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Something about the penalty box at Edmonton's Northlands Coliseum seemed different late last Friday night. Ah, yes—it was empty. After spending an interminable evening in its confines, members of the Oilers and the Calgary Flames were now free to bandage their faces and ice their fists. And the Flames' 6-3 victory could assume its rightful place among the more repugnant contests in NHL history. Not that anyone had expected a cotillion. Only 180 miles apart, Edmonton and Calgary have had it in for one another since 1883 when officials decided to send the Canadian Pacific Railway's Alberta line through Calgary instead of Edmonton, as previously planned.
Before last week's resumption of the teams' Uncivil War—a Thursday-Friday home-and-home series that served as a possible dress rehearsal for the Smythe Division finals—the NHL's Alberta franchises were the league's proudest. Also hottest. Between them, the first-place Oilers and second-place Flames had won 22 of their last 25 games. "These are the two best teams in the NHL right now," boomed Calgary coach Bob Johnson. "We're spoiling these fans, huh?"
But instead of a showcase of sizzling hockey, Albertans got Wrestlemania on Ice—and two Calgary victories. Although Thursday's game featured long stretches of splendid play, Friday's was little more than a three-hour slugfest (see summary). There were 60 penalties in all, a numbing 250 minutes' worth, and six ejections. The thuggery went from distasteful to discouraging to downright boring. Most disturbing was the fact that after falling behind on Friday night, the Oilers essentially conceded the game and seemed intent on avenging Calgary's unpunished cheap shots of the previous evening. Thus it was a far cry from last year's superbly—and cleanly—played division finals when the Flames ended Edmonton's pursuit of a third straight Stanley Cup.
On Thursday night in the Saddledome the Flames won 5-4, with a little help from an old friend from the '86 playoffs, Oiler defenseman Steve Smith. Calgary gunners Joey Mullen and Mike Bullard each scored twice, and enforcers Tim Hunter, Jamie Macoun and Neil Sheehy explored the absolute limits of legal stickwork. The win was Calgary's fifth in six tries against Edmonton this season. How could this happen? Don't the Oilers have six of the world's best players? Do the Flames have six of Alberta's? "Too much talent can spoil the soup," postulates Calgary wing Nick Fotiu, a Staten Island, N.Y., heavyweight who picked up organized hockey at the age of 15.
Edmonton G.M.-coach Glen Sather thought "the referee didn't call a lot of the interference, hooking and holding," but Johnson said, "What you saw was a man's game." Badger Bob, who coached Wisconsin to three NCAA titles and keeps his roster stacked with former U.S. collegians, lost 4-1 to Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals last year. "I'm on the back side," he says, employing a golf metaphor to chart his career. "About the 16th hole. I just got to get that Stanley Cup, then I can quit."
If it's going to happen, now is the time. Team leaders John Tonelli, Doug Risebrough and the outlandishly mustachioed Lanny McDonald have three dozen NHL seasons among them and are creaking more than ever. But Mullen, who learned his hockey on roller skates in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York City, will be around a while, as will Bullard, who was acquired from the Penguins last November. So will defenseman Gary Suter, the 1986 Rookie of the Year, who played at Wisconsin; center Joel Otto, who played at Bemidji ( Minn.) State; and center Joe Nieuwendyk, who joined the Flames from Cornell just two weeks ago.
Sather has done some minor rebuilding in Edmonton with an eye toward reclaiming a certain piece of hardware. Ex-Ranger Reijo Ruotsalainen, who is in a league with the Oilers' Paul Coffey and Boston's Ray Bourque as an offensive defenseman, and ex-Flame/ex-North Star Kent Nilsson, an all-offense, no-defense forward, joined Edmonton early in March and the Oilers won seven straight games. Sather's thinking was obvious: Stop Coffey and Ruotsalainen will beat you; stop Wayne Gretzky and Nilsson will beat you. Another recent addition, but one without any of the pure skills of Ruotsalainen or Nilsson, was 6'5", 230-pound Wayne Van Dorp, who was called up on March 17.
"Where'd they get that guy?" wondered the Badger after laying eyes on Van Dorp. "Joe's Gym?"
" Sather used to stress how they played European-style hockey, how skilled they were, how we shouldn't push them around," says Flames assistant coach Pierre Page. "But they've always had some pretty big boys who can take care of business." By way of introducing himself, Van Dorp bloodied Fotiu's nose and mouth. Fotiu answered with a flurry of rights and won the decision on points.