With the Oilers 2012-2013 season left on the scrap-heap of history, I’ll get to undertake a series I’ve long planned to do, which is to treat historical games of great Edmonton Oilers teams to the same statistical exercise I’ve applied to modern games. As a fanbase, I think we tend to assume that the teams of the past were almost unassailable — are they really the blitzkrieg’ing holy warriors we recall from memory? How would they perform in a measure like Corsi (or shot attempts)? To begin, I watched perhaps my favourite Oilers team (the 1986-87 version) win Game 7 of the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals 3-1 versus the Philadelphia Flyers, a game which took place on May 31, 1987 in Edmonton at the then-styled Northlands Coliseum.
I watched the game using the “10 Greatest Games” DVD set I’d received as a gift some time ago but hadn’t actually gotten around to watching yet. I realize it’s a bit rich to look at one of the team’s 10 “greatest games” as representative of an entire era, but I believe it’s still a fascinating sample nonetheless. After all, this was Game 7 of the Finals against a Flyers team which was the 2nd best in the regular season, garnering 100 points to the Oilers’ 106 points — it’s hard to imagine a scenario where competition would be more ferocious than this, with the two best club teams on the planet flying their final epic sorties.
You’d imagine the game would be pretty close then? Well, you’d be wrong:
The above table shows Shot Attempts at even strength by period and event type. The Oilers scored all 3 of their goals while at even strength, while the Flyers only marker came during an early 5 on 3 power-play. They owned every single period by a factor of over 2 or 3 times more events. They played the final period and a half with the lead, with the modern concept of “score effects” showing absolutely no sign of taking place as they dominated play versus the outclassed Flyers.
Shots that made it on net were 35-15 for the Oilers, but what’s most interesting is the ratio of missed and blocked shots, with the Oilers having a 30-10 lead in such events. Overall, the Oilers had 65 shot attempts to the Flyers’ 25, a ridiculous shot attempt percentage of 72.2%. Game 7, Stanley Cup Finals, 72% corsi percentage. This really did exceed any and all expectations I had for what the final numbers would turn out like.
I kept player by player numbers, but only for the forwards, as many times it was impossible to tell which defencemen were on the ice for the many Oilers attacks off the rush.
Oilers Head Coach/GM Glen Sather shortened his bench to just 3 lines for the entire game, with only Mike Krushelnyski getting the odd shift with the top 9 forwards. As a result, Krush actually led the team in Corsi% with 86%, but with a very small sample of shifts of likely less than 5.
The Anderson/Messier/Nilsson line was dominant from the outset, and they led the team in Corsi%. Messier was pretty easily the MVP of this game, and you really got a sense of why he’s considered one of the game’s greatest ever players — his brilliance on the forecheck, off the rush, punishing physical game, puck skills and awareness away from the puck were absolutely all-time all-world fantastic. There were 31 attempts at the Flyers net when he was on the ice, while the Flyers could only muster 10 the other way, for a +21 Corsi rating. The best any Oiler forwards could muster in the 2013 season was +18, put up by RNH and Eberle during that ridiculous victory versus the Avs that broke a team record for shots on net. In that game, RNH was +28/-10, for instance.
The line of Tikkanen/Gretzky/Kurri had Cori percentages that were not far off Messier’s line, with Gretzky having a +19/-6 ratio for a percentage of 73%. Watching Gretzky play, you’re struck almost by how invisible he is until all of a sudden he’s creating something out of absolutely nothing. I’ve resisted the many attempts to equate his game to RNH’s, but you really do see some similarities. Gretzky did not overpower people, he didn’t beat people on the rush, he wasn’t really much of a cycler — but opponents barely could touch him (his angle work while on skates is extra terrestrial), he had a sixth sense of how and when to stall for time as a teammate got into scoring position, and above all he seems to enter the offensive zone with possession of the puck on almost every play. This Oilers team was certainly fast, but Gretzky was happy to gain possession of the zone, stop up suddenly, survey the situation, and then pick apart the holes he saw in the matrix. This is a skill we have seen from RNH on the powerplay, for intsance, but it’s this ability to make space for yourself and your teammates at even strength that will truly get RNH to that next level.
The checking line was Hunter/MacTavish/McSorely, and I was jaw droppingly impressed at how they dominated play. They weren’t necessarily the same threat to score, but they did have many great chances and kept chances against to an absolute minimum. Harry Neale on colour commentary mentioned how Sather didn’t usually “match lines”, but that he was trying to get this checking line out against the dangerous Flyers trio of Tocchet, Propp, and Pelle Eklund as much as possible, and it showed.
I took some game notes by period:
- Coffey breaks his stick in the defensive zone, and then proceeds to mug the Flyer player’s face with his half broken stick /gloves. This would have been seen as the biggest prick Oilers move of the last 5 years, and it happens in the first 2 minutes of this game.
- The Flyers score their only goal of the game early on a 5 on 3, with Coffey in the box and Messier joining him for being Messier. It was scored by Murray Craven on a shot or attempted pass from the side of the net that goes in off Fuhr five-hole as he stands there and doesn’t move at all, and doesn’t square up to Craven, staying deep in his net. It’s a goal only Marc Andre Fleury could let in today.
- Gretzky and Messier kill a penalty together! Have two top 15 players of all time killed penalties together since? Nuts.
- Gretzky embellishes a hooking call, obviously throwing himself to the ice, but he gets the call.
- Reijo Ruotsalainen on defence is a brilliant hockey player. He had more noticeable rushes with the puck than Coffey in this game, but his playmaking wasn’t really up to his speed.
- The Oilers first goal is a tic-tac-toe play off the rush between Anderson, Nilsson, and finished by Messier for an easy empty net goal behind a helpless Hextall. It’s a goal in any era, and is prototypical of this era in Oilers history. It’s creative, precise, and deadly.
- Both Tikkanen and MacTavish are tripped in plays much more legit than the one that felled Gretzky earlier, but do NOT get calls.
- Marty McSorely saves a sure goal, when Fuhr stops 98% of a good Flyers chance, but the puck goes in behind him and sits right in front of the goal line. McSorely is deep enough in his zone to be the first player to the puck before two close Flyers for what would have been a touch-in goal.
- There’s a sign in the crowd that says: “MacT Alias: Captain Grinder”. Firstly, it’s good to know he was called MacT this early in Oilers history. Second, only Oilers fans could be watching the most brilliant offensive team in the history of the sport and make a sign celebrating the checking line.
- Kurri is again, and again, and again the first man back on his line. At this point he was a common Selke runner-up, and was playing with a future Selke runner-up in Tikkanen. These two definitely cover any gambles taken by Gretzky. Kurri reminds me of Paajarvi in that sense, in always being the primary defensive forward even on the wing.
- Gretzky makes a play where he gains the line, fakes a slapshot, which forces the Philly defender to fall over, while 99 immediately stops, does a spinarama near the blueline close to the boards, all of a sudden has about 10 feet of open ice to work with on all sides, and finds (I believe) Randy Gregg trailing the play for a free and uncontested breakaway/shot from the slot (he misses the net). He is the Great One, kids.
- Messier thinks he scores a second goal, where he cuts into the mid-slot and fires a cannon of a wrister over Hextall. Live for the first time it does look like it goes in, but replays show that it hit the crossbar flush and Van Hellemond made the right call to wave it off. Meanwhile, Messier is coasting around the offensive zone with both arms raised in typical fashion for a comically long time, the team is celebrating, the crowd is going nuts, while the play continues right on to the Oilers zone. Insane.
- The period starts with MacT being absolutely robbed by Hextall with the best save of the game. Off a broken play MacT find himself uncontested, charges the goal, dekes Hextall who goes down, MacT pulls it back to his forehand to slide it around Hextall and into the open net, but Hextall reaches back with his paddle to deny the sure goal. It’s reminiscent of CuJo in ’98 versus the Avs, and always my favourite kind of desperation save.
- An aside: I love Gretzky’s pre-faceoff ritual twirls, bent over, with his legs stuck together, and resting his stick on his knees. Everyone’s ready to go, but Gretz is still twirling around, making everyone wait while he gets ready.
- Fuhr absolutely stones Ilkka Sinisalo from in close. The replay shows Fuhr makes his kick move and then Sinisalo hits his kicked out leg, but either way he makes the save.
- Coffey pinches a ton in this game, but he’s the fastest player on the ice and can get back before the Flyers even crack the blueline.
- Many times, Kurri covers for any pinching D-man almost as if he’s had to do it 10,000 times in his career up to that point.
- Then, Kurri scores. Tikkanen pressures the Flyers dman behind his net, forcing him to weakly attempt a clearing pass up the wing. Gretzky has already anticipated that this will happen, closing against the winger waiting for the pass along the boards, then cuts in front of him after the pass attempt is made, and intercepts it. Meanwhile, Kurri is looping the zone high, and finds a perfect seam with no Flyers near him. When he sees Gretzky’s likely to intercept the pass, Kurri closes low, and Gretzky makes the pass with barely a look over to see where Kurri is. Kurri snaps it from the faceoff dot far-side, beating Hextall cleanly.
- Soon after the goal, Messier takes a boarding call that can only be called vicious, almost criminal. The Flyers player is about 3-4 feet away from the boards, with his back to Messier, facing the glass. Messier two-hand cross checks him in the middle of the back very hard, sending him hurtling towards the boards face-first. This would be a fairly undisputed 5-game suspension now. Messier proceeds to beak the ref all the way to the box, and for a while thereafter. He gets 2 minutes.
- For the absolutely key penalty kill with a one-goal lead in G7 SCF, Gretzky takes the first PK shift, and the Flyers do not get a sniff.
- Gretzky and Kurri get a clear 2 on 1, but Gretzky is looking pass the entire way and the entire arena knows it. The D-man and Hextall pressure Kurri and force him into missing his shot. Gretzky really should have shot that one, it would have been a gimme goal.
- Nilsson gets a breakaway but gets hauled down to draw a penalty.
- On a scoring chance, MacTavish careens hard into Hextall, knocking him over, and proceeds to get Hextall in a headlock (!).
- There are at least 5 Oilers hit-posts in this game, with MacT, Gretzky, Gregg, and Tikkanen all hitting iron in the final frame. I don’t remember the Flyers hitting a post all game.
- I notice that Krushelnyski is out there for defensive zone faceoffs when the Messier line is out there in place of Nilsson. One particular time, Krush rushes back to the bench when the play makes the neutral zone and Nilsson hops back on the ice. I’m guessing Sather wanted Krush out there in case Messier gets thrown out? He’s also likely a better defender. Through this last period, Krushelnyski takes turns seeing ice in place of Nilsson and then Tikkanen with Gretzky.
- Coffey reminds me a lot of, wait for it, Ales Hemsky in the offensive zone. On 3 occasions in this game he circumnavigates the entire offensive zone, looping around the net, trying to find someone for a pass. This has always been my favourite Hemsky play, in that it creates so much chaos with the continuously changing angle he creates against defenders.
- Nilsson still sees many shifts right up until the end of the game. Halfway through the 3rd period, he’s cherry picking behind the Flyers D and almost gets a breakaway pass from Messier. G7, SCF, one-goal lead, cherry picking. This is the perfect symbol for the entire Oilers mentality right there.
- Messier gets nailed in the boot by a Dr. Randy Gregg point shot. He limps off the ice, goes to the room, then comes back a minute later. He takes his next shift to a standing ovation.
- Messier then gets a partial breakaway going across the goal. It looks like he’s got Hextall beat, but misses the net wide on the deke.
- On the very same shift, Anderson corrals a loose puck just outside the offensive blueline, cuts towards the middle over the blueline, and rifles a rising slapshot past a defender and through Hextall’s five hole. Incredibly, Harry Neale says that Hextall “went down a little early” on the goal. On a five-hole goal Hextall was going down to try to save, Neale thinks he’s going down “too early”. Man, times change.
- With the 3-1 lead with 2.5 minutes left, Wayne Gretzky gets the next shift, and then takes another shift in place of MacT with Hunter and McSorely. He’s on the ice for almost 2 minutes, leaving the ice with only 39 seconds left. G7 SCF, defending a lead, Gretzky gets double-shifted. To me, that says a lot of how highly Sather thought of 99′s game even in this situation. While he’s on the ice for those 2 minutes, the Oilers attempt 2 shots at the Flyers net, the Flyers attempt none.