Monday, 26 August 2013

Slaying the dragon: Game 7, Flames-Oilers, 1986

"What did Steve Smith say to Mark Messier when he asked him to go out for a drink?
“I don’t know. I’ll have to bounce it off Grant Fuhr first.”
~a joke heard the day after Game 7 of the 1986 Smythe Division Final

It will never be given the credit it is due. Worse, it will always be remembered for an unfortunate bounce that led to the game-winning goal. But Game 7 of the 1986 Smythe Division final was not only one of the biggest upsets in NHL history, it was when the Calgary Flames signalled they finally had arrived. They showed they could get over that hump and beat the Edmonton Oilers. In 1986, they finally slayed the dragon.

One-sided Battle of Alberta
Back in the 1980s, the top four teams in each of four divisions automatically qualified for the playoffs. In each division first played fourth and second played third in the first round. The winners played in the second round. The winner of that played the other division winner in their conference for the conference trophy. The two conference winners played for the Stanley Cup.

This format meant the Flames faced the Oilers virtually ever year, and always in the second round. The Oilers had won in 1983 and 1984, the only two previous match-ups. The Flames had mounted a stirring comeback in 1984, down 3-1 in the series, to force a seventh game but could not beat Edmonton.

Meanwhile the Oilers had gone to the Stanley Cup final in 1983, 1984, and 1985, winning the championship in 1984 and 1985. During the 1986 regular season, the Oilers finished first in the NHL with 119 points, a full 30 points ahead of Calgary, who finished second in the division and conference, but sixth in the league, with 89 points. When the Oilers hosted the Flames in the 1986 Smythe Final, not only were they the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, but the best team in the league by far.

It was a severe mis-match – on paper.

The series no one expected
But hockey is not played on paper. Anything can happen in the playoffs. That's why they play the games. Regular season records no longer mattered, beyond determining home ice advantage and playoff positions.

The Flames certainly didn't play like they finished 30 points behind the Oilers. They jumped all over the Stanley Cup champions in Game 1 in Edmonton on April 18, skating away with a 4-1 victory.

Game 2 was two nights later, again at Northlands Coliseum, and it was a back-and-forth affair all night, probably the most entertaining game of the series. Regulation time settled nothing as the teams headed to overtime 5-5. The Oilers prevailed, tying the series 1-1, heading to the Calgary Saddledome for the next two games.

Calgary won Game 3 by a 3-2 score, before Edmonton again tied the series with a convincing 7-4 win. The fire power the Oilers showed in Game 4 gave everyone cheering for the Flames cause for concern. Edmonton had finally shook out the cob webs and played like the best team in hockey, and they were going home for Game 5 on April 26.

Again, the Flames took it to the Oilers, winning by the same 4-1 score as in Game 1 of the series. Shockingly, the Flames were one game away from ousting the Oilers and, had it not been for an overtime winner by Glenn Anderson in Game 2, the series would already be over. And the Flames were going back to the friendly confines of the Saddledome to try and close out the series.

Game 6 showed how talented the Oilers were. With their season on the line, they overcame a 2-0 Flames' lead, skating out of Calgary with a 5-2 win, and a chance to save their season in front of their home crowd.

Game 7 was set for April 30 at the Northlands Coliseum.

The Flames celebrate and Steve Smith mourns as he inadvertently
bounced the puck off his own goalie and into the net. It was one
of several miscues by the Oilers that led to one of the biggest
upsets in Stanley Cup playoff history.
More than one bad bounce
Everything came down to this one deciding game, but let's be clear here. The Oilers had lost three games already, two at home. They had played poorly and were lucky to even be in Game 7.

Once more, the Flames took it to the Oilers. That was a trademark of the series. Calgary consistently put Edmonton in a position where they had to play catch up. Game 7 would be no different.

About 15 minutes into the first period, Hakan Loob score a short-handed goal to give Calgary a 1-0 lead. This came with the vaunted Edmonton power play on the ice.

Two minutes into the second period Jim Peplinski made it 2-0. This goal was as soft as they get, but is never, ever mentioned. Oiler goalie Grant Fuhr came out to poke check the puck. It spun end over end over top of him, landed behind him and bounced into the net.

Now down 2-0, the Oilers re-grouped, as Anderson and Mark Messier scored unanswered goals to make the score 2-2 after two periods.

It should be noted that the entire game, Oiler defencemen, and all-star Paul Coffey in particular, were making dangerous cross-ice passes from behind their own net.  And, Fuhr aimlessly wandered in his crease while the play was going on behind him throughout the game. At one point, one of the announcers observed one of Coffey's passes came dangerously close to hitting the goalie.

Sadly, it was not Paul Coffey who would be etched into history. Instead, Steve Smith, a young defenceman celebrating his 23rd birthday the night of Game 7, went behind his own net to retrieve a shoot-in from Flame Perry Berezan. With 5:14 gone in the third period, his attempted cross-ice pass hit Fuhr and went into their own net. It gave the Flames a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish.

The Flames had finally slayed the dragon.

Everyone to blame
After that game, Oiler fans were outraged and blinded. They were looking for someone to blame, so they focused their fury on Steve Smith. Because Oiler fans were never very good at losing, they never knew how.

Well, there was plenty of blame to go around. First, the Oilers should never have been in that position in the first place. They had had one of the best regular seasons in NHL history, yet let a team of grinders continually get up on them.

Then, during Game 7, they made a myriad of mistakes. Surrendering a short-handed goal when you have one of the best power plays in the league? Inexcusable. Botching a poke check that ends up pinballing into the back of the net? Unacceptable. Allowing all your defencemen to make dangerous cross-ice passes from behind their own net, while the goalie is wandering into the passing lane? A horrible coaching mistake. Finally, having the most potent offence in the league and having more than 14 minutes to score one goal with your season on the line and coming up empty? Shameful.

Everyone was to blame.

High school memories

Can't believe it
As the series wore on, I recall the topic coming up virtually every day in social studies class. Our social teacher was Gid Vuch. I recall Mr. Vuch saying the Flames should not be winning the series.

My response was simple: “From what I understand, the team with the most goals at the end of the game – wins”.

He did admit the Flames were out-working the Oilers.

Hockey pool
Two guys in school, Troy and his cousin Jared, had a hockey pool. It was the first one I entered and it was pretty straightforward. They passed out the playoff draw, and we had to choose which team would win every series until we got to a champion.

In the end, Corinna and Shelly, two girls in Grade 10, won the pool by getting every series winner right.

I worked with Corinna and, at work one day, asked her how they did it.

"It's pretty simple," she said. "We looked at every pair and asked, 'Where is the best shopping?'"

Just that simple.

Only shirt
When the Flames first moved to Calgary in 1980, my mom bought me a Flames t-shirt with the flaming "C" on it. I was 10 years old at the time.

I dug out that old Flames t-shirt from junior high the next day to wear to school to show my support. I had grown quite a bit since the last time I'd worn that shirt. It was not just pride that was bursting that day.

The legacy
The Flames moved on to the Campbell Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues. They took a commanding 3-1 series lead, before allowing the Blues to come back. The low point was Game 6, where the Flames blew two three-goal leads to force Game 7. The Flames won that, but had nothing left for the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final. The Flames did win Game 1, but dropped the next four games in a row. It would be three more years before they won the Cup, becoming the only team in NHL history to win the Cup in Montreal.

Meanwhile, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup the next year, and the year after that. Steve Smith had a 16-year NHL career and, ironically, finished it with the Flames.

The 1986 Smythe Division Final also still remains the only time the Flames have ever beat the Oilers in Stanley Cup playoff history.

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