For the next stop on my Oilers Nostalgia Tour, I watched the clinching Game 5 of the 1984 Stanley Cup Final between the rising Oilers and the veteran New York Islanders dynasty. It’s actually a really fascinating point in Oilers history — by the 1984 playoffs the team had been one of the most prominent in the NHL for 3 straight seasons but had not yet won a Stanley Cup. There were a lot of critics to silence, especially since record-breaking deity Wayne Gretzky was an easy target for the typically brainless Canadian hockey media (no heart when it counts, etc).
The Oilers had come off of a 446 goal regular season, their third season in a row (of an eventual 5) over 400 goals scored. Two years previous they’d lost in the infamous Miracle in Manchester 6-5 comeback game to the Kings in the first round. The previous season (1983), they’d been beaten by the Islanders’ Cup-winning machine in a 4 game shellacking. By the time this Stanley Cup Final started, the Oilers had lost 10 consecutive games to the Islanders (playoffs and regular season combined). The old goats were in their heads, no doubt. Glen Sather was actually getting criticized by national media for not being able to put together a cup contender (!). As you could imagine, the pressure was absolutely enourmous. It’s really quite easy to forget the time before the Oilers had won a Stanley Cup (especially for me, since I was a barely conscious human being by 1984). The eventual dynasty team was not a given. Up to this point, they were simply a collection of high scoring players who had fallen short of expectations. By 8:30 local time on May 19, 1984, all of that would change in an instant.
Even though the Oilers won the game 5-2, they were out shot-attempted at even strength 45-32, including a 25-12 ass-kicking in the third period as they sat on the 4-0 lead after 4o minutes. Two of the Oilers goals were scored 5 on 5, 2 were on the powerplay, while another was scored with an empty net. My numbers in this post include the empty net time, as on the broadcast there was no way for me to know exactly when the net was vacated as the Islanders were pouring on the gasoline in the Oilers end. The first two periods were fairly evenly matched in terms of possession, but the Oilers’ finishing skill was on full display to spot them the big four goal lead.
In net to start the game were Andy Moog and Billy Smith — Fuhr had been hurt in Game 3 after playing a large majority of the playoffs to that point, so he was in plain clothes while some random guy with a moustache was suited up as the Oilers’ backup. Apparently there was talk that Al Arbour would start Rollie Melanson in place of Smith, but Arbour felt Smith has earned his right to play considering his history with the team. And hey, the Islanders had won 19 playoff series in a row, so it’s hard to argue with that idea. That was just an insane streak of dominance.
The first line in this game was Semenko-Gretzky-Kurri, and you can see that their performances went a long way in securing the victory by just looking at these numbers. I’d say that Gretzky was easily on the ice for 25%-30% of the overall minutes at even strength, and he was only on the ice for 5 (or 11.1% of the total) Islanders attempts at the Oilers’ net. Even as I was watching this game, I was thinking that his score would underrepresent the possession that his line actually had. We talk sometimes about the player type who tends to hold off shooting the puck until they have a greater than average chance at scoring — to me, Gretzky is the prototype of this. Many times he’d end a shift without even a hint of a shot attempt on net, even though he may have had possession for the large majority of it. He wasn’t going to give the puck up until he knew it was going to be productive. You see this attitude clearly in his zone entries — I couldn’t remember one instance of him dumping the puck in, he always seemed to want control of the puck on the attack. Also, you can already see why Kurri was by this point already a Selke runner-up (to Clarke in 1983). Many times at even strength he is comically out of frame, as Gretzky and Semenko and/or a defencemen pin the puck down low and Kurri is already covering the point high. Sometimes this line would attempt some shots, and I’d have to wait until the whistle blew and many seconds to pass to identify that, yes, Kurri was actually on the ice. Semenko reminded me of a Sasquatch on the ice. Do you remember watching those World’s Strongest Man competitions on TSN at like 3 am and there was always some Canadian dude named Terry Funk who looked like a deranged lumberjack? Yeah, that’s Semenko. I guess no one messed with Gretzky in what was in reality a fairly chippy game, so his primary objective was accomplished. His strength down-low reminded me a lot of Big Georges; in a couple of instances he fought off two defenders to make a play from the boards, though more often than not, the play would die on Semenko’s stick.
The second line was Anderson-Messier-Lindstrom, and man did they have a tough game. Messier ended up being on the ice for 24 of the Islanders’ 45 attempts, or 53.3%. He didn’t have anywhere close to that proportion of minutes, though I’d guess he did play about one-third of even strength ice time. Messier saw time on left wing with a few different combinations, and was in more improvised line combinations than any other Oiler. Sather seemed to deploy him a lot in the defensive zone, and he also would stand in for, say, Semenko for a d-zone draw and hop off the ice when the puck reached neutral ice. In my estimation, he did not have the same bite in his game as he would show in 1987. I don’t remember him hitting anyone, nor do I remember any cheap shots. He could ramp up his speed when required to close on an attacker, but he seemed to coast around a lot more than his later self would. The wrecking ball on that line at this time was definitely Glenn Anderson — he had modern speed and essentially no sense of self-preservation. He’d fling himself through players on the attack, as if he was shot from a musket. I don’t ever remember watching Willy Lindstrom play, so this was a first for me — but I was disappointed. The play died on his stick the most. He seems to have decent speed and hands, but his head was not operating at the same rate. If you created a looping tape of Taylor Hall’s worst attempts at beating three guys at once that go nowhere, that was Lindstrom’s game here.
The third line is probably debatable, but I’d say it was Pouzar-Linseman-Lumley. They all had pretty damned good games at north of 50% in Corsi percentage, but you can tell that they were trusted with important minutes by the coach. I didn’t detect a lot of line matching, but noticed that these guys drew Bossy-Trottier-D.Sutter more than their fair share. Pouzar is a stout player, and you can see his strength when he rips obstructing players off him like a can-opener to make a play. He seemed to have a lot of foot-lbs of torque in his legs and had a heavy shot. On Linseman, I’m probably biased as he’s one of my favourite Oilers ever, so please grant me a bit of latitude. Seeing him play, I could not help but to see flashes of Jordan Eberle, both in his hands and his ability to find open ice in tight. Now, not all hands are created equal. Gretzky’s hands were legendary, but they were more deliberate, or intentional. I’ve always thought Eberle’s hands have a three stage rocket booster in there, where even he’s not quite sure where they’re going to go sometimes. Linseman has those same mitts, where he can deke guys out and it’s not even close. Lumley was a surprisingly adroit as a checking player, and was used in multiple line combinations. I’d describe his play as “enthusiastic” — he was dogged on the forecheck and could keep up with the talented guys.
The fourth line was Conacher-McLelland-Hughes. They struggled together as a line, only generating 4 shot attempts against the Islanders but allowing 8 against. McLelland and Hughes saw time with some other combinations, but Conacher was lightly used outside of his own line. They didn’t give up a goal against, but didn’t generate anything of substance either. They were low-event players, but at least succeeded in sustaining some pressure and crushing guys on the forecheck. By 1987, Sather had shortened his bench for the finals, but at this point he was definitely rolling 4, even late into the game holding a two-goal lead.
- The Oilers take an early penalty for too many men on the ice, and send Messier and Gretzky out to kill it together. It seems that the regular PK forwards are 99+11, along with Anderson with either Kurri or Linseman. Messier and Gretzky together are just fantastic on the PK — Messier lays out to block a shot, but it’s only time the entire game I observed someone laying full-out. Gretz is just a stick-lifting machine — as soon as anyone comes within range, he’s trying to lift their sticks to steal the puck.
- Moog looks like a child in net, it’s quite awesome.
- Tonelli crushes McLelland with a totally obvious elbow to the chops, but the commentators don’t mention elbowing, instead calling it “interference”. No call is made.
- Apparently, Conacher is playing instead of Dave Hunter, who was injured.
- Semenko is playing a shift on the PP with 99 and Kurri!
- Billy Smith tries a patented Billy Smith poke check, by throwing his stick in a 270 degree arc at a player near his post. I guess history was right about that one.
- Messier sees time with Linseman and Lumley, with Mess and Linseman taking turns at the defensive zone draws.
- It’s fascinating to just watch Gretzky in isolation. There’s a small play where he seems like the obvious Oiler to enter a puck battle along the side boards for a loose puck, but he holds up, and takes a line to seemingly nowhere about 10-15 feet away from the loose puck. The Islander player seems like he’s got a free route to the puck, but then an Oiler defenceman comes storming into the frame to get to the loose puck first, chip it, and it just so happens to land softly at Gretzky’s feet. He calmly walks out of the corner, less a defender. It’s poetry.
- On the same shift, Kurri goes deep into the Oiler zone to retreive a puck. He swings around, and throws a long, controlled pass up half the ice surface to a streaking Gretzky. It looks like it could be a one on two, but Gretzky pulls away from both Islander Dmen in a shocking burst of speed to make it a breakaway, where he calmly dekes Smith to the forehand, and slides it under him as Smith attempts to lunge across the crease to stop him. Gretzky is not known as a fast player, but can anyone remember him being caught from behind on a breakaway? On the play, Moog gets creamed behind the play by Boudelier (sp?), and it was a delayed call.
- Gretzky scores on his very next shift. It was one of those plays that develops suddenly into a three on one line rush with Kurri and Semenko ahead and Gretzky catching up as the trailer. Kurri has the puck, looks at Semenko, looks at Gretzky, and passes it to Gretzky. 99 delays, delays, waiting till the d-man’s ass is in Smith’s face, and then slides it in five hole. It all happens within a few seconds.
- Oilers fans are chanting “Billlllly…..Billllllly”. Glad to know this tradition was alive so early in franchise history
- Duane Sutter takes a dumb penalty by assaulting Glenn Anderson for no apparent reason, and then shoots water at fans behind the penalty box.
- Nystrom elbows Messier and Anderson on the shame shift, very hard, and gets no call.
- Melanson starts period 2, with Arbour forgetting about his respect-pact with Smith. Within seconds he stones Messier by stacking the pads to his left on an Oiler’s PP.
- On the same PP, Gretzky passes from the side of the net back to the point, where Huddy leans into a slapper that Melanson saves. The rebound pops out to Linseman, who makes a quick deke, moves around the goalie, and calmly pots the goal.
- Peter Pocklington is shown sitting in the stands with Brian Mulroney, who at that point was 5 months away from being Prime Minister, but had been leader of the Conservatives since 1983.
- Pat LaFontaine looks about as young then as RNH does now. He was a year removed from junior, and two years from local midget hockey.
- Potvin reminds me of late career Lidstrom. Conservative in his movement, kinda slow lookin’, but knows where the puck should go and how to get it there. He wore a helmet that looked like a bike helmet.
- Pouzar drives hard to the net, and draws a penalty. The Isles would take 5 in this game, the Oilers only 2.
- Kurri scores on the powerplay, on a one-timer from the outside hash marks. Coffey gets the primary assist, Anderson gets the second. Kurri’s shot would be considered fast in the modern game — it was a rocket, and perfectly placed.
- When Gretzky gains the offensive zone, he commonly stops up, and surveys the zone: where his teammates are, where the opposition is, and how he can make his play. He turns both his head and his body back and forth, like a radar array scanning the skies.
- Did the term “corral the rebound” mean back then that the goalie stopped a rebound chance? Moog stops two great chances in close, and the colour guy (Gary Dornhoefer) mentions that he was able to corral the rebound.
- At this point in time, Gretzky already held the record for most points in a playoff game, with 7.
- The Islanders have a dangerous rush, where they hit the trailing man loading up for a shot, but Pouzar busts his gut getting back to check the player and stop the threat. Very impressed with his game.
- Messier has started taking D-zone faceoffs, with Gretzky and Kurri on his wings, and then hopping off the ice for Semenko. Was Gretzky known as a bad faceoff guy or something? He seems fine (even dominant at times) to me on the dot.
- 13 seconds into the period, Lafontaine picks up a blocked shot off Lowe, walks in and chips it over Moog like he’s got a chipping wedge. Moog’s technique is terrible here, flattening out (that the commentators call “swimming”) and leaving the entire net open above him.
- Lafontaine scores 35 seconds into the period, redirecting a pass/shot from the high boards past Moog five hole as he goes down to stack the pads and cannot squeeze them in time. It’s the fastest two goals to start a period in a playoff game ever by the same player, beating some record that stood since the early 60s that was done in a minute and 8 seconds. They were only Lafontaine’s second & third goals of the playoffs.
- After the Oilers let the lead slip to 4-2, you notice their shifts have shortened noticeably, and they go into full-on prevent mode. The rest of the period is essentially all-Islanders
- Bob Cole talks about the possibility of the Cup “coming back to Canada”, as if 5 years had been a long time. Sorry Bob, in the present day we’re at 20 years and counting…
- Gretzky wins a draw by shooting the puck forehand right on Melanson who has to make a pretty good save. Gretzky tries new stuff on the faceoff dot all throughout the game, weird tactics that I’ve never seen before.
- A graphic flashes up that Islanders coach Al Arbour had won a Stanley Cup with TORONTO? Talk about stuff you just would not see on a graphic today.
- Flatley flattens (haha) Moog for no apparent reason right as the Islanders have the Oilers phoning a friend for help. This one penalty kills the Isles’ sustained pressure for the rest of the game, and an atmosphere of celebration builds quickly.
- Sather puts Messier, Gretzky, and Lumley out on the ice together to kill the last minute of play. Lumley scores a dead centre empty net goal from his own ringette line. The place goes wild, dozens of balloons burst onto the ice, streamers start flying. There are still 13 seconds left to play.
- Three guys jump on the ice and Gretzky stops to hug a fat guy.
- The Oilers get one more shot attempt after the last faceoff, then it’s over.
- Ziegler just kind of stands there, and hands the Cup to Gretzky. No speech, no pomp. He just hands it to the captain. Why don’t we do it that way now?
- Dick Irvin Jr. has a nice line about how it’s a fitting tribute that the Islanders played such a great third period, as it’s “the final period of their dynasty”.