Outside, gray patches of packed, frozen snow lay on the walkways around Edmonton's Northlands Coliseum, dirty reminders of the relentless approach of the long prairie winter. But inside the arena, where the New York Islanders were facing the Edmonton Oilers last Sunday evening, the exuberant thoughts of the 17,498 assembled fans turned easily to spring, specifically to last spring, when the Islanders made it four Stanley Cups in a row by humiliating the Oilers in four straight games of a bitter playoff final, and to next spring, when the Islanders' Drive for Five and the Oilers' Gun for One could well meet head on. Thus, Game 278 on the NHL schedule, the Thrilla in Alberta, could have been viewed as either Game 5 of the 1983 finals, a chance for revenge for Edmonton, or Game 1 of the 1984 finals, an early opportunity for the Islanders to reassert their mastery.
Sorry, Edmonton. Sunday's game came off just like Games I through 4 of the 1983 finals. The disciplined, defense-oriented Islanders never trailed and won 4-2; the normally high-scoring Oilers, despite the intimidating presence of the league's two top snipers in Wayne Gretzky, who had 30 goals and 49 assists coming into the game, and Jarri Kurri (26 and 30), were once again frustrated in trying to solve Islander Coach Al Arbour's Dense Pack defense. Three and sometimes four Islander defenders created virtual gridlock in the slot, conceding outside shots, sweeping away rebounds and generally keeping the slick Oiler forwards out of their primary scoring area.
Arbour's tactics for this game actually began unfolding three nights earlier in Calgary when he started Billy Smith in goal in a 6-2 loss to the Flames. By playing Smith, Arbour all but announced that Rollie (The Goalie) Melanson, the No. 2 Islander netminder, would face Edmonton. Thus, Arbour denied the Oilers the extra incentive they would have had facing Smith, whose brilliant goaltending against Edmonton last May made him playoff MVP but whose slashing of Oiler Forward Glenn Anderson in Game I and sticking of Gretzky in Game 2 provoked the looney-tunes sideshow that marred the Cup finals. Such is the lasting bitterness of that series that last summer Gretzky, still smoldering with anger and frustration, said, "The good Lord will take care of Mr. Smith."
Arbour said the decision to start Melanson—Smith watched the game from the press box—had "nothing to do with last year's playoffs." Smith supposedly had a touch of the flu. "Al's playing with their minds," said former Islander Defenseman Jean Potvin, now a radio analyst for the team. "He knows there's no one they'd rather stick the puck behind than Smitty, and he's not giving them the chance." The real significance of Arbour's scheme was that by withholding Smith, the Islanders were in effect saying that the game meant less to them than it did to Edmonton.
Which, of course, was true. "It's a credibility game for us," said Oiler Assistant Coach John Muckler. "We have to prove we can beat them."
"We have nothing to prove. It's not a game of vengeance for us," said Islander Center Butch Goring.
The monkey is indeed on Edmonton's back. After setting the NHL record for most goals in a regular season with 424 and losing only once, against 11 wins, in the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Oilers seemed to come unglued before the lordly Islanders, who had lurched through the regular season but who had acquired a swaggering belief that they could win whenever they had to.
"Edmonton is going through what we went through in the '70s," says New York Forward Bob Bourne, referring to the Isles semifinal playoff ousters in 1975, '76, '77 and '79, and quarterfinal loss in '78. The Islanders had been labeled choke artists and were considered a team without leaders before their Stanley Cup win in 1980 initiated their current streak of 16 consecutive playoff series victories.
"We won last year because we'd been there before and the Oilers hadn't," says Bourne. "That team is going to win a Cup sometime, but the first one will be the hardest. Now that they've been there, they should be more relaxed."
If the Oilers were relaxed they didn't show it on Sunday. The game was only 48 seconds old when the Islanders' Bryan Trottier fed Duane Sutter in front for an easy flip over sprawling Oiler Goalie Grant Fuhr and a 1-0 New York lead. Thirty-eight seconds later it again was Sutter, who had scored only three goals before Sunday's game, outmuscling Oiler Defenseman Charlie Huddy in front and rerouting Bob Bourne's shot, which struck Fuhr's pads, off Huddy's knee and into the net. Two-love Islanders.