The death of the defending Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames in double overtime in Los Angeles last Saturday was not sudden at all. The winning shot, flicked toward the net by Mike Krushelnyski of the Kings while he was lying under Calgary's 215-pound Brian MacLellan, blooped into the air in slow motion. Flame goalie Mike Vernon, who had raised himself to only a sitting position after having stopped a shot by Steve Duchesne, saw the puck all the way.
End over end it tumbled, turning only slightly less frequently than had the game, one of the most riveting and controversial in Stanley Cup history. "I was hoping it was going to go over the net," said Vernon. He soon realized, however, that the puck had the approximate trajectory of Calgary's season. Which is to say it started badly and ended worse, with an apex in the middle.
Now, to Vernon's horror, the puck was coming down behind him, between the crossbar and his left glove, which was thrust as high as he could reach. At 3:14 of the second overtime, the puck went splat in the goal, like an egg dropped onto a kitchen floor, dashing Calgary's dreams of a second straight championship. "I wish my arms were 10 feet long," said Vernon, "but they aren't."
Only in the NHL—well, maybe the NBA, too—can a fourth-place team make its entire season in ten days by knocking off a first-place club. And on a prayer of a shot no less. Vernon's arms, long and strong enough to have carried Calgary to the Stanley Cup title a year ago, were too short to box with fate this time.
After Krushelnyski's goal gave Los Angeles a 4-3 victory and this first-round playoff series in six games, the Flames dressed without any visible emotion. They had been angry over a disallowed goal by Doug Gilmour that would have won the game for them late in the first overtime, but now they were quiet. They did not curse their luck, which, considering the bloop game-winner, their territorial dominance in overtime and referee Denis Morel's quick whistle on the Gilmour shot, was abysmal. Still, after having fallen behind 3-1 in a series they had figured to win decisively, they knew the perils of playing on the edge. "We didn't lose the series tonight," said defenseman Jamie Macoun. "We lost it by playing badly earlier in the series."
Nevertheless, Calgary could have prevailed had Gilmour's goal-that-wasn't been allowed to stand. Gilmour chipped the puck from behind the L.A. net. The puck ricocheted off the back of goalie Kelly Hrudey's right leg and slithered toward the goal line. Goal judge Ted Metcalfe illuminated the goal light, and the entire Flame team rushed onto the ice in celebration. But Morel talked to Metcalfe on a phone and ruled no goal. Morel had lost sight of the puck and apparently assumed that Hrudey had covered it, so he whistled the play dead. "The goal judge saw it [the puck] in after it [the play] was killed [whistled dead]," Morel said later. "I had killed play." If that's the case, why did Morel need to consult with Metcalfe before making his ruling?
"Some things are to be," said Calgary defenseman Ric Nattress, "and some things are not to be." That is an observation that can be made whenever Wayne Gretzky appears in a postseason series.
Gretzky's power-play goal 1:08 into the action opened the scoring in Game 6. And his feed to Duchesne, through a lane that appeared to have been shut off by Nattress, enabled Los Angeles to tie the score 2-2 just 1:01 into the third period. Joe Mullen's goal had given Calgary a 3-2 lead at 15:48 of the third period, and it appeared that the Flames, who would have played Game 7 back home in the Olympic Saddledome, finally had the series under control. But Gretzky got a second chance following a face-off, which he had lost an instant earlier to Joel Otto. When Otto, who was quicker on the draw than Gretzky, backhanded the puck against his own shins, Gretzky pounced on the carom and flicked it to Duchesne, whose shot went past Vernon and forced the overtime.
On his way to becoming the NHL's all-time point producer, Gretzky never failed to rise to the occasion. The series against the Flames further embellished his mystical reputation. Gretzky's spirit has always been willing, but he had never before entered a series with his flesh so weak.
Two weeks ago he was stretched out on a physical therapist's table, receiving treatment for lower back spasms. The Kings, who won only two of their final eight regular-season games, were awaiting a kind of team autopsy. Buoyed by last season's second-place finish to Calgary in the Smythe Division, followed by a first-round playoff victory over the Edmonton Oilers, the Kings began 1989-90 believing themselves to be a rising power. Instead, they showed themselves to be nothing more than a fourth-place team.