During yesterday’s Toronto Maple Leafs 8-6 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, I thought I had been transported 35 years back in time. As a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for 40 years, I cut my hockey teeth watching the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the mid-1980s.
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That Oilers team was amazing. Wayne Gretzky was an assist-first, goal-scoring machine. Jari Kurri was a sniper who could finish like few others. One season, goalie Grant Fuhr started 75 games. Glen Sather was a creative young coach who structured a youthful team and then let them freewheel their on-ice skills.
The Oilers had bangers, speedy skaters, scorers, offensive defensemen, good coaching, and confidence – oodles and oodles of confidence. Even if they were behind by a couple of goals going into the third period, Oilers’ fans knew to stay tuned to their televisions or to not leave the building. Every so often, there was a low-scoring game; but most games ended something like 6-4, Oilers win. In 1985-86, the team scored 426 goals (5.325 per game) and gave up 310 (3.875 per game).
To show the team’s scoring prowess, in that 1985-86 season – the season rookie defenseman Steve Smith accidentally banked the puck into his own net and allowed the Calgary Flames to beat the Oilers in the conference finals, Gretzky, Kurri, and Glenn Anderson each scored 50 goals. Kurri led the NHL with 68 goals. Paul Coffey set a record for most goals in a season by a defenseman with 48 and came one short of Bobby Orr’s points record with 138 (Orr had 139 points in 1970-71). Gretzky set a record with 163 assists and 215 points.
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The Maple Leafs’ 8-6 win over the Hurricanes was Gretzky-vintage Oilers. Gretzky’s part was played by Mitch Marner. Auston Matthews played the role of Kurri. Zach Hyman played Anderson. Tyson Barrie made a Coffey-like move on the goalie’s doorstep to score. Frederik Andersen became Fuhr. And young Sheldon Keefe became Sather. It was classic Oilers – fast, unpredictable, exciting, and crowd-pleasing. Oh, and the Maple Leafs won.
Andersen Stopped the Hurricanes When He Needed To
Andersen gave up six goals on 40 shots. It wasn’t a typical Andersen showing; he’s more likely to give up only a couple goals a game. But he stopped the opponents when he needed to. Although nothing like the 5-foot-10 Fuhr in stature, he played like Fuhr, who was the best goalie ever for giving up five easier goals and then stopping five breakaways in the last eight minutes to steal a victory.
Marner Was a Puck Magician
After a horrible second period, the Maple Leafs’ 3-0 lead evaporated and they were down 5-3 starting period three. Suddenly the offense exploded, and Marner’s highlight-reel goal after what looked like a planned faceoff play was lightning in a bottle. It will be shown, again and again, both for fans’ pleasure but also in video reviews by Maple Leafs opponents. Mitch Marner had five points (two goals) in the game.
Barrie Scores at the Net
Barrie’s goal showed both the freedom Keefe’s been encouraging him to take and the best of Marner’s magic. While the play was whirling around them, both players stopped the action in their minds, saw a possibility, and created a perfect scoring play. It looked exactly like a Coffey-Gretzky hook-up. It was patient. It was considered. And, it worked.
Barrie scored both his points in the third period. He assisted on Marner’s first goal of the game to cut the Hurricanes’ lead to 6-5 and scored the game-tying goal less than a minute later. As I say, it was lightning in a bottle. Barrie now has four goals and 17 points in 38 contests this year. He looks like what fans expected when he came from the Colorado Avalanche.
Matthews Can Be More than a Skilled Sniper
Matthews scored a goal and an assist in the 8-6 victory. It was his 24th goal of the season and pushed his point streak to five games. But two things about Matthews’ play caught my eye. First, his beautiful spin-o-rama assist on Marner’s goal was creative and confident. Second, everywhere Matthews skated, you could see him assessing the play on the ice.
He’s simply seeing the ice better, and as that skill grows he’ll become more than a skilled shooter. Matthews now has 43 points in 38 games this season.
Hyman Has 3 Assists
Few players in the NHL play like Hyman. He’s a perfect set-up player for Matthews and Marner, and his three assists came on goals by Matthews, Barrie, and Pierre Engvall (an empty-netter to seal the victory). Although his assist on the Barrie goal was a secondary assist, it was a typical Hyman play. He not only got the puck to Marner, but he created the chaos in front of the net that Barrie’s goal snuck through.
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Hyman now has scored six points (two goals and four assists) in his last two games playing with line-partners Matthews and Marner. It’s a line of Keefe’s creation, and it’s working big time.
The Maple Leafs Were Both Exciting and Successful
I’m sure many hockey thinkers believe such rollicking hockey can’t be played successfully over a season, and perhaps they’re correct. But, as I recall, the Oilers of the mid-1980s were a dynasty and played this way night after night. It’s a style of play that keeps fans on their feet both at the arena and, I’m sure, in their living rooms in front of the television. In fact, this was a perfect game to see at your local sports bar.
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It’s also a style of play that’s exciting for the players, which Marner summed up well when he talked about his own juices during the game.
“Our adrenaline is pumping, our hearts are pumping, you’re fired up. The first one was a great pass by Matty, the second one a great play by Barrie to find that open spot and make that move. The third one I jumped through and saw their D-man have it, saw their other D-man folding out, and tried to get it. Lucky enough, I picked it off, got down the ice and was able to score.” (from Maple Leafs complete third-period comeback to improbably beat Hurricanes, Terry Koshan, The Toronto Sun, 12/23/19)
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That’s why the Maple Leafs win over the Hurricanes reminded me so much of the 1980s Oilers dynasty. That was fantastic hockey.