We should all be
so fortunate to slump the way Wayne Gretzky slumps. When the Edmonton Oilers'
No. 99 went without a goal in five straight Stanley Cup playoff games, his
scoring drought took on the tenor of a national emergency in Western Canada.
Newspapers ran big headlines: WHAT'S WRONG WITH WAYNE? Maybe he hadn't
recovered from the mugging Dale Hawerchuk had given him during the Winnipeg
series. The talk shows rang with speculation that the 26-year-old Gretzky had
lost it. Why, he hadn't won a new automobile in almost a week. Indeed about the
only unconcerned man in town seemed to be Oiler president/G.M./coach
"I laugh when
people say something's wrong with Wayne," Sather said. "Personally I've
never seen him have a bad game. A lot of nights he's a decoy, opening things
for the other guys. And over the last five weeks, we've asked him to do a lot
more defensively. Slump? He's been great!"
On Sunday night
in Philadelphia, Gretzky was ethereal against the Flyers as Edmonton scored a
solid 4-1 victory to take a three-games-to-one lead in the Stanley Cup finals.
The Great One's play shone with the glow he takes on when everything's working
and he's seven steps ahead of everyone else. After Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe and
Randy Gregg each scored off pinpoint passes from Gretzky, both locker rooms
paid tribute to the man who has been named the NHL's Most Valuable Player for a
record seven straight seasons. "There will never be another player like
him," said teammate Kent Nilsson. "He dominated," said Flyer
goaltender Ron Hextall.
"I had it
pretty good tonight," Gretzky admitted. "I don't know what happens or
when it happens...the night before the game, the morning of it. Sometimes it
takes a hard hit on your first shift to get your head in the game. I felt
confident tonight. I wanted the puck."
And then Gretzky
took his puck back home to Edmonton, where the Oilers hoped to wrap up their
third Cup championship in four years on Tuesday night.
When it started,
the Cup final seemed to have something for everyone. The freewheeling and
speedy Oilers against the steady, grind-it-out (or goon-it-up) Flyers. North
Americans from Beaverlodge, Alberta, to Marcus Hook, Pa., could sit back and
enjoy. That pleased the TV folks. Moreover, the series pitted the NHL's two
best regular-season teams. That made the league happy. The final was
vindication, as the NHL saw it, of its profitable, protracted and decidedly
unpopular playoff format. Even the weather cooperated: Six inches of snow fell
on Edmonton one day last week, making it easy to forget that the baseball
season was almost two months old. To top it all off, the final featured the
sport's most scintillating player, slump or no slump.
In Game 1,
Philadelphia mistakenly tried to skate with the much faster Oilers. Catastrophe
struck early in the third period when Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Jari
Kurri scored three unanswered goals in nine minutes to give Edmonton a 4-2 win.
Cured of any delusions about team speed, the Flyers returned to their roots for
Game 2: They hit hard, finished their checks and scored when they had good
chances. And Flyer coach Mike Keenan had the needle out for Gretzky. At one
point he stood on his bench to give Gretzky a tongue-lashing. "We had a
verbal exchange," said Keenan, who objected to Gretzky's "taking
dives." Keenan's concern, as he later explained it, was not so much that
the referee might be influenced by one of Gretzky's alleged snow jobs but that
the long-term welfare of the game would suffer. "It's poor conduct,"
lectured Keenan. "You expect more from the best hockey player in the world.
All he's doing is embarrassing the officials, and this is the second game in a
row he's done that."
said that he hadn't heard Keenan, and he laughed at his allegations. "When
you're 160 [pounds] and you get hooked," said Gretzky, "you generally
Much to Keenan's
chagrin, Gretzky was clearly upright when he scored a tap-in goal off a perfect
pass from Kurri to give the Oilers a 1-0 lead. But the Flyers rallied for a 2-1
lead after two periods and had reason to feel a bit smug. Fifty times this
season they had taken leads into the third period, and only once had they lost
Make that twice.
Anderson's spectacular game-tying goal illustrated the difference between these
teams. Gathering in Gregg's long, cross-ice pass, Anderson burst through two
dark jerseys at the blue line. Doug Crossman, the Flyers' last line of defense,
tried to ride him off the puck, but Anderson hopped left, tucked the puck
beneath Crossman's stick, windmilling his own stick over Crossman's head, met
the puck on the other side of Crossman and slid it past Hextall—a goal for the
11 o'clock news. "Along the ice, stick side—that's the best shot in
hockey," said Anderson. "I'll use that one once in a blue moon. Maybe
when I'm playing on the pond."