Flyers Faithful presents the third 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.
“One sportswriter called it the greatest comeback from the dead he had ever witnessed” – Earl Mann, narrator “Blood, Sweat and Cheers.”
Though it is far from Politically Correct in this era, when Gene Hart said the Oilers “had a pistol to the Flyers’ heads” at the 1:49 mark of the second period on this Friday night of Memorial Day Weekend in Philadelphia (3:56), he was dead on.
Ron Hextall made dozens of key saves during his initial NHL regular season and playoff run, but he also threw in some inexplicably awful missteps. Usually, they were followed by a furious burst of emotion and staring darts in the eyes of the opposition and the officials, whether he was distracted or not.
But this time, as a puck that rolled off the stick of Glenn Anderson also skidded at centipede speed through his pads and into the net to give the Oilers a 3-0 lead on a power play he foolishly created, there was no emotion. Just a perfunctory sweep of the disc from his cage.
Already staring down an 0-2 series hole, the Flyers were closer than thisclose to being blown out of the Finals before they even got on track. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, if it was any closer, it would be in back of them. If the emotional centerpiece of this magical run had nothing left in the tank, where would the spark come from?
And if their road this far was largely due to the play of the 23-year-old rookie and presumptive Calder Trophy candidate, it would be fitting that the path would hit a severe road block because of his youthful indiscretions.
There was nowhere to hide. The Sixers had been eliminated last month in the first round by Milwaukee, failing to give Julius Erving the gift of a playoff-round victory in his final professional season. The Phillies were limping along last in the six-team NL East after losing to the San Francisco Giants across the street at the Vet. The circus wouldn’t come back until the hockey was over.
But one of the worst cliches out there suddenly gained consciousness and sprang into action. Sudden death became sudden life, and in a season of rebirth the Flyers clawed their way back into the series with a rousing 5-3 victory that still leaves those who witnessed it shaking their heads.
Was it a delayed reaction to the then-rare presentation of the videotape of Kate Smith belting out “God Bless America” before the opening faceoff on six, count ‘em, six screens on the ArenaVision? The cumulative effect of travel across the continent? The disintegration of the disorienting speed with which the Oilers started the game? Precision shooting? Or the capitalization on all the mistakes Edmonton began to make after their fast start?
For sure everything contributed, and it came crashing down on and pulled the two-time champions under like the swift current of the Schuylkill at the Water Works.
It all resulted in the greatest comeback to that point in Flyers playoff history — and also staked a claim to a piece of NHL history:
As powerful as a five-goal-a-game offense can be, there are always leaks that spring, always spectacular failures drifting just below the veneer of success. This one reared its ugly head in a span of a mere 17 seconds.
“You can’t give up in a situation like that,” Rick Tocchet admitted. “In the regular season you might get down, but not in the playoffs.”
It appeared as if Edmonton believed its previous success would carry it through the remainder of the game, forgetting there was another team on the other side needing desperately to prove they belonged. This might have been the first time all playoffs that the mighty Oilers didn’t see the opposition bow out quietly, but it was a killer mistake to take their collective foot off the gas in such an environment as the Spectrum.
“I think we were awfully disappointed that a) we lost the hockey game and b) how we lost it,” Wayne Gretzky told the Inquirer. “We were our own worst enemies. When you’re up 3-0, you should be smart, use your experience to your advantage and win. We weren’t smart and we cost ourselves the game.”
To recap: the visitors were felled by a bunt, a failed crease clear, a saveable 40-footer through the five-hole and a defensive lapse during an odd-man rush — all killer mistakes even a generation ago when systematic hockey wasn’t in vogue.
And it was clear to some members of the Flyers that the actual crooked numbers on the right side of the scoreboard meant little in the grand scheme.
“We thought we were outplaying them (when they were down 3-0), said Scott Mellanby, who authored the tying tally. “We’ve shown character throughout the playoffs in coming back, and we didn’t get down. We got the first goal and the crowd started going nuts. It was like having an extra man.”
That certainly wasn’t the first or last time a player who has either played for or against Philadelphia uttered those words, particularly the last sentence.
“You physically feel the force of the crowd in Philadelphia,” said Oilers defenseman Kevin Lowe in the video biography “The Boys on the Bus.” which detailed the 86-87 season from the Edmonton players’ perspective. “They go for decibel level. It’s cheering with a vengeance. When you’re on the ice, you’re not only playing against the Philadelphia Flyers, you’re playing against the fans.”
That would prove to be a prophetic statement, whose true value wasn’t revealed until much later on.
For now, it was a relief that the Orange and Black were trailing only 2-1, having spent this pressure situation, in the words of Jay Greenberg in Full Spectrum, “digging out of their grave like possessed gophers.”
Keep with us for Game 4, coming up on Thursday.