Since April 6, the day the Stanley Cup playoffs began, a photograph has been hanging in the New York Islanders' dressing room. It shows Toe Blake, the legendary coach of the Montreal Canadiens, standing beside the Stanley Cup in 1959. He's holding up four fingers—for the four straight Cups that Montreal had won. Beneath the photo Islander General Manager Bill Torrey had written, "History is yours for the making. Let's put Radar in this picture."
Last Saturday night, Radar, better known as Islander Coach Al Arbour, was as good as standing beside Blake, four thick fingers of his own in the air. New York had just defeated the heralded Edmonton Oilers 5-1 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals to move within a victory of sweeping "Canada's team" and more important, of winning a fourth straight Cup. Only the Canadiens, who won five Cups from 1956 to '60 and four more from 1976 to to '79, have had as many consecutive championships.
As for the Oilers, after getting better than six goals a game and setting 16 scoring records during the three previous rounds of postseason play, they were held to just four goals by the Islanders and their rambunctious, implacable goaltender, Billy Smith, who flayed and played his way to center stage and was the single biggest factor in the first three games of the series. Said Edmonton Coach and General Manager Glen Sather after Game 3, "The slashing and chippy play isn't what's distracting us. Smith is. I'll say this: He's one whale of a goaltender."
That was one of the few reasonable statements that Sather made all week. Certainly those were the only nice words he had for Smith. But even all the vitriolic rhetoric and on-ice shenanigans could not—close as they came—diminish the drama of a meeting between the NHL's best defensive team this season, the Islanders, and the highest-scoring club in league history, the Oilers. Throw in a matchup, often head-to-head, of the two finest centers in hockey, Wayne Gretzky and Bryan Trottier, and you had a final that had the hockey world buzzing.
Before facing New York, Edmonton had breezed through the playoffs so effortlessly that many observers reported the Oilers were playing hockey on a different level from any other NHL team. In eliminating Winnipeg, Calgary and Chicago, the Oilers had won 11 of 12 games and had outscored their opponents 74-33. "We heard from a lot of different sources that Edmonton was unbeatable," said Islander Forward Duane Sutter. "Maybe because of that we prepared ourselves better mentally for this series than we had for any series since winning our first Cup."
Not that the mental preparation was difficult for Duane or his brother Brent, who come from Viking, Alberta, a small town 65 miles outside of Edmonton. Losing to the Oilers would be something they could look forward to hearing about all summer. To add a little extra pressure, Duane was quoted in an Edmonton paper as saying his friends in Viking were "two-faced" for cheering for the Oilers while cozying up to Brent and him every summer.
Indeed, all of Canada seemed to be pulling for Edmonton. More than 14,000 names appeared on two Oilergrams in the local newspapers. The city of Moncton, New Brunswick—2,864 miles away—sent a 178-foot-long telegram with another 8,468 names wishing Gretzky & Co. good luck. Calgary, home of the hated Flames, sent best wishes. It has been 58 years since a team from Western Canada won the Stanley Cup—the Victoria Cougars did it in 1925—and the Oilers sensed that, in just their fourth NHL season, their time had come. Local businesses went slightly batty. Regal Furs by Marcus on Jasper Avenue dressed one of its mannequins in an Oiler uniform—skates, helmet, the works—right there beside a full-length silver fox. The lead editorial in The Edmonton Journal on May 10, the day the final series opened, referred to the three-time Stanley Cup champs as "these Bozos from Long Island." Even the skin joints bared their enthusiasm, EXOTIC DANCERS—NOON-6 P.M.—GO OILERS GO read one marquee opposite the Northlands Coliseum.
Edmonton's hopes were further lifted when, shortly before the start of Game 1, the Islanders announced that Mike Bossy, their goal scorer par excellence, was suffering from tonsillitis and would not dress. Said New York Center Butch Goring afterward, "When the rifle's not there, you get out the pistol."
The pistol in this case turned out to be Duane Sutter. At 5:36 of the first period he pounced on a rebound left by Oiler Goalie Andy Moog and flipped it into the open net. Sutter's name, when announced as the scorer, was roundly booed. Thereafter, Smith stopped Edmonton cold—Gretzky, Glenn Anderson, Gretzky again. Kevin Lowe hit the post. Time and again the Oilers fired on Smith, but no one could get the puck past him. The Islanders were clogging the slot with three, sometimes four defenders, which enabled them to deflect crossing passes and pick up the Edmonton defensemen as they broke in from the blue line. New York did little forechecking, allowing the Oilers easy egress from their own zone but preventing dangerous two-on-one and three-on-two breaks, which Edmonton executes with deadly efficiency. "We tried to plug up the areas they use best," said Arbour. "Once we found out Boss wasn't playing, we went from Plan A to Plan B very quickly."
The tactic was hockey's version of the rope-a-dope—an experienced, patient team hanging on in the face of a furious assault. The Islanders allowed Edmonton to take long shots from poor angles, but cleared the rebounds and kept the front of the net open so Smith could see. Defenseman Denis Potvin was particularly adept at both tasks. No one was assigned to shadow Gretzky. Instead, the nearest Islander checked him as soon as the Great One touched the puck. New York checked. And checked. And checked.