Late Saturday night, moments after Wayne Gretzky left the press conference stage, Philadelphia Flyers coach Mike Keenan approached the microphone and smiled grimly in the direction of the departing Great One. The Edmonton Oilers' star had all but single-handedly dismantled the Flyers that night, scoring a hat trick and adding an assist in a 4-3 victory that gave the Oilers a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series for the Stanley Cup. Gretzky had also helped kill eight Philadelphia power plays and, for good measure, had won a critical face-off with 14 seconds remaining in the game to snuff out a gritty Flyers' comeback. And he easily could have had another three or four points if he hadn't missed two open nets, or if Jari Kurri hadn't blown two scoring opportunities on Gretzky passes. One was a kick pass Gretzky sent halfway across the rink that caught Kurri in stride. The other was a bank pass off the side of the goal. "At least he was sweating," Keenan noted wryly.
Exhilarated to be back on the home ice of the Northlands Coliseum, where the ice surface doesn't look like a topographical map of Vermont, Gretzky scored all of his goals in the opening period—two of them coming 15 seconds apart before the game was a minute and a half old—for the first hat trick against the Flyers all season. Not coincidentally, he scored the goals while both teams had a man in the penalty box. "When we play four-on-four hockey and get open ice, that's the way we like it," Gretzky said afterward. "I had some extra zip and jump out there tonight. We're two wins away, and we can smell that Cup."
Four days earlier the predominant scent was that of the Oilers stinking up the Philadelphia Spectrum in Game 1. The ever-entertaining Glen Sather, Edmonton's coach-G.M., had threatened not to let his defending Stanley Cup champs play that game after hearing that the Flyers wanted to have water bottles attached to the top of the goal nets. HO flasks. A little refreshment for the poor goaltenders. It seemed a simple enough consideration—almost humane—except to Sather, who knew that Philadelphia netminder Pelle Lindbergh had been the stingiest goalie throughout the playoffs (a 2.26 goals-against average, in 14 games, with three earlier shutouts). He was looking for any little means to throw Lindbergh off his game. Sather refused to approve the experiment, which the Flyers had conducted throughout the playoffs. "Maybe we want a bucket of chicken on our net," Sather said sarcastically. "Or a bucket of chicken on their net. Maybe hamburgers. I mean, if you have a water bottle out there, let's have lunch."
Hmmm. Not a bad idea. "Sure, that would be nice," said Lindbergh when told of Sather's proposal. "Sometimes I get hungry out there."
Lindbergh, as it turned out, could have gone out for a Swedish meatball hoagie in Game l, so thoroughly did the Flyers dominate the action. The final score was just 4-1, but the game should have been a rout. Only the play of Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr, who faced five breakaways on this steamy night, kept the score respectable. Philadelphia outskated, out-hustled and outchecked the defending champions. Gretzky, covered by the dogged Ron Sutter, was denied so much as a shot on goal, and Kurri, the Great One's linemate and a 71-goal scorer in the regular season, was reduced to anonymity by his shadow. Flyer rookie Derrick Smith. Sutter capped a brilliant game by picking off defenseman Paul Coffey's errant third-period pass and beating Fuhr for the eventual game-winner.
Philly added an insurance goal when a disoriented Fuhr—could he have been suffering from dehydration, Coach?—grabbed a rolling puck, looked left, looked right and then tossed it directly to Flyer captain Dave Poulin, who fed Tim Kerr, who shoveled it into the empty Oiler net. Philadelphia outshot the usually prepotent Oilers 41-26. More significant, when the good scoring chances were reviewed on videotape the next day, the totals were 17 for the Flyers, four for the Oilers.
After the game Sather, who has been dubbed the Prince of Wails by a member of his own staff, coolly took aim at a number of the NHL's sacred and not so sacred cows, beginning with the Boy Wonder himself. "Have you ever seen Wayne not skate?" he asked. "Have you ever seen him go through a whole game without getting a shot on goal? Taking nothing away from Sutter or the play of the Flyers, Wayne stopped himself."
That is, with a little help, according to Sather, from:
•the pucks: "They're awful. They seem to wobble when you shoot them. Sometimes you see a puck like that hit the post, and it will come back warped."
•the ice: "Horsebleep."