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The Oilers Were The Spoilers
Jack Falla
May 28, 1984
An era ended as Edmonton's Oilers wrested the Stanley Cup from the Islanders after Wayne Gretzky got going in Game 4 (right)
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May 28, 1984

The Oilers Were The Spoilers

An era ended as Edmonton's Oilers wrested the Stanley Cup from the Islanders after Wayne Gretzky got going in Game 4 (right)

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After watching one goalie try to dive for five and then go ghost-chasing, peering in vain for a glimpse of the Boss of old and marveling at Grant Fuhr's goaltending and Wayne Gretzky's uncharacteristic forays into the corners, one might have lost sight of the real meaning of the 1984 Stanley Cup finals. Which is: In wresting the Cup from the four-time-champion New York Islanders four games to one with a 5-2 victory at Edmonton's Northlands Coliseum last Saturday, the Oilers proved that a creative and high-scoring offense can win big over an orthodox bump-and-grind defense.

The Oilers may well have launched a new era in the pro game. Take heart ye Ranger, Nordique, North Star and Euro-hockey fans, the sleek may yet inherit the ice. Besides being the highest-scoring team ever to win the Cup, the Oilers are also the first NHL team to take the Cup west of Chicago and the youngest modern-era expansion team—they entered the NHL five years ago—to win the title.

"I hope we're an influence on the game," said Gretzky moments after emerging from the champagne mist, flying corks and rollicking chaos of the Edmonton dressing room. "We proved that an offensive team can win the Cup. That can't do anything but help hockey. We showed you can win by skating and by being physical without having to fight all the time."

And you can also win, as the Oilers did, by learning from those who have been there before you.

"We had a great teacher in the Islanders," said Edmonton general manager and coach Glen Sather. Patterned fore-checking and disciplined play in front of its own goal were crucial to Edmonton's success. Without that defense, it lost in four straight last year.

"Glen told us, 'In their end you can play your way, but in our end you play my way,' " said Kevin Lowe, the Oilers' best defenseman throughout the series.

"There were times they looked like us," said the Islanders' Mike Bossy after Edmonton shocked New York 1-0 on Kevin McClelland's goal and Grant Fuhr's goaltending in Game 1 on Long Island on May 10. Fuhr, who will now become the first black to have his name engraved on the Cup, made 34 saves while handing the Islanders their first shutout in a final series. One of those stops—a left-pad split save of a Bryan Trottier 15-footer from dead in front, followed by a stacked-pad smothering of Trottier's rebound—was easily the best and most important of the series. The key to the Islanders' previous mastery of the Oilers (10 straight wins before this year's finals) had been New York's ability to take a lead and then close the door. Fuhr prevented them from taking that lead.

At the other end of the rink, Islander goalie Billy Smith, whose slashing of Oiler forwards and whose faked dives in last year's finals precipitated the sideshow of animosity that marred that series, was up to some too-old tricks. When Oiler forward Glenn Anderson collided with Smith in the second period, Smitty made like Chevy Chase, spinning to the ice in an arms-out, belly-down crash. He lay motionless, waiting for a penalty call that never came. Give Smith a perfect 6 for artistic impression but zip for technical merit, at least in the eyes of referee Andy Van Hellemond. Van Hellemond was the referee in Game 4 of last year's finals, when Smith took a dive that resulted in a five-minute major penalty to Anderson. The goalie later admitted he was faking, thus, as Van Hellemond correctly deduced, "making a bit of a fool of me." This time the Dive for Five wouldn't wash.

Though no one knew it at the time, Game 2 on Long Island on May 12 was the last brilliant exhibition of a dying dynasty. Trottier, who scored twice in a 6-1 rout of the Oilers, had what Edmonton center Mark Messier called "the greatest game I've ever seen him play." Arch grinder Clark Gillies helped atone for his terrible regular season (12 goals, 16 assists) with his first playoff hat trick. Smith drew repeated chants of "BILL-EE, BILL-EE" for his work in the nets. And once again, for the ninth playoff game in a row, the Islanders kept Gretzky from scoring a goal, a feat the crowd acknowledged by singing the Mickey Mouse-Club song—Gretzky had called the New Jersey Devils "a Mickey Mouse organization" in November—and more than one revival of the joke: What do Mickey Mouse and Wayne Gretzky have in common? Neither has scored against the Islanders in a Stanley Cup final.

But Gretzky was not alone. As the series moved to Edmonton for Games 3, 4 and 5, the Oilers, a team still dedicated to the premise that the best defense is an overpowering offense, hadn't any goals from its big guns, including Paul Coffey, Jarri Kurri, Messier and Anderson. Smith still seemed to be invincible. "That's because a lot of our shots are up at his waist or glove," said Sather. "The history on Smith is that he gives up goals low. We have to shoot low and go for rebounds."

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