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As the schedule wound down, the Kings clearly lacked the kind of patient defensive approach that pays off so handsomely in Stanley Cup play. Indeed, they finished 18th among 21 teams in goals allowed. The addition of veteran defense-man Larry Robinson, who signed as a free agent in the off-season after 17 years with the Montreal Canadiens, had made Los Angeles older, not steadier. What's more, wingers Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato, who were acquired from the New York Rangers in the much-questioned January trade of high-scoring center Bernie Nicholls, missed chunks of playing time because of injuries.
Though the Flames struggled through parts of the season, they finished strong and easily won the division title. The performance gap between the Kings and the Flames, which was so large a year ago that Calgary swept their second-round series, appeared to have widened, if anything. "During the regular season, a lot of guys have different things going for them," said Robinson. "Like bonuses and other reasons to score 50 goals."
In the playoffs, compensation is equal. Each King, for example, earned $6,000 for beating Calgary. So right from the opening face-off of Game 1, the Kings selflessly began rowing together. Robinson, who had missed the end of the regular season with a groin pull, seemed to have had his batteries recharged. Defenseman Rob Blake, a 1988 draft choice who signed late last month after his Bowling Green team was eliminated from the NCAA playoffs, showed unexpected poise. Suddenly the Kings were doing nothing more than what coach Tom Webster and his aides had been pleading with them to do much of the season—think defense first.
Finally, Gretzky's absence may have opened the Kings' eyes. "I think when you lose your best player," says assistant coach Cap Raeder, "the other players ask themselves, 'What do we do now?' It helped force them to think."
The Kings and the Flames split the series' first two games, at the Saddledome, L.A. winning the opener 5-3 and Calgary the second game 8-5. For the playoffs, the Kings had installed an aggressive penalty-killing system, which pressured Al MacInnis and Gary Suter, Calgary's twin cannons, at the points. That should have given the Flames more options down near the goal, but as their confidence flagged with each power-play failure (Calgary capitalized on only two of 34 manpower advantages), they stopped making the kinds of reads that could have trapped L.A.'s penalty killers.
Back in Los Angeles, Gretzky was undergoing 90 minutes of back therapy daily. The day between Games 2 and 3, he determined that he could play at least some shifts the following night. It was obvious to anyone who saw him skating stiffly in pregame warmups at the Forum that he would have to accomplish the task without bending from the waist.
His forays onto the ice turned out to be highly valuable. In the first minute of the second period, he retrieved a rebound in the corner and quickly put the puck on the stick of Sandstrom, whose tip-in put Los Angeles ahead 1-0. The Kings, who checked as never before, made the lead stand up until 14:05 of the third period, when Mullen turned a bad rebound into the tying score.
Granato further embarrassed the suddenly inept Calgary power play by winning the game in overtime on a shorthanded goal. He looked through Vernon's legs, but the Calgary netminder squeezed his pads tight. Granato held the puck for an extra stride as Vernon, having committed himself, was frozen. So was the moment. Granato shot the puck around Vernon 8:37 into OT, ending a game that had defined Stanley Cup drama—at least until Game 6.
The 2-1 win put the Kings in position to go for the Flames' throats. The pressure on the Flames was apparent early in Game 4. MacInnis, who left Game 3 with a slight knee sprain and was a step slow to the outside, hauled down the Kings" Jay Miller, who is far quicker with his fists than his legs. With MacInnis in the penalty box, Nattress had the audacity to put a retaliatory crosscheck on L.A. winger John Tonelli as Tonelli was lying on the ice. Nattress then displayed even more audacity by chasing down referee Andy vanHellemond to complain about the call. The Flames killed the 5-on-3 created by the cross-checking penalty but not the unsportsmanlike conduct call Nattress earned for yapping. When L.A.'s Dave Taylor scored at 6:38 of the first period, feeding time in the Forum shark tank had begun, and the Kings romped to a 12-4 win.
Granato, Sandstrom and Taylor each had three goals, and Gretzky had a goal and four assists. The Kings' fans turned the Forum ice into a hatters' convention. Some of them even bowed in the direction of the box of Kings owner Bruce McNall. After the game, glad-handing Hollywood stars like John Candy and Tony Danza worked the L.A. locker room. "I don't know the word for this," said Nattress afterward. "I thought we were ready, but for the first five or six minutes, our energy was directed toward frustration."