Game 4: Infamy and a 3-1 deficit

Thanks to F*** Yeah Flyers

Flyers Faithful presents the fourth 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.

Tell the truth. You don’t remember anything about Game 4 except 1) the Flyers lost and 2) the completion of the action from the above picture. More on that later.

Sufficiently chastened after blowing the Mother of all Leads less than 48 hours earlier, the Edmonton Oilers came back with a more complete game plan and much better execution to assume a 3-1 series edge.

To elite athletes who are expected to maintain a high level of competitiveness in pressure situations, some contests are about the adjustments made once the game has begun; others are all about feel — something more fleeting and elusive. For Wayne Gretzky, Game 4 was all about the latter:

“I don’t know exactly what happens, but as an athlete you never know how you’re going to feel before a game. But when you get out on the ice, some things happen — whether it’s a good first shift or somebody hits you to get you into the game, he told the Inquirer. “I had it pretty good tonight, I felt strong…I wanted the puck.”

The Great One assisted on the first three Edmonton goals in a 4-1 victory that left his team one positive decision away from glory for the third time in four seasons.

And Glen Sather echoed his top player’s nebulous sentiment, saying, “It really depends on what’s going on. I don’t play him by computerized time. I play him by the way the game is going.”

Perhaps a little too exhausted following their emotional comeback two days prior, the Flyers were just flat and remained so for virtually the entire contest. Regardless of the result, it was the first time since Game 5 of the Wales Conference Finals at home against Montreal that Philly was caught completely unawares and displayed little fight.

“The number of games is starting to show on our club,” noted Mike Keenan in his usual dry manner. For the record, that total was up to 23 in 46 days. Philly’s home record in these playoffs slipped to 6-6.

If Keenan could have harnessed some of the unbridled emotion showed by Philly fans towards Edmonton’s head coach and general manager in the post-game, things might have turned out a bit differently.

As Sather recalled to the Inky: “There were two guys behind our bench wearing Flyers jerseys. One of them spat at me, I shoved him and he took a swing at me. I got out of the way, but it was a pretty good swing. If he had hit me, it would have been fun. I like my clothes; I like my appearance. Next time, I’ll wear a raincoat.”

How many fans who were of age ended up spitting mad that night going to sleep, thinking this was the last home game of the year?

Things began to take on a life of their own at the 8:50 mark of the third period, the hosts trailing by three and the outcome decided except for the clocks to hit triple zeros. Just over four minutes of game action after Hextall was hit with a 10-minute misconduct, that’s when “The Slash” entered NHL lexicon and later NHL history (7:33).

A gesture of frustration due to the deficit, in front of the home crowd and an acknowledegment of the constant contact by Oilers attackers around his crease, the fiery rookie lost his decorum and finally let loose on the most unsuspecting victim.

Kent Nilsson was in the final year of his 10-season North American career, seeking a championship after coming up empty with Calgary and Minnesota. He’d collected 18 points through three rounds in the ’87 playoffs but was held off the board in the Finals through the first six games. Also of note, the Swede never accumulated more than 26 penalty minutes in any single season.

He was in the wrong place at the wrong time for him, right place at the right time for a volcano in padding ready to erupt.

Despite the Oilers’ protests, Brian O’Neill, in charge of handing out discipline for league President John Ziegler, didn’t even review tape of the incident until after the Finals were over. That proved to be a stroke of tremendous luck in the short term, as Hextall was allowed to finish the year — but he eventually drew an eight-game suspension, effective the start of the 1987-88 season.

The game in hand, Edmonton did little with the major power play that resulted.

On the way back to Alberta, Jay Greenberg set the scene in Full Spectrum: “The two clubs boarded separate all-night charters one gate apart at Philadelphia International Airport. The Oilers were smiling, joking and confident, while the depressed Flyers knew all their friends were staying behind. Hextall’s slash had transformed their image from gutsy underdogs to vicious thugs.”

The plot thickens, for Game 5 coming up on Saturday.