Game 2: Uphill Climb

Thanks to Squid Who

Flyers Faithful presents the second 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.

Since ancient times, the recording of phenomena, also known as omens, has either guided or misguided humanity from kings down to peasants towards a path they believe will lead to glory.

After a disheartening Game 1 loss, if you thought the Philadelphia Flyers might not have a snowball’s chance in Hell of walking out of Edmonton with a split to begin the Stanley Cup Finals, Mother Nature cooked up something completely off the charts to get the wheels of your mind rolling once again.

The city is located at 53 degrees north latitude, way up in the continent and on the Western edge of the Canadian Prairies, and as such is subject to serious weather swings and serious weather events.

Even in the midst of Spring, cold fronts bring snowstorms that can roll their way across the region. That’s exactly what happened on the night before and the early morning of Game 2. A whopping 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) of the white stuff pummeled middle Alberta but hopes still remained fertile beneath the sudden coating of pure white Winter.

And though the underdogs came out flying, taking a one-goal lead after 40 minutes of play, the stress and strain of matching the frenetic pace of their seasoned foes caused the wings to smoke and then fall off.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a quality game with some interesting developments.

Note how immediately following the opening goal (2:49-:51), Gretzky’s annoyance got the best of him after a bump from Ron Sutter, a native of nearby Viking, Alberta. Assigned to virtually every Philly forward whose priority was not offense, after 81 minutes of championship action, the Great One was bumped, jostled, face-washed, hooked, hacked and slashed until he could take no more.

It was an uncharacteristic, and unusually violent, gesture of frustration which might have cost a lesser player his team a chance at the back end of a 5-on-3 power play. But after blowing through the Campbell Conference, it was a wake-up call that no one on the home side was above reproach.

It must have tripped some collective wires and overloaded circuits, because, as Mark Howe told the Daily News, “They were like a white wave coming at us.”

The loss was a crushing blow to a team which put up an incredible 45-1-4 record to that point when leading after two periods, and had been 9-0 in that situation through the first three rounds of the playoffs:

In his intro to the game story for the Inquirer, Ray Parrillo wrote: “The Flyers held the Roman candle, and the Edmonton Oilers lit the match and ignited the fuse…Finally, that Roman candle blew up in the Flyers’ faces. They flirted with danger by playing at the Indianapolis 500 pace that best suits the Oilers, and they couldn’t get across the finish line first as Edmonton pulled out a 3-2 victory in overtime…”

It was a curious strategy even with the extra day of rest. This was not a fully-functional team Keenan was guiding — though with Murray Craven back in the lineup it was considerably more battle-tested than the young club which was blitzed out of the championship two years ago.

Still, with the memory of progressively worse losses in their three games at Northlands in 1985 — defeats of 4-3, 5-3 and 8-3 to close out the series, it was a perplexing plan. Maybe Keenan felt it was worth a gamble, and with the advent of a 2-2-1-1-1 grouping for the best-of-seven series instead of a 2-3-2 like two years prior, there would be two chances to regroup at home in the offing.

It even puzzled Edmonton head coach Sather, who offered this: “You can be sure they’re not going to give anything away. Everyone said they’d come out and play defensively with a lot of clutching and grabbing, but they came out and skated with us.”

Easier said than done when looking on from the other bench, given Philadelphia’s 27-16 shot advantage through two periods which evaporated into an 18-7 deficit over the final 26:50 of the game.

On the winner (8:16-:23), Gretzky shows the hypnotic nature of his puck-handling skills and the respect it demanded: he was 1-on-3 up the right side but delayed long enough for those Flyers to freeze in waiting, and for his teammates to occupy the gaping holes across ice.

From there, it was academic, as a rookie goaltender faced a 54-goal scorer in a game of who could react first.

In atypical fashion, Keenan sounded even-handed about the 2-0 series hole to the Inky: “It’s not a heartbreaking loss at all because we played a fair game. We’re not down at all. There’s no reason to be. We just have to come back and do the job at the Spectrum.”

This from a coach whose team, to that point, was only 5-5 on home ice during the postseason.

But there was one thing Keenan could exploit, and it was the fact that the Oilers appeared so concerned with cranking up their transition game, they were leaving Flyers forwards in the open. Three of their four goals in the series were scored in that fashion, the fourth on a goalie blunder.

If the Orange and Black could harness the energy and passion of the home crowd, along with puck awareness and possession, they might have that snowball’s chance of surviving and thriving as the series progressed.

To do so, other contributions had to be mandatory in the absences of Kerr, Poulin and Ilkka Sinisalo. After Propp, Eklund and Tocchet’s combined seven points, over nearly 127 minutes of play, a 33-goal scorer in Peter Zezel failed to record a point, as did Lindsay Carson, Mark Howe and Doug Crossman. Rookie Scott Mellanby mustered one assist.

While it was a job that tested the limits of conditioning Keenan had imposed since he took the helm three years ago, the task of generating offense while sticking to stingy defense had to be better all around. Or else the chances of overcoming those obstacles and winning it all would take a severe downturn.

Stay tuned for Part 3, coming up on Tuesday.