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Each winter the Oilers skate nonchalantly into slumps and losing streaks that are most unbecoming to a defending Stanley Cup championship team, which Edmonton has been for four of the past five years. Don't mind us, the Oilers tell their faithful, we're just working out the kinks and waiting for our injured players to heal. This year the Oilers limped to a seventh-place finish in the NHL's overall regular-season standings and, thus, were right on schedule.
The Oilers always seem to crank it up when April arrives and hit the postseason in full stride. So it was last week, as they opened a three-games-to-one lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the Smythe Division semifinals. When Kings owner Bruce McNall flew south after the Oilers' gut-wrenching 4-3 victory on Sunday—defenseman Steve Smith backhanded a loose puck over Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey with 26 seconds left on the clock—the portly tycoon was confronted with a grim reality. Even with Wayne Gretzky, for whom he paid most of the value of the franchise, and Hrudey, the former New York Islander goaltender for whom he cashed in the rest of it, the Kings are still one forward, one defenseman and one head coach away from a Stanley Cup.
The Oilers have staged their April reawakening act so often that it should come as no surprise. Yet this season they really had the look of a dynasty in collapse. The Gretzky trade last August seemed to have ushered in an era of decay in Edmonton. And the team's injuries were rampant and serious. All-galaxy goalie Grant Fuhr reported to training camp 10 pounds overweight and was merely mortal in the regular season, losing more games than he won. Glenn Anderson, the high-scoring, speedy stick-smith of Stanley Cup championship teams past, was dubbed the league's "biggest disappointment of the season" by The Hockey News.
Craig Simpson and Jimmy Carson, who together represent the Oiler future, finished the season in scoring droughts. And the Gretzky-led Kings beat the Oilers in their final three meetings, thrusting the league champions into the ignominy of a third-place finish in the Smythe Division. Said coach and general manager Glen Sather, sarcastically, "It's been a beauty of a season."
Said Fuhr, "We accepted defeat more easily than ever before. It took awhile for us to regain the fear of losing. We've got that fear back, and now we'll be tough to beat."
Most Oilers don't know which is worse—losing or having to share close quarters with team captain Mark Messier after a loss. With due respect to Gretzky, Messier was the series' most dominant player through four games. On every shift, it seemed, the muscular center set up a scoring opportunity by making a slick pass or by drilling either a shot or a King. Sometimes he did all three.
But on Sunday night, the man his teammates call Moose saved his best shift for last. With the final minute ebbing away and the score tied 3-3, Messier took a pass from Craig MacTavish and—oblivious to Dave Taylor, who was draped on him—bore down mooselike on the net. Hrudey stopped Messier's hard wrist shot, but the rebound rolled just out of the goalie's reach. Smith, playing in his fourth game after missing 10 weeks because of surgery on his left shoulder, tapped in the game-winner and put the Kings into a deep hole.
It was Messier's deft cross-ice pass to Carson last Saturday night in Edmonton that had set up the game-winning goal during the Oilers' 4-0 shutout in Game 3. Messier also orchestrated the Oilers' third goal that night when he stripped Kings center Dave Taylor of the puck and sent Jari Kurri in to score. And he made a prophet of Gretzky, who had said, "The formalities and friendships are over, and they're the enemy now. I expect to get hit. I expect Mark Messier to run me over." To the delight of the usually catatonic crowd at Northlands Coliseum, Messier did just that in the first period Saturday, riding the Great One into the boards with a thud and depositing Gretzky on his keister.
The Edmonton fans booed Gretzky every time he touched the puck. "I expect it," he said after the game, but there was hurt in his voice. Gretzky had turned the fans against him with shrill criticisms of Sather and Pocklington late in the season. Sather, he told The Edmonton Journal, was never satisfied with Gretzky's accomplishments. He also said that Sather had more to do with the trade than he publicly let on.