rebound home beneath Peeters. Larouche assisted on the next Rangers goal, forcing Peeters to cough up a rebound, and New York grew progressively more confident. Conversely, the Caps—thwarted repeatedly by Vanbiesbrouck—found their hands turned to stone. The Rangers won it going away, 4-2. "Larouche was the dominant player," said Caps assistant coach Terry Murray on Sunday. "He was the difference."
Indeed, Larouche was one of the key men in the Rangers' late-season turnaround. Relegated to the minors at the start of the season by rookie coach Ted Sator, he was called up from Hershey in late January when the club was mired in fifth place. He scored 20 goals in the final 24 games as the Rangers finished with a spurt—clinching a playoff spot in the 79th game of the season.