Remembering the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals: Prelude and Game 1

thanks to Third String Goalie

Flyers Faithful is proud to announce the first in a seven-part series examining and celebrating the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers, arguably the best NHL championship pairing of the last 30 years.

Each piece will be presented on the exact date each game in the series occurred over the next two weeks.

Each game will be accompanied by a special tribute video, expertly crafted by local artist and friend to Flyers Faithful, David Wilkinson. He should be commended for his own work to honor this monumental competition.

All game broadcasts are local in origin, featuring the voices of Gene Hart, Bobby Taylor and Ed Van Impe on either Channel 57 and PRISM.

Since the National Hockey League absorbed the four most vital teams from the World Hockey Association in the Spring of 1979, there have been eight Stanley Cup Final series that have played out to the limit of seven games.

Only two of those featured the two best clubs in the league in that particular season: 1987 and 2001. Only one of those pair was a rematch of a previous Cup Finals.

The Flyers, led by Mike Keenan, finished atop the Patrick Division for the third straight year with a 46-26-8 record, their third consecutive 100-point season. Despite beginning the year at 8-2-0 and then reaching the top of the NHL with a January burst which left them 31-11-3, injuries took a heavy toll down the stretch and the Orange and Black stumbled — but remained upright enough — to take the division by 14 points over Washington.

The late Tom Mees from ESPN will fill you in on the basics of their 19-game sojourn through the first three rounds:

If the third Cup in franchise history was to be won, it would have to come without 58-goal scorer Tim Kerr who was lost with a shoulder injury, and perhaps without captain Dave Poulin, who’d played all of three playoff games since the opening round thanks to broken ribs.

It’s fitting then, to note that the Billboard #1 hit in the USA on this date 25 years ago was U2′s “With or Without You,” an unknowing nod to how long the odds were to win it all even if top guys unable to perform were to return.

That wasn’t going to be easy against Glen Sather’s club, which recorded their fifth straight Smythe Division crown with a 50-24-6 record and took home the second Presidents’ Trophy in succession by leading the league with 106 points — 13 less than the year before.

Looking to erase the hideous memory of a second-round loss to the rival Calgary Flames the previous Spring that was punctuated by rookie defenseman Steve Smith’s infamous own-goal in the third period of Game 7 at home, the Orange and Blue rolled through the postseason.

Edmonton needed only 14 games to reach the title round (beating LA in five, Winnipeg in four and Detroit in five) for the fourth time in franchise history, and with two previous Cups to their credit, it was rested and raring to go with a high-powered offense that set an NHL record with 13 goals against the Kings in the first round.

Even worse, all the principals — Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey — were healthy.

It is roughly 2,400 miles from the plot of land which used to occupy the Spectrum to the space of real estate which has hosted, since 1972, the Edmonton Oilers’ home arena — now called Rexall Place but then known as Northlands Coliseum — and it is roughly 3,600 kilometers between there and the intersection of Atwater and Rue Ste.-Catherine in Montreal which used to host the venerable Forum.

The Philadelphia Flyers made their way through that fateful triangle in a four-day span starting with a thrilling victory in Game 6 of the Wales Conference Finals, knocking off the defending-champion Canadiens thanks to going 3-for-3 in La Belle Province.

Following that emotional tilt, Rick Tocchet praised first-year netminder Ron Hextall’s performance to that point, saying in Full Spectrum, “He’s so tough that you think every goal he gives up is the last one they’re going to get.”

Heading into the series, the Flyers’ leading scorers were Pelle Eklund (6G, 13A), Brian Propp (8G, 11A), Doug Crossman (15 pts) and Tocchet (8G, 6A). The departed Kerr clocked in at fifth with 13 points in only 12 appearances.

That grouping would be key, and telling, as the three forwards at the top of the list comprised a makeshift pairing known as the “Life Line” which took shape against the Canadiens and made its presence known to Edmonton.

Despite the confidence gained through three rounds and the two intervening years leading up to the rematch, Game 1 on a Sunday evening in Alberta’s capital didn’t turn out at all like expected:

At this point in the postseason, Philadelphia had to participate in 20 games over just 40 days, only had two days to rest between series, and was forced to undergo roughly one-and-a-half transcontinental flights across three time zones and three different cities — clearly all contributing factors in their Game 1 defeat.

It was there for the taking, as the Oilers showed their own propensity for slow starts throughout the playoffs — losing the first games at home to Los Angeles and Detroit, then only mustering one goal through 40 minutes of highly-pressurized hockey despite a friendly crowd.

Coffey alluded to that, saying to the Inquirer: “We’ve got a reputation as slow starters. We wanted to get past that. Possibly, the third period was a case of the Flyers being tired. They could probably use these next two days off.”

And things looked a bit more promising when Grant Fuhr completely misplayed the blast from Propp with less than four minutes to go in the second period to tie the game at 1-1.

But it was that killer, game-deciding stretch of 8:23 that did in the Flyers. Anderson began the run at the 48-second mark, Coffey added an insurance goal with just over seven minutes played and Kurri put the clincher home at 9:11. It didn’t matter that Tocchet answered just over a minute later, the damage was done.

“We had a little lapse in that third period,” noted Peter Zezel in the Inky. “We kind of let them come to us.”

Indeed a troubling aspect which arose during the playoff run reared its ugly head once more and Keenan’s charges paid for it. In the Wales Conference Finals, three of Philly’s four victories occurred in come-from-behind fashion and twice were the result of erasing two-goal deficits.

The speed, grace and explosive power of the Oilers game plan wasn’t going to permit that from happening — at least not on opening night in front of a North American audience.

Nonetheless, Coffey warned against a letdown against what he believed would be a hungrier and more alert club three days hence: “We know the Flyers will play better…not that they didn’t play well tonight, but we figure they’ll get stronger.”

Part 2 will be presented on Sunday.