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It was a typically spectacular Edmonton goal, born of the speed and spontaneity that characterize the most explosive offense in the NHL. In the third period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup semifinals between the Oilers and the Chicago Black Hawks on April 26, Edmonton Left Wing Glenn Anderson took a pass from Wayne Gretzky, banked the puck off the right boards, split Hawk defensemen Doug Crossman and Greg Fox and collected the puck as it caromed off the boards. Anderson then beat Chicago Goalie Murray Bannerman with a forehand fake and backhand finish low to the right side, as pictured above. That goal, Anderson's third of four in the game, gave Edmonton a 6-2 lead en route to an 8-2 victory. Two nights earlier the Oilers had defeated Chicago 8-4, and last Sunday they won again, 3-2, to move within a game of sweeping the best-of-seven series.
"Three of Glenn's goals came on sheer speed; he just outskated the defense-men," said Edmonton Coach Glen Sather. "That's typical of our club. Our guys are fast. And the guys who don't have the puck are moving just as fast as the ones who do."
Sather has permitted the Oilers to abandon the time-honored conservative, close-checking approach to playoff hockey in favor of the swirling, possession-oriented Euro-hockey that Edmonton has played so well all season. As a result, the Oilers have staked a claim to having the most potent offense in NHL history. During the regular season they scored a league-record 424 goals for a 5.3 goals-a-game average. The previous mark of 417 goals had been set by Edmonton in 1981-82. As for the playoffs, the Oilers had 67 goals after 11 games for a 6.09 average. That's nearly a goal a game more than the 1980-81 New York Islanders got when they set the NHL postseason goal-scoring record with 97 in 18 games.
Through Sunday, Edmonton had broken or tied 15 league playoff scoring records, including most goals by a team in one series (35 while eliminating Calgary four games to one in the second round); most points by a player in one game (seven—four goals and three assists—by Gretzky on April 17 against Calgary); most three-goal games by an individual in one playoff season (three by Left Wing Mark Messier); and most shorthanded goals in one playoff season (10). The Oiler penalty killers have been so explosive that after back-to-back Jari Kurri-from-Gretzky goals during the same Chicago power play in Game 1, Hawk Coach Orval Tessier joked about asking the league "if I can decline the penalty."
Penalties, however, weren't Chicago's problem. The Hawks' main difficulty in the first three games was that what little offense they did generate came from their so-called Party Line of Al Secord, Denis Savard and Steve Larmer. They had half of Chicago's eight goals as Edmonton checking and possession play virtually shut down the rest of the Hawk forwards. By contrast, the Oilers got help from many sources. In Game 3, for instance, Charlie Huddy and Don Jackson scored the first two goals by Edmonton defensemen in the series, Anderson had the winner and Goaltender Andy Moog kicked away 39 shots to lower his playoff goals-against average to 2.77.
"We have a lot of guys peaking at the same time," says Gretzky, who at week's end was the leading scorer in the playoffs with 11 goals and 20 assists. Last season, when the lowly Los Angeles Kings upset Edmonton in the first round, he told Edmonton fans, "We owe you one." On several occasions this season, Gretzky has said that the Oilers "want to prove we can come up big in the playoffs."
Although Edmonton seems to be well on its way to providing that proof, some observers insist that the Oilers are winning not because they're playing well but because their opponents are playing poorly. Tessier implied as much after Game 2, when he said he planned to "put in a call to the Mayo Clinic and order up 18 heart transplants" for his players. Says Campbell Conference Director of Information Mike Griffin, "I've heard it all year, and I can't buy it anymore. The Oilers have a great year, and all I hear is that it's because they play 32 Smythe Division games against L.A., Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver [all of which had losing records]. Then they beat Winnipeg in three straight, and I hear, 'Well, Calgary is a lot more disciplined.' So they out-score Calgary 35 to 13, and I hear, 'Wait'll they play Chicago.' Now they score 19 goals in three games on the fourth-best defensive team in the league. What's it going to take to make people realize this is an exceptional team?"
The same thing it takes for any team to prove itself—a Stanley Cup. Prevailing wisdom says that defense still wins championships, and Edmonton finished 11th in defense in the regular season, giving up nearly four goals a game. No team has ever yielded so may goals per game and won the Cup. Assuming the Oilers get past Chicago, they'll face the Islanders or the Boston Bruins, who were first and second, respectively, in the league in defense. The Islanders won all three of their regular-season games with Edmonton, and the Bruins have gone 10-1-3 against the Oilers over the past four years. New York and Boston are both forecheck-crazy teams that figure to keep their forwards in the faces of the Edmonton defensemen in an effort to choke off the Oiler offense before it gets started.
One might keep in mind that the NHL's last goal-scoring machine, the 1970-71 Orr-and-Esposito Bruins, whose regular-season scoring record the Oilers broke in 1981-82, didn't win the Cup. Consequently, that club is occasionally referred to as The Greatest Team That Never Was. Thus far, Edmonton is The Greatest Team That Isn't—Yet.