Stanley Cup Finals : Oilers Are Heavy Favorites Over Heavies

Times Staff Writer

This season’s Stanley Cup finals offer both rematch and revulsion.

The Edmonton Oilers and the Philadelphia Flyers will replay their meeting in the 1985 finals--that’s the rematch. Hockey fans interested in bloodletting will no doubt hope for a replay of the Flyers’ Brawl at Montreal, in which the Flyers and the Canadiens pounded each other to bits before the game started--that’s the revulsion.

Game 1, which starts tonight at the Northlands Coliseum, may have elements of that aggression, for experts are predicting the Flyers will have to resurrect the Broad Street Bullies style to have a chance against the Oilers.

This best-of-seven series will pit the No. 1 (Edmonton) and No. 2 (Philadelphia) teams in the National Hockey League, the league’s two best goaltenders and coaching styles that are at philosophical odds. Edmonton is the premier offensive team in the NHL. Philadelphia is more physique than finesse and uses a brutalizing defense to prevent goals.

The Flyers have not forgotten the 1985 finals, which they remember as an embarrassment. The Oilers spotted the Flyers the first game, and then swept the series.

The Oilers are the prohibitive favorites, with their superior offense, a more rested team and a slight edge in incentive.


There may be another reason the Oilers are favored. The Edmonton City Council has formally declared it illegal for the Oilers to lose the Cup this year. If the Oilers violate the new law, the team must buy drinks for the aldermen and the mayor and be forced to sit through an entire council meeting as penance.

It’s all in good fun, but the Oilers would do well to heed the message: The Cup that they relinquished last year must be brought back.

Despite the franchise’s enormous success--four Smythe Division championships, four Campbell Conference titles and two Stanley Cup victories--there is great pressure on the Oilers to win.

“Unless we win the Stanley Cup, the season will be another failure,” Edmonton center Mark Messier said.

Predictably, the Flyers feel the same way. “We’re not going to be happy if we go home losers,” defenseman Mark Howe said.

It has been Messier, not Wayne Gretzky, who has carried the Oilers’ offense. The Great One was reduced to a not-so-hot two assists in five games against Detroit. “I’d be a lot more upset about it if we were losing,” Gretzky said.

There has always been speculation as to what sort of team the Oilers would be without Gretzky. Everyone found out in the Detroit series. The Red Wings’ attention to the Oilers’ first line opened up the second and third lines for Edmonton, thus debunking another rap against the Oilers, that they have no depth.

“When you’re playing Edmonton, anything can happen,” said Brad Marsh, a Flyer defenseman. “They don’t just have Wayne Gretzky. They have so much talent on that team. They have added Kent Nilsson; they have Messier, who, in a lot of people’s minds, is their most valuable player.”

Indeed, while Gretzky is tied with Messier for first in Oiler playoff scoring with 23 points, 21 of Gretzky’s points came in the first two rounds against the Kings and the Winnipeg Jets.

Glenn Anderson is third with 22 points, and Nilsson and Jari Kurri have played well in postseason.

The Edmonton defense, often maligned and with good reason, played steady and patient hockey against the Red Wings.

Detroit came out with stubborn checking, knocking the Oilers off the puck and waylaying many of their passes. When that happened against the Calgary Flames in last season’s playoffs, the Oilers showed little discipline and less patience.

They also lost. It was a lesson not lost on the rest of the league.

“Ever since Calgary, everyone has tried to play the same style against us,” Edmonton forward Marty McSorley said. “They try to tighten everything down, and they figure we’re always going to make enough mistakes to lose the game.”

Detroit kept waiting for the wide-open Oilers to abandon defense in pursuit of goals. Philadelphia Coach Mike Keenan noticed. “The thing I thought they (the Oilers) did well was that they defended the lead well when they had the one-goal leads late in the game. They played well away from the puck,” Keenan said.

For the Oilers, this was the highest sacrifice. Edmonton has scored fewer goals than normal in these playoffs but has emerged with a more complete--and powerful--team.

The Flyers have always had power, just as a battering ram has power.

In justifying his pummeling of Claude Lemieux before Game 6 in Montreal, Flyer defenseman Ed Hospodar said: “He had no business in our zone. He should know that if he comes in there, he’s going to pay.”

The Flyer defense is anchored by the efficient and classy work of Howe. He, Doug Crossman and the others are bent on protecting Ron Hextall, the Flyers’ rookie goaltender who often functions as a third defenseman with his handling of the puck.

“He makes the defenseman’s job quite a bit easier,” Marsh said. “He has the capabilities to shoot the puck out as fast as it comes in. Not only did he just clear it around the boards, he’s dangerous enough that he can hit a left wing or a center iceman breaking into the open. He can hit them with an accurate pass, not just a careless dump-out.”

Grant Fuhr has been at least equally as valuable in the nets for the Oilers, especially when the Edmonton defense fades out in front of him.

Hextall is 12-7 in the playoffs and has a 2.64 goals-against average. Fuhr is 10-2 with a 2.50 goals-against average.

The Flyers may not be ‘decimated’ by injuries, as Keenan describes it, but they are without Tim Kerr, their top goal scorer. Kerr, who scored 58 goals for the Flyers this season, has a dislocated right shoulder that may require surgery. The return of captain Dave Poulin has helped the Flyers through the playoffs. He has popped in and out of the lineup with cracked ribs but came back in the sixth game wearing a flak jacket and a determined look.

“When we needed to win two games, once against the Islanders and once against Montreal, Davey came back both times from being injured and gave us the boost we needed,” Flyer General Manager Bob Clarke said.

Poulin’s return may provide the Flyers with a big boost, but it won’t mean a thing if Gretzky returns to his form with the Oilers.