Thursday, November 06, 2014

When Flyers-Oilers actually meant something

by Rob Riches
Phanatic Hockey Writer
Twitter: @Riches61

The Philadelphia Flyers met the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday -- and posted a 4-1 win, which was also Steve Mason’s first victory (see recap) -- in what was just another early regular season game for both clubs, one of which began a homestand and the other a road trip.

Edmonton and Philadelphia, as cities, don’t necessarily have that much in common. Both hockey rinks are separated by nearly 2,400 miles, and their teams can only meet up to twice a season, under the NHL’s current regular-season scheduling formula.

Interconference matchups between the Flyers and Oilers may not seem like much in this day and age, but three times a season and twice upon the playoffs, it was a matchup for the most magnificent trophy in professional sports. 

In the mid 1980s -- when passing over two lines was a violation, substitution in the case of coincidental minors was not allowed, sticks were made from wood rather than fiberglass composites and expansion to Sun Belt markets wasn’t heard of -- the Flyers and Oilers met twice for the Stanley Cup, with memorable results. It may seem hard to believe, but this spring will mark the 30th anniversary of the first meeting between the clubs.

The Flyers underwent a significant overhaul entering the 1984-85 campaign. Bob "Cagey" McCammon was wedged out as GM and head coach, and replaced upstairs by Bob Clarke and behind the bench by newcomer Mike Keenan, straight from coaching the University of Toronto. For the first time since 1972, the team would not feature venerable veterans Darryl Sittler (dealt on the season's eve to Detroit) Bill Barber and Clarke on a night-to-night basis -- though Clarke made the immediate transition from Bobby on the ice to Bob off it. The Orange and Black also named second-year player, but 25-year-old sophomore Notre Dame product Dave Poulin captain, to boot.

Despite this overhaul, ad the resulting lack of expectations, the young Flyers cruised to a league-best 113 points, set a new franchise record with 53 wins, and would have claimed the Presidents’ Trophy if it had been presented that year. The Winged P swept the hated New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, took the five-time defending conference champion New York Islanders down in five and beat the Quebec Nordiques in a six-game Wales Conference Finals -- a series that boasted one of the franchise’s most memorable goals in Game 6 when Poulin scored on a breakway over Mario Gosselin’s glove while killing a 5-on-3 penalty early in the second period of a 3-0 triumph -- en route to their sixth appearance in the Cup Finals over the past 11 years.

The Oilers entered the season as defending Stanley Cup champions, after ending the Islanders’ four-year reign at the top the previous Spring. With a roster that featured potential Hall-of-Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey, along with Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog between the pipes, the Oilers swept Los Angeles and Winnipeg, beat Chicago in six and cruised to a five-game win over the young and injured Flyers.

Neither team returned to the final round in 1986, though the Flyers did win an emotional rematch on Nov. 14 of the following season. The Oilers returned to the Spectrum for the first time since the previous May -- a game marked on all calendars when the schedule was released. However, it was the first game the Orange and Black played since the tragic loss of star goaltender (and defending Vezina Trophy winner) Pelle Lindbergh in a car accident days earlier. Lindbergh was honored in a 23-minute ceremony prior to the game, and the Flyers won 5-3, thanks to a four-goal third period and five-star emotional effort behind rookie goalie Darren Jensen which was the club's 11th straight victory.

The two teams met again in 1987, in a terse seven-game battle. Two-time NHL Rookie of the Month and Calder Trophy hopeful Ron Hextall appeared between the pipes for the Flyers, after a 37-win season over 66 regular-season appearances.

“Who the hell are you?” asked Gretzky, after being robbed by the rookie netminder on a breakaway in the series’ first game in Edmonton -- a 4-2 Oilers win. Hextall notably fired back at him with a “who the hell are you?” of his own.

The series continued, and the Oilers had a chance to bury the Flyers being down 3-0 early in the second period of Game 3 at the Spectrum. What happened instead was the greatest comeback in team history, a 5-3 decision which pumped new life into the series. Despite losing Game 4 at home and bearing witness to Hextall's retaliatory slash to Kent Nilsson, then falling behind 2-0 and 3-1 with the Cup on the line back in Alberta in Game 5, Philly would not be denied. Rick Tocchet scored in the third period and the visitors went on to win 4-3. 

With another chance to take home the Cup in Game 6, this time on Spectrum ice, the Oilers turned to a defensive game, leading 2-0 after one period and 2-1 after two while giving up only 13 shots. However, a Brian Propp power-play tally with 6:56 on the clock tied the game, and a miracle J.J. Daigneault slapshot from the point less than a minute-and-a-half later gave the Flyers the eventual game-winner -- in what is widely considered the loudest moment in Spectrum history. 

Ultimately, the Oilers continued their dynasty by taking a 3-1 decision in the seventh game at Northlands Coliseum three days later. Edmonton went on to win two more Cups, while the Flyers would not appear in another championship round until a decade later.

Perhaps that second battle could have ended more favorably for the Flyers, who faced further injury and depletion after an incredibly tough road to the final. The Orange and Black faced a six-game series over the Rangers, a seven-game series against the Islanders where Kerr was lost for the remainder of the playoffs, and a gut-wrenching six-game set over the defending-champion Canadiens.  

The Oilers, on the other hand, lost just two games between series against the Kings, Jets and Red Wings and played like they were fresher and healthier.

As always, the NHL moved on and continued its operations. Northlands Coliseum was ultimately renamed Rexall Place, while the Spectrum played host to a two-time Calder Cup champion before being razed. The Great One was eventually moved in the league’s most notable trade, and the Flyers experienced The Next One during the Eric Lindros era. The Oilers currently possess the league’s longest playoff drought, missing the playoffs every year since 2007, while the Flyers have missed the playoffs just twice in that span.

Both teams have met on-and-off since, and both have traded on several occasions (notably in 2007, when the Flyers acquired Joffrey Lupul and eventual one-term captain Jason Smith for Joni Pitkanen, Geoff Sanderson and a third-round pick). At one point, both teams were at opposite ends of the NHL’s spectrum, when the Flyers appeared in the 2010 final and the Oilers were left with the first-overall pick, after a league-worst finish. Chris Pronger also suited up in a final for both teams, but is hated just in Edmonton for his unwillingness to remain after helping the club reach the 2006 Finals.

The Flyers and Oilers will continue to meet in the regular season (and are scheduled to do so again on March 21, 2015). Between the two rosters, only 10 players were alive for the 1987 series, while 16 were alive for both series -- though they most likely don't have vivid memories of either.

Who knows, there may come another time when they meet again in the spring, with the league’s ultimate prize back on the line. Until then, their seemingly-meaningless regular-season tilts will always have a firm history behind them.
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