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Edmonton Oiler defenseman Paul Coffey looked remarkably composed for a man watching a teammate on roller skates race an Air Canada DC-9 to a gate at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport early last week. It was 11:15 p.m., less than two hours after the Oilers had beaten the Minnesota North Stars 3-1 to complete a four-game sweep in the Stanley Cup semifinals. Defenseman Rick Chartraw, killing time before the arrival of Edmonton's charter, put on roller skates and went whizzing off into the darkness. He reappeared 15 minutes later as the plane taxied in. Coffey, standing on the fringe of a crowd of Oilers, barely smiled at his teammates' sallies.
"You rested all night, Rick." (Chartraw hadn't played.)
"Take him to the boards, plane."
Look what didn't happen may be a better way of putting it as the Oilers face the Islanders in the Stanley Cup finals once again. Edmonton had scored an NHL-record 424 goals during the regular '82-83 season (446 this season), but was limited to six goals in the Islanders' four-game sweep. New York held league-leading scorer Wayne Gretzky goalless, and Coffey, the NHL's highest-scoring defenseman each of the last two seasons, got no goals and just one assist.
"This year we're not going into the finals overpsyched," says Coffey, whose performance, along with Gretzky's, will be vital to Edmonton's chances. Since December 1981 the Oilers have lost 10 straight games to New York. Edmonton's main problem is that it has been unable to penetrate the Islanders' stand-up, slot-jamming defense—a.k.a. the Dense Pack—that enhances Billy Smith's scintillating goaltending. "That's why Paul's performance will be so important to us," says Oiler coach Glen Sather. "Against the Islanders we have to play the puck back to the point a lot. When Paul's wheeling he can be like a fourth forward back there."
Which is precisely the rap on him. Though he finished the regular season with more points (126 on 40 goals and 86 assists) than any defenseman in NHL history except Bobby Orr, though he was second to Gretzky in league scoring and though, along with Washington's Rod Langway, he is a nominee for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defense-man, Coffey is often criticized—and sometimes booed in his home rink—for playing like a blitz-crazed free safety, abandoning traditional stay-at-home defense for chancy forays into the offensive zone. Still, Coffey gets more than he gives as his +52 rating for the regular season suggests. Besides, as Sather says, "We built this team around speed and offense. Paul gives us both."
"Maybe Paul's style wouldn't be right for some teams, but it's perfect for us," says Gretzky, who credits Coffey for much of his success. "Paul can make that long breakout pass so I can stay up a little higher in our zone. And I know he's going to be skating up just behind the play, so if [right wing] Jari [Kurri] and Semenk [ left wing Dave Semenko] are covered, I've got Paul as another option."
However, as he slumped onto a bench in the Oiler dressing room after a practice last week, Coffey looked and sounded weary of having to defend his style of play. "Since I was a Peewee, people have said I'm too offensive-minded," he said. "But that's my role here. Look, Langway's a good defensive defenseman on a good defensive team. I'm a good offensive defenseman on a good offensive team. Does that make him better?"