With the current edition of the Edmonton Oilers firmly entrenched in the 2017 NHL Playoffs, I felt today would be the perfect time to take a look back at arguably the most important one game result in franchise history. The year was 1984 and the setting was the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final against the four-time defending champion New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
— The SPORT Gallery (@TheSportGallery) May 17, 2014
Heading into the series, Edmonton had lost ten consecutive games to their arch nemesis, including a four-game beat down during the 1983 finale. In that series, the Isles not only made short work of the Oilers but did so in rather resounding fashion. In fact, over the course of the aforementioned previous ten head-to-head match-ups, New York outscored Wayne Gretzky and company to the tune of 48-24.
Not surprisingly, critics and fans alike were wondering aloud if this group of talented youngsters had the proper mix to halt the Islanders “Drive for 5”. To be perfectly honest, chances are there were likely similar feelings making the rounds inside both dressing rooms but all that changed on the evening of May 10, 1984.
1983 Stanley Cup Final Rematch
While the two teams took different routes in booking their tickets to a second consecutive showdown…book them they did. Edmonton was coming into the final on an eight-day layoff after sweeping away the Minnesota North Stars. Whereas the Isles had a much tougher road to haul, sneaking past the Montreal Canadiens in six hard-fought games.
In the previous year’s series opener, the Oilers came flying out of the gates but were unable to get a puck behind netminder Billy Smith and ultimately dropped a 2-0 decision. That game set the tone for the series and Edmonton never recovered. From top to bottom, New York was the better side, playing a desperate brand of hockey throughout and were rewarded for their efforts with a four consecutive championship.
Glen Sather was hoping to flip the script in the rematch and decided to go with the following lineup in the curtain raiser of the 1984 Stanley Cup Final:
Dave Semenko – Wayne Gretzky – Jari Kurri
Glenn Anderson – Mark Messier – Willy Lindstrom
Jaroslav Pouzar – Ken Linseman – Dave Lumley
Dave Hunter – Kevin McClelland – Pat Hughes
Paul Coffey – Charlie Huddy
Kevin Lowe -Lee Fogolin
Randy Gregg – Don Jackson
It was no secret, the Oilers felt they were nowhere near physical enough during the two sides previous year’s playoff meeting, as they allowed the Islanders to dictate the terms on a nightly basis. In order to get a different result this time around, that was going to have to change and to their credit, this group wasted little time doing just that.
From the drop of the puck, Edmonton was all over New York with a heavy forecheck and pinned them in their end to start the game. Unfortunately, it did not result in an early goal but the pace of play was something no hockey fan could take issue with and they were just getting warmed up.
Within seconds of being handed the first power play opportunity of the night, just past the eight-minute mark of period one, Greg Gilbert was sent in all alone but was instantly denied by Grant Fuhr. Over the course of that same man advantage, the Islanders came in waves but were unable to beat the Oilers young netminder. A familiar theme indeed, only this time around the proverbial shoe was on the other foot.
Fuhr Was the Difference
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, there was no question as to who the better team was. By no means were the visitors being dominated but New York was the one producing high-end quality chance after high-end quality chance. Bryan Trottier had the best of the bunch early in the second period but the guy wearing No. 31 would have none of it.
That “two-save combo” remains embedded in my mind to this day…a mere 33 years after taking place. Fuhr simply refused to allow the Islanders to open the scoring, making save after save, after save…regardless of how dire the situation looked. The 21-year old put the team on his back in what was the first Stanley Cup Final starting assignment of his career and held the fort until his teammates found a way to beat the guy down at the other end.
That moment would eventually come early in the third and as we all know, it came from the unlikeliest of candidates. A forced turnover in the corner, a nifty little feed courtesy Pat Hughes and a perfectly placed shot off the stick of Kevin McClelland and just like that, the Oilers had a 1-0 lead and a youngster in goal playing the game of his life.
Oilers Learned Their Lesson
From that point on, Edmonton could smell blood in the water and shut the door. Over the final 18-minutes of play, the Oilers forechecked the Islanders to a standstill and became a collective pack of puck hounds…no matter the zone. As good as Fuhr was over the opening 40 minutes of action, he had little to do over the course of the final frame.
In fact, it was Smith who needed to stand tall at the other end of the rink to keep his team within one. Heading into the post-season, many a skeptic suggested this group of highly skilled players could not play defence and would never be able to take that final step until they learned how to defend. Apparently, they were quick learners.
— Raptor Power Systems (@RaptorPower) May 19, 2015
Edmonton would go one to win the opener by the score of 1-0 and displayed the same desperate style of hockey the Islanders showed throughout the 1983 final. In my mind, that result will forever be viewed as the most pivotal victory in franchise history. All thanks to a timely goal from journeyman fourth-liner and an outstanding performance from a young goaltender who would go on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.