There are upsets, and there are upsets. Then there are the current Stanley Cup playoffs, which are taking on the appearance of a wholesale purge, as one after another of the NHL's showcase teams tumbles home-ice over tea kettle onto the sidelines to watch—who?—The Maple Laffs? The Whalers? The Blues? The Rangers (1940! 1940!), for Muzz's sake, vie for the hallowed Cup?
In a weekend of upsets and near upsets, the Washington Capitals became the NHL's latest playoff casualty, falling four games to two to the New York Rangers—they of the sub-.500 record and the sublime goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck. "Vanbiesbrouck was incredible," said Washington forward Craig Laughlin after New York's 2-1 win Sunday night in pandemonious Madison Square Garden. "He stopped everything we threw at him. The guy was standing on his head." As Vanbiesbrouck smothered rush after rush, the Capitals' spirits sagged, until they were being dominated in all three zones. It was the Rangers' third straight win over the frustrated Caps—who had finished the whoop-de-do-for-you regular season with 107 points, third best in the NHL—and gave the Rangers, who had already knocked off the league's second-best team, the Philadelphia Flyers, their second major upset of the playoffs. "I never would have thought we had the horses to do this," said Rangers forward Don Maloney afterward. "I mean, this is unreal, beating these people. You look at our roster and think, 'Who are those guys?' "
Meanwhile, in the so-called Battle of Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers, Cup champions the past two years, were trying to buck the upset trend and keep their dynasty alive in the face of a terrific assault by the Calgary Flames. Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Anderson, Fuhr—all that eye-popping talent—fell behind a seemingly possessed Flames squad three games to two before clawing their way back even in the series with a come-from-behind 5-2 win Monday in Calgary's Saddledome. That set up a deciding seventh game Wednesday in Edmonton, where the Flames, shockingly, had won two of the three previous games.
Usually brilliant, occasionally absurd, the Calgary- Edmonton series shaped up as a playoff classic from the very start, contested as it was in an atmosphere of unbridled ill will. The two cities, separated by 180 miles, can't stand one another. "We're the City of Champions and the Oil Capital of Alberta," crowed Oilers forward Dave Lumley on the eve of the series that became aptly known as the Uncivil War. "All Calgary's got is a nickname: Cowtown."
We are talking a good old-fashioned rivalry, folks, both on the ice and off. Before last week was over, writers for Alberta's two major tabloids were slinging mud at each other. "In Cowtown, a two on one is what happens when your wife and your dog go after the same piece of meat," opined the
. The Calgary Sun's rejoinder: "If five kids are playing in a sandbox, it's easy to pick out the one from Edmonton. He's the one the cats keep trying to cover up."
The two coaches were quick to join the fray. Before the series began, Calgary's Bob Johnson, who still answers to Badger, a nickname from his days as coach of the University of Wisconsin, put Oilers jerseys on his practice goalies. He wanted the Flames to get used to shooting the puck past someone who was at least dressed like Edmonton's All-Star netminder. Grant Fuhr. Glen Sather, the Oilers' coach, heard about the ploy and caustically termed it "adolescent." "That's probably something he learned in college," Sather said. "Of course, he's American. He thinks differently than I do. I'm Canadian. I probably think a little more logically than he does."
Not very friendly stuff. But beating the Oilers had amounted to a crusade for Johnson, who toted around a manila file an inch thick detailing his past game plans against the Oilers. To neutralize Gretzky and Edmonton's high-powered attack, Johnson concocted a seven-point plan that he absolutely forbade any of the Flames to discuss outside the dressing room. "This team is better prepared to play the Oilers than the Islanders ever were," said late-season acquisition John Tonelli, one of several new Flames who gave Calgary a very different look from the team whose futility against the Oilers the past three years—5-23-3—had become the stuff of frontier legend. In February the Flames had made a trade with St. Louis to get defensemen Terry Johnson and Rik Wilson and 44-goal sniper Joe Mullen, and they later added ex-Rangers tough guy Nick Fotiu to a lineup that was already replete with beef. But what may have been the most important addition came from the Flames' farm system. That was 23-year-old goalie Mike Vernon, who started the season with Salt Lake City in the International Hockey League, was brought up to the Flames to stay in midseason and, since Feb. 23, had started 11 games without a defeat. "He doesn't do anything spectacular," says Johnson of his stand-up goalie, "but he always seems to be there."
Vernon was certainly there in Game 1, which the Flames won 4-1. It was the first home playoff loss for the Oilers in exactly two years—a span of 18 games, an NHL record. While everyone had anticipated a slugfest—especially after Johnson started the game with three goons on the forward line, Fotiu, Tim Hunter and Neil Sheehy—the Flames won the game by beating the Oilers to almost every loose puck.
The Oilers evened the series in Game 2, overcoming a two-goal third-period deficit to win 6-5 on Glenn Anderson's goal in overtime, but the Flames regained the edge when the series shifted to the Saddledome, taking Game 3 by the score of 3-2. For the first time the Oilers seemed to suspect the Flames were for real. "They're hungrier than we are," said Gretzky, who was a horrific minus six in even-strength and shorthanded situations through the first three games. Gretzky had been serenaded mercilessly by the 16,000-plus fans in the Saddledome, who chanted "Whiner! Whiner!" whenever he opened his mouth.
The Edmonton coaching staff, which had repeatedly ordered the Oilers to skate wide and dump in the puck rather than make the fancy ticktacktoe passes that had been the bread and butter of their offense in the regular season, held a team meeting on Wednesday and then left the players to conduct their own practice. The message was clear: There's no sense in our being here if you won't listen to what we tell you. Sather said pointedly, "This isn't neurosurgery we're doing here. The only game plan that works in the playoffs is execution on the ice, and we're not getting it. Some of our players have been too stubborn to adapt."