If that be so, the strategy is being executed to perfection. Two nights later in Calgary the Oilers were beaten by the Flames in every phase of the game. Calgary blew an early 2-0 lead, fell behind 3-2, then dominated most of the final two periods to win convincingly, limiting the Oilers to 23 shots on goal. After the game, Sather bristled at the suggestion that it might be time to get concerned. "What's Calgary's record?" he asked. "Last I checked, we were still in first place."
True enough, but the team's vital signs are not nearly as strong as they've been in past seasons. The Oilers have lost five games to Smythe Division teams—Los Angeles, Winnipeg and Calgary—after losing only three all last season. And three times in five road losses they have blown third-period leads. After the Big Six—Gretzky, Mark Messier, Coffey, Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Esa Tikkanen—the Oilers have gotten little production from the third and fourth lines.
Further, the defense has been so shaky that Sather coerced defenseman Randy Gregg to get back on skates. Gregg, a medical school graduate who retired at the end of last season to continue his studies in orthopedic surgery at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, was in the lineup Friday. "If we were 13-0," said Gregg, "I obviously wouldn't be here."
And not all has been love and roses in the locker room. Sather and Coffey engaged in a mid-October spat over what the coach felt was Coffey's substandard play. According to Sather, that's water over the dam. "Ridiculous," he says. "That was blown all out of proportion. Paul was at my house for dinner a week ago. There's no problem with us. In fact, I asked if he wanted to go duck hunting. But he said he was such a bad shot, he'd shoot out the front of a canoe, so he didn't want to go."
Meanwhile, the fans and the local media are beginning to get on the Oilers' case. Wednesday night's game with Calgary was the first sellout in eight Oiler home games this season. Last Friday, Dick Chubey of the Edmonton Sun wrote, "...it's plain to see there's an unwillingness among the Oilers to pay the price of climbing back to the top. There's a distinct lack of sticking their noses into traffic. Do that and it's apt to get dirty or, gawd forbid, bloodied."
The Oilers seem to believe that their stutter start is just the thing to shock them out of complacency. But, then, what was the playoff elimination? A speck of dust in their eye? For all of the talk, where's the fury, the single-minded-ness the Oilers said they were going to display this season?
Some observers trace the roots of the Oilers' slippage to Dec. 27 of last year, when they played an exhibition game with a touring team from the U.S.S.R. The matchup of North America's best with the Soviet Union's best should have provided all the challenge anyone could ask for, but the Oilers played listlessly and wound up losing 6-3. Then they seemed to go out of their way to underline the failure by saying that their minds were on the holidays.
Even with their substandard play this season, the Oilers are still two points ahead of second-place Winnipeg in the division. The often-overlooked goaltending tandem of Fuhr and Andy Moog has been a bulwark while Sather and Muckler have been trying to figure a way to shore up the defense. Gretzky, who is receiving a strong challenge for the scoring title from Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, is off to a blazing start (13 goals, 26 assists). "If Lemieux beats me because I have an off year, then I'll be angry," says the Great One. "But if he gets, say, 210 points and I get 209, I'll be the first to shake his hand."
And as if the Oilers don't have enough raw talent and speed, they have former Ranger All-Star defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen waiting in the wings. On Oct. 2, Sather traded defenseman Don Jackson to the Rangers for "future considerations"—which turned out to be the rights to Ruotsalainen, who had bolted New York to play in Switzerland. The swift-skating offensive defenseman is planning to finish the Swiss season and join the Oilers in late February or March. He could make the Edmonton power play a fearsome thing.
Meanwhile, scrutiny of the Oilers will go on.