The SI story had questioned whether Edmonton's off-ice difficulties were signs of an immaturity that may have contributed to the Oilers' early demise. "We did not get beat because of anything that was mentioned in that story," Muckler said last week. "We got beat by a team that simply played better than we did."
Sather claims that the drug charges had limited his ability to make trades during the off-season. "We weren't able to make one trade," he told Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal. "I knew that as soon as I traded someone, everybody would be saying, 'That's one of the guys SI was talking about.' " The drug allegations also may have affected the Oilers' relationship with their fans. "The [SI] story did two things," says All-Star center Wayne Gretzky. "First, it got the city to rally behind us. People have been very good to the players and their families. But it also scared some of the players and made some of the relationships between the fans and players that much more difficult. The players have become a little more defensive about how they deal with people off the ice...."
And now, to their further chagrin, the Oilers have been swept by the Flames so far this season. In the first matchup between the teams, on Oct. 22 in Calgary, the Flames won 6-3, and only Grant Fuhr's goaltending prevented a full-scale rout. Gretzky called it one of the Oilers' "worst games ever." Coffey said, "We should have been frothing at the mouth."
Heading into last week's miniseries, the Oilers were clearly trying to whip themselves into a frenzy for the Flames. "For the first time, we have something to prove against them," wrote Lowe in his Nov. 4 column for the Edmonton Sun. "We never considered games against them as key games. Now we do."
Steve Smith, the Edmonton defenseman who gave the Flames the score that eliminated the Oilers in Game 7 of the division finals—he was trying to clear the puck from behind Edmonton's net late in the game when his pass went off Fuhr's leg and back into the Oilers' goal—was remembering how the organist in the Calgary Saddledome played Santa Claus Is Coming To Town when he stepped onto the ice for the Oct. 22 game. "I hate Calgary with a passion," he said. "And it's got nothing to do with my particular situation...."
While Sather would not be drawn into the war of words, he did make a rare on-ice appearance at Tuesday's practice in Edmonton. If nothing else did, that meant the Oilers were serious about the next night's game.
But so was Flames goalie Mike Vernon as Calgary won Round 2 in the Northlands Coliseum. So much for all the talk. As he had in the playoffs, Vernon stonewalled the Oilers with his singularly unspectacular style that calls only for standing up and playing the angles. Vernon stopped 38 shots, including two Gretzky breakaways, and thwarted at least a dozen other good scoring opportunities. "Vernon was the difference," Sather said.
The Flames stuck with the same gritty strategy that had brought them success in the playoffs: Pack the middle, string four men across the blue line, neutralize at least two or three of the Oilers' big guns, wear them down with depth and take advantage of high-percentage scoring chances. "We know what it takes to beat them," said Vernon.
Now the question becomes. Are the Oilers willing to do the things it takes to beat the Flames? After last year's elimination, Sather seethed over his team's refusal to dump the puck in and chase it, then use the defensemen at the points to create scoring opportunities. Instead, the Oilers insisted on making cute passing plays in the offensive zone, only to have their passes toward the slot intercepted and cleared by a picket line of Calgary defenders. "I don't blame them," said Flames right winger Jim Peplinski. "If I had the talents of a Gretzky or a [Jari] Kurri or a Coffey, I wouldn't want to throw the puck in either."
In Wednesday's game, though, the Oilers did show more of an inclination, albeit grudgingly, to swallow their pride and play dump-and-chase. "Tactically, we played well enough," Sather said. "Our defensemen had 15 shots, so we definitely did the things we wanted to do." Then Sather offered a crooked half-smile. "We beat them six of eight in the regular season and they beat us in the playoffs," he said. "Maybe we're employing a similar strategy this year."