Every franchise has a set of milestone games that stain the collective consciousness of every living fan, that demarcate where one planetary era ends and another begins. For many fans, Game 7 against Dallas in 1997 is such a game — where their love for the team was rekindled at full fury, or conceived in the first place.
For a long-standing fan, the mid-90s were about as desolate as I can possibly imagine. No, the team didn’t place last, last, 2nd last, but it certainly felt like we were a farm team’s farm team, a has-been superstar that got old, fat, and now opens for the main act at a dinner club. Four straight years out of the playoffs between 1993 and 1996 saw a low ebb of Oilers fandom, which coincided with a crappy Alberta economy, threats of moving the team to Hamilton, Houston, or Kentucky or wherever, Petr Klima leading the team in scoring, and Shayne Corson as captain.
I remember when I was in the 7th grade, the community was organizing a “Save Our Oilers” campaign, and encouraging people to fax their support for the team somewhere. So, I went around my class, and asked everyone to sign a sheet of paper that I’d fax in myself. Upon realizing that some people in my class didn’t care at all whether the team stayed or left, I lowered myself to offering the rationale that if the Oilers left, we would never be able to see actual good teams live in Edmonton. It was a weird time in the city.
Cue 1996-97. I won’t go into massive detail about that season itself, but suffice to say that Oiler team slowly rebuilt their relationship with the city. The previous season had seen two very important developments: Doug Weight went quasar, notching 104 points (the last time an Oiler achieved that milestone), and goaltender Curtis Joseph was acquired from the Blues in a trade for the 2 first round picks the Blues had to give the Oilers for signing restricted free agent Shayne Corson (haha). By the time 1996-97 rolled around, it felt different to be an Oiler fan. You felt like they were actually competitive again, and not just winning games by pure hockey luck. You felt *pride* in being a fan again — we had one of the league’s best centres and one of its best goaltenders(!). After crawling through a mile of shit-smelling filth, we came out clean on the other side. And then Game 7 happened.
I hadn’t watched this game in its entirety since 1997. It’s funny how you remember things — I can actually recall some of the segments HNIC did, featuring a few guys who rode down to Dallas in a pickup truck over 34 hours and were going to drive to Denver the next day if the Oilers won. I can remember how the Oilers were the last Canadian team left in the playoffs, which would explain why Bob Cole and Harry Neale were on the call. The game is amazing in my memory, obviously,but my memory could not possibly have remembered how epic this game is in reality. Seriously, it should be requisite watching for Oiler fans before admission, like neckbeards reading Das Kapital.
Almost the entire game is end to end action. The crowd in Dallas was on its feet the whole time, basically. This series is insane in retrospect — crazy comebacks down 3 goals to win in OT, a near death experience for Bryan Marchment who went into seizures after falling head-first into an open bench door, Ryan Smyth scoring on a SLAPSHOT to win a game in OT (seriously, wtf?). I’ve seen it listed on countdowns as one of the best hockey series of all-time, and it really does earn that praise. By game 7, these teams had already written 80% of Homer’s Odyssey. Test after test, amazing play after amazing play, battle after battle. These teams hated each other. And why wouldn’t Dallas hate the Oilers? This was a left-for-dead franchise that had finished 7th in the Western Conference up against a 2nd place juggernaut in the midst of a half decade-long period of dominance. There was absolutely no way the Oilers should have been in this series. Except for one small detail — we had Curtis Joseph, and they had Andy Moog. The plot thickens.
The Oilers were out Corsi’d at even strength 63 to 43 in the game. The final score was 4-3, with the Oilers outscoring the Stars 3-2 at evens. Outside of a very good 2nd period, the Oilers were out-chanced badly in this game. The shot-clock was actually pretty close, but the stars had a lion’s share of possession and had more glorious opportunities to score in this game than the Oilers probably had in all of 2009-10.
The Oilers top line was Ryan Smyth – Jason Arnott – Kelly Buchberger. They were hard-matched against Mike Modano’s line all night, and were the worse for wear because of it. Their numbers look pretty brutal, but at this point, Mike Modano was basically Mario with never-ending star power. Arnott especially was invisible almost all game, but he was doing his best trying to stay within eyeshot of Modano, which is harder than it sounds. If it wasn’t for CuJo, Modano certainly would have been the best player on the ice. Buchy was sort of the last continuous relic of the dynasty years, but he acquits himself well on this line, showing good speed and defensive acumen. Multiple times Neale would comment on how the Stars would ‘have to chop Buchberger harder than that’ if they wanted him to stay down. It truly was fun to watch Ryan Smyth. People, think about this — I watched a game in 1997 with Ryan Smyth skating around gingerly, putting his ass in the goalie’s face, doing crafty wrap-arounds, and showing surprising touch on centering passes. THAT WAS OVER 16 YEARS AGO. In 2013 and 2014, we’re going to be able to watch Ryan Smyth do the exact same things. Let’s enjoy his remaining time here — in fact, watch this game and you’ll have a better appreciation for why Ryan Smyth is Ryan Smyth.
The second line, or the Oilers best offensive line, featured Todd Marchant – Doug Weight – Andrei Kovalenko. Marchant by this time was in his 3rd season in the NHL, and had built a reputation for being one of the fastest players in the game. You really do forget how effective this player was in his prime years — yes, of course he doesn’t have the best hands, but I think that point is overemphasized in retrospect. His game wasn’t about stick-handling around 3 players and feathering sweet passes — it was all about recognizing an avenue to create a chance, getting there first, and getting the damn chance. Skate fast, get there first, make stuff happen. Again, and again. I think he was the Oilers’ best skater on the night. Doug Weight is fondly remembered as the flag-bearer for this entire Oilers epoch, and this game is no different. He was up against Nieuwendyk’s line almost all night, but his line was the only one to end up in positive Corsi territory. He just had that top-line centre’s knack for knowing when to attack on volume 10, and when to get back on volume 10. I lost track of the number of Stars rushes that would end with Dougie all-of-a-sudden backchecking himself into the frame, stripping the puck off the trailer, and turning the play up ice. He’s one of the very best Oilers to ever lace up skates. Kovalenko was a Russian tank that had a role and filled it well. He could make plays, he had a great one-timer, and he was large & fast enough to make space for his teammates in any zone. He was a perfect linemate for Weight.
The third line was quite the Odd Couple, with Mariusz Czerkawski – Mats Lindgren – Mike Grier. Grier was a rookie this season, and had thoroughly impressed the entire league. He was fast as hell, a two-way player right out of the womb, could hit like a brick shithouse, and notched 32 points in his rookie season from the 3rd line. I’ll take two, thanks. Lindgren was about as Canadian a Swede player as you’ll ever find. His claim to fame was being the asset that landed Tommy Salo after CuJo’s departure, but in the meantime he was a perfect 3rd line two-way forward, who featured on one of the top penalty-killing units as well. You didn’t really notice him a lot on this line, but he quietly went about his business and did it well. This line got murdered in this game, but if Boyd Gordon can look as good as Lindgren did, I think we’ll be fine. The “thing that doesn’t belong here” on the line is certainly Czerkawski, the Polish sharp shooter who was married to a Bond girl. I’d like to get that on my business card. He played like I remembered him — not doing much of the heavy lifting, letting his linemates do the dirty defensive work, and flitting around the offensive zone until he could whip a shot at the net. Weird line.
The fourth line was a hodgepodge featuring two players in their NHL debuts (seriously): Joe Hulbig – Steve Kelly – Rem (the Gem) Murray (the one not playing his first game). Through the entire game I’d be surprised if we saw these guys get more than 5 shifts together, but they would score one of the most important goals in team history.
- Cujo had lost his 2 previous Game 7 starts in his career, but April 29th just so happened to be his 30th birthday, and was the first time he’d ever played a game on his birthday.
- In the intro Neale talks about how the Oilers “have a good speed advantage” over the Stars, and references Marchant
- We learn that Hulbig is in for DeBrusk, and Kelly is in for Petr Klima (haha), with both players up from the farm to play their first ever NHL games. Game 7. That seems kinda cruel, no?
- We also learn that Kevin Lowe is drawing in instead of someone named Donald Dufresne. This was Lowe’s one and only playoff game in 1997, and we’re told there’s something seriously ailing him and he looks kinda woozy all game. Was this the start of the inner-ear thing? Lowe would play VERY sparingly, and wasn’t seen after the second period.
- 1:38 into the game, Nieuwendyk sends a centering pass in front while on his ass to a wide open Benoit Hogue in the slot, who rips in glove side past Joseph. Bad start. 1-0 Stars.
- Just 7 seconds later right off the next faceoff, Joe “it’s not only a witty name” Hulbig lumbers his way into the stars zone and backhands a shot off the post, which settles right onto the stick of Rem Murray, who calmly places it into the wide open net past Moog. The Oilers bench goes nuts, and the Texas crowd sits back down. 1-1 tie.
- Mike Modano prances into the Oilers zone, flashes his beautiful hands to get around the Oiler defender, and unleashes a perfect snapshot 14 inches off the ice inside the far post, but Cujo’s reflexes are up to the task, and he rips out his blocker to make the stop. Any other goalie, any other time, and that’s a goal. Ridiculous save.
- Modano is the best skater on the ice. It’s like he does whatever he wants out there. He one-hands a centering pass for a scoring chance without even looking with a defender all over him.
- Ryan Smyth looks like he has above-average speed!
- Pat Verbeek. What a tool — I forgot how much I hated that guy. He dives to draw the first penalty, a tripping call on Greg De Vries, who cannot believe the call.
- The PK units are Lindgren-Buchberger, and Marchant-Murray. Literally the only answer for Modano in the offensive zone is Marchant, the one man who can actually keep up to him.
- At one point, Smyth spins around in his own zone, and then puts a touch saucer pass right onto the stick of a streaking De Vries who slaps a shot at Moog from 20 feet out. Moog hilariously stands up and stays up to make the save, something he does routinely all game.
- The Oilers get a PP, and the first unit is Smyth-Weight-Kovalenko. Remember, 1996-97 was when Smyth potted a career high 39 goals, with many of them coming on the PP from Doug Weight setups.
- Smyth eventually negates the PP by barreling ass-first into Moog during a screen attempt.
- Marchant has two fantastic slapshot chances right off the bat, as the Oilers start the 2nd period firing on all cylinders. The first is off a rush chance, and the second is in the slot off a broken play, but Moog stands up both times to make a save.
- The Arnott line spend an entire shift in the defensive zone, but do not allow a shot attempt against, and for good measure get one of their own right before stepping off the ice.
- Kovalenko blatantly cross checks Verbeek into the post during a Stars chance, but doesn’t get called.
- Mike Grier absolutely crushes Ledyard behind the Stars net.
- Czerkawski and Grier bust in on a 2 on 1 rush, but the Polish Wonder snaps a shot way high and wide.
- Todd Harvey is on the Stars??? *The* Todd Harvey? See you in 2006, pal.
- Doug Weight sets up in his office on the side-boards on an Oilers PP, sets up Arnott for a slapper from the point with a great touch pass on a tee, and there’s insane havoc around the Stars net.
- On the same PP there’s a delayed call coming for a 5 on 3. Doug Weight rubs out a guy in the corner, Mike Grier slaps the loose puck to the point, Czerkawski slides it point to point to Boris Mironov, who one times it off Moog’s glove and into the net. The camera doesn’t catch Mironov shooting the puck live as the action is just all over the place on the play. For those who don’t know, Mironov perpetually looks like your buddy who just drank a 40 of Royal Reserve the night before and is sensitive to sunlight. His style is impossible to characterize properly. He’s nonchalant, moves very slowly a lot, but can all of a sudden skip 3 gears when he needs to and has a point shot that likely started the Oilers obsession with wonderbombs. This goal is off an absolute bullet. 2-1 Oilers.
- On the same PP, Moog stones McGillis on a slapper from the slot with a circus glove save. It’s Moog’s best save of the night.
- It is absolutely crazy how much hacking and whacking isn’t called in this era, the Stars approach battles in the corner by taking turns two-handing a guy. The Stars have to basically assault someone to finally get called for another penalty, and the Oilers go on a 1:08 5 on 3.
- Guy Carbonneau is worth about 2 PKers on the 5 on 3, and the Oilers don’t really get a chance at all. Moog makes another glove save.
- Finally, the Stars get a PP of their own, and it’s men vs boys out there as they basically do whatever they want. Verbeek of all people tips a Zubov point shot, which changes the direction of the puck enough to squeeze it through CuJo’s shrinking five-hole. Oilers blow their 5 on 3 chance to make it 3-1, and are now in a 2-2 game.
- Within seconds, the Stars are at it again. Bob Bassen nails someone on the sideboards, the puck squirts to Verbeek, Bassen tracks towards the net, takes Verbeek’s centering pass and rifles a shot five-hole on Cujo, who seems a bit lazy on the play in terms of getting set for the bang-bang play. Arnott and de Vries look bad by not taking anyone in the defensive zone. 3-2 Stars.
- And then, when all seems to be moving in the wrong direction, it happens:
- It isn’t the save everyone remembers, but it’s the save that changed the course of this game and maybe the trajectory of the franchise. Luke Richardson makes a clunky play along the side boards, losing the puck in his feet and generally standing around doing nothing. A Star then gets the loose puck, and passes it to Mike Modano who is WIDE OPEN at the side of the net, and has enough time to waltz right in front of Jospeh on a mini breakaway. Modano hesitates, and then dekes strongly to his forehand, which freezes CuJo in his tracks. Modano moves around CuJo, and has an entire net to shoot at. In desperation, Joseph lunges with his paddle down on the ice, and denies Modano his sure goal. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this one play — it stems the Stars’ sudden momentum, it keeps this a one goal game, and begins a goaltending performance so dominant that it will long be remembered as the most impressive in team history.
- Soon afterwards, Marchant wins a battle near centre ice with Hatcher, turns on his nitrous oxide to leave Hatcher looking like he’s stuck in mud, and starts a 2 on 1 break with Kovalenko. Marchant sends a perfect cross pass to Kovy, who one times the pass low into the near corner of the net, while Moog sprawls in futility. Tie game. 3-3.
- As an aside, I’d just like to say that Neale calls Moog “one of the better puck-handling goalies in the league”. Wink wink.
- The Oilers are 18 for 52 on faceoffs after two periods. Hey, we have a long history of sucking at that!
- Right off the bat, Cujo makes two huge stops in tight, one on a point shot that he didn’t see until the last second and gets with his pad, the next is made desperately with his blocker in a melee in front.
- Buchberger smashes Modano along the boards, almost cartoonishly flattening him up against them. BTW, Bucky had already smashed Verbeek in the 2nd period in a satisfying throw to the ground.
- Weight breaks up a very dangerous 3 on 2 rush by sneaking in and lifting the stick of the trailer right before he unloads.
- Then, Dan McGillis coughs the puck up the middle of the ice and Modano picks him off, leaving him with A CLEAR BREAKAWAY from centre ice. The whole arena stands up, going nutso, and Modano crushes a snapshot 14 inches off the ice to Cujo’s glove side when he’s about 6 feet away from him. CuJo snakes his glove out like it’s spring loaded, and gets a piece of the shot, sending it into the corner. Modano is just getting owned by Joseph in this game.
- In a mad scramble that could have been used as ‘B’ footage for the final battle in Lord of the Rings, Todd Harvey has a puck come to his stick just a few feet away from the net. CuJo quickly has to recalibrate his position and stones Harvey’s shot towards the 7 hole under his blocker arm, with a lovely flourish while covering the puck afterwards. It’s like he’s a boxer standing there just saying “come on, hit me”.
- The Oilers go on the PK, and CuJo makes point blank saves on wide open shots by both Modano and Nieuwendyk.
- Bob Cole comments: “It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a game played with this much intensity”.
- In another mad scramble around the Oilers net, a pass is made to Bob Bassen wide open at the side of the net, who rifles a one timer towards the cage. CuJo somehow leaps to stack his pads, seemingly traveling through two time zones in the process, and stones Bassen. No one watching this can believe what they’re seeing.
- Head Coach Ron Low sends out Lindgren’s line with a minute left, which I found baffling, but they gamely have their best shift of the entire game, not giving the Stars a sniff.
- The Oilers control the first two shifts, but only get a few very meek efforts on goal.
- Modano’s line then has a dominant shift, culminating in a tic-tac-toe play that Gilchrist slides just left of the goal from 5 feet out. He had a wide open net, and looks skyward.
- Nieuwendyk hits a streaking Benoit Hogue down the left wing, who winds up to take a slapper on a partial breakaway from about 25 feet out. CuJo stops him cold, and covers the rebound.
- Ryan Smyth strips Hatcher of the puck in the slot in front of the Stars net, and gets a weak shot away while Hatcher literally takes the feet out from under him with a trip. While this is happening Buchberger and Matvichuk are right in front of Moog, with Bucky running into the goalie while Matvichuk two hands his face into the ice. The latter two players get minor penalties, Hatcher gets nothing. But, this is a very important play, as it results in a fateful 2-minute 4 on 4 in overtime.
- Then, the save. The one that everyone who was an Oiler fan at the time remembers, and probably a save that created a few new fans on its own. Everyone can picture it. Sydor going behind the net, with Mironov barely laying a hand on him. Sydor pops out in front of the net & gets a bad angle shot on Joseph that flies up into the air. Luke Richardson is trying to cover Nieuwendyk in front of the net. Lindgren and Grier aren’t really in the right positions. Joseph takes a swipe at the puck in midair, but misses. It lands on the stick of Nieuwendyk, who immediately shoots from about 4 feet from the goal line. Almost instinctively, like he knows where the puck is about to go, Joseph jumps like Superman taking flight, with both hands in front, towards the shot. He traps it in his glove in mid-air, on the way to snuffing it out on the ice, like he’s strangling a small mammal to death. Bob Cole with the iconic call “Oh My Goodness!”. The crowd exhales, like the Ark of the Covenant has just stolen their souls. Nieuwendyk is on all fours looking dazed, as if he were just jumped and had a few ribs broken. I’ll never forget the feeling of awe I had at that moment, as if Joseph was actually unbeatable. As if he’d lived April 29th 1997 in his own personal Groundhog Day, knowing each play before it happened and perfecting the outcome. CuJo gets up, smiles, with that feeling that every goalie has in his life after he knows he’s made the save of his career. Bob Gainey looks up to the Heavens, shaking his head.
- Off the very next faceoff, CuJo has to make another huge stop, this time kicking his right pad out to deny a very tricky point shot through traffic.
- And then the goal. McGillis muscles his man off the puck in the Oilers end, leaving a free puck for Doug Weight to pick up. Remember, it’s still a 4 on 4, so Weight has a lot of ice. He looks around, realizes this, and streaks ahead with basically a 2 on 2 rush from his own hashmarks. Marchant is barreling down the right wing, and Weight picks the exact right time to head man the puck to him, as he’s hit full speed. Marchant’s speed is entrancing on this rush, it’s like he’s been able to speed up his own reality. It’s so light, like his skates are barely touching the ice. Grant Ledyard falls over on cue, leaving Marchant with a free lane to the net on his off wing, meaning he’s got a great angle to shoot far side. Moog hasn’t been required to do much of anything in OT, and looks awkward as he decides which angle to take out to Marchant. He leaves a ton of real estate to the far side, which doesn’t help the fact that he’s a legal dwarf. Marchant puts away his targeting computer, closes his eyes, and the rest, as they say, is history.