In May of 1987 at the impressionable age of 16, I was privileged enough to have witnessed what, in my opinion and estimation, is the best NHL playoff series ever played between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Of course, I will never pretend to have watched every Stanley Cup playoff series ever played before or since. Who has? So how can I say with any certainty which was the "best playoff series ever played"? I can't really.
But what I can do is tell you about it and explain why I believe it is. If there is a series that has everything that this one had, I would love to hear about it.
I have watched an awful lot of teams and Stanley Cup playoff series in the 23 years since. No matter how great a series may wind up being, they just don't seem to hold a candle to the 1987 Final.
For example, last year's Cup Final between the Penguins and Red Wings was a great series no doubt. After all, it featured two great teams, some of the best players in the world, and also went seven games. So why isn't that one as great?
In my opinion it just did not have the same underdog drama, offensive artistry, extraordinary goaltending performances, and the numerous unlikely comebacks that the '87 series had.
Going seven games is just not enough. The '87 finals was the stuff of Hollywood movies, like Rocky but played out in real life.
So, what is it that made this particular series so great?
The Edmonton Oilers
The first thing that makes a great series are the teams playing in it and how they match up.
On the one side you have the much heralded Edmonton Oilers who are quite arguably, and in my personal opinion, the best team ever assembled. This particular team included seven future NHL Hall of Famers including Coach Glen Sather, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glen Anderson, Paul Coffey, and goalie Grant Fuhr. Nothing short of an All-Star team.
When one thinks about the Oilers, offense is generally what comes to mind first. After all that certainly was the strength of the team.
Early on in their championship run, they really did win games almost exclusively on the offensive side of the rink. By '87 this team had matured and was a much more balanced team who could play very well defensively and had a World Class goalie in net.
To give you an idea how great this team really was, in 1990 they were able to win their fifth Stanley Cup in seven years after losing one of the league's best defenseman Paul Coffey and the game's greatest player ever to play in Wayne Gretzky. One has to question how many more cups that team would have won if it were kept together longer.
Mark Messier, Glen Anderson, and Kevin Lowe all went on to win a sixth cup in 1994 with the New York Rangers under head coach Mike Keenan, who ironically was the head coach of their 1987 Final opponent the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Philadelphia Flyers
This Flyer team is certainly not one that is mentioned when discussing the "greatest teams in NHL history." They are not even thought of as the best Flyer team in history. This is not to diminish the talent which was on that team. They were a very talented group and certainly were one of the best in Flyers' history.
In the 1986-87 season, the Flyers would capture their third straight Patrick Division title finishing at the top of the Prince of Wales Conference and second only to the Oilers in the league.
They were second only to the Canadians in defense that season thanks a veteran group including Mark Howe, Brad McCrimmon, Kjell Samuelsson, Brad Marsh, and back-stopped by 22-year-old rookie net minder and eventual Vezina trophy winner Ron Hextall.
Up front, Tim Kerr finished second only to Wayne Gretzky in goal scoring with 58 for the second year in a row. This team also included Brian Propp, Dave Poulin, Rick Tocchet, Peter Zezel, Pelle Eklund just to name a few.
This was certainly a great Flyer team, but in sharp contrast to the Oilers, they have had no players induced into the NHL Hall of Fame to date. I do think an argument can be made for a few of them.
I suppose aside from the teams involved, this is where the drama and what makes this series truly special really begins.
It was a rematch of the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals where the Flyers were embarrassed, losing four straight after winning game one. Everyone loves a rematch after all.
Flyers' goalie Pelle Lindbergh would go on to win the Vezina trophy that year as the league's best goalie. In a tragic turn of events the following season he was lost in a fatal car crash.
It is remarkable to think that just one season after the sudden loss of not only the best goalie in the league but a beloved teammate and friend that this Flyers group would be able to pick themselves up and fight their way back into the Finals so soon after.
Unfortunately they found themselves facing a familiar, formidable foe once again.
Contrasting Roads to the Cup
The Oilers would cruise through that playoff year losing only two games along the way. They would enter the finals very rested and very healthy, not missing any key players.
The Flyers on the other hand would limp into the Finals having played two six-game series and one seven-game series against the Rangers, Islanders, and defending Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadians. Their captain Dave Poulin would be playing with cracked ribs and leading scorer Tim Kerr lost for the remainder of the playoffs.
Although, in the regular season standings and on paper these teams seemed to match up fairly well. The league's best offense vs. the second best defense. No. 1 overall vs. No. 2.
Regardless of that, there were few that gave the Flyers much of a chance against this Oiler team, especially given their condition. In my estimation it was, to use a cliché, the very essence of David vs. Goliath. The Oilers with three of the league's top ten scorers and the Flyers without their only one.
This series truly had it all and from the drop of the puck in Game One it saw the Oilers continue to come at the Flyers in waves of blue and countless odd man rushes and breakaways.
The offensive talent of this Oiler team continued to find ways to "tick-tack-toe" their way through the second best defense in the league only to find Rookie Ron Hextall slamming the door shut on them time and time again.
The series was truly an amazing display of offensive talent, fantastic goaltending (on both sides), and a Flyer team that just did not know when to quit even when facing insurmountable odds. Just great hockey to watch when the league was at it's absolute finest.
Game One: Although in the end, Game One was probably the least notable. It was a close game tied 1-1 after 40 minutes until the Oilers jumped on the Flyers, scoring three goals in very short order to open the third period. The final score was 4-2.
Watch Game One highlight video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKU9zeAUGZY
Game Two: Game Two was very close and actually saw the Flyers take a rare 2-1 lead into the third. The game would eventually enter overtime where the Oilers would win it 3-2 and take a 2-0 series lead back to Philly.
Watch Game Two highlight video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEs-jqmdOXo
Game Three: This is in my opinion the greatest game of the series, although Game Six is usually the one people remember the most. Game Three saw the Oilers pounce on the Flyers, scoring twice in the first period and once again in the second for a 3-0 lead.
At that point the Flyers would begin what would be not only the greatest playoff comeback in Flyers' history but also the greatest comeback in Stanley Cup Finals history. No team before had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a game in the long history of the Finals. An amazing feat. The Flyers would win the game 5-3.
Watch Game Three highlight video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Fh0DKwJQw
Game Four: The Flyers somehow completely lost whatever momentum they gained in Game Three and saw the Oilers pretty much overwhelm them from the drop of the puck.
Now that is not to say this game is not notable.
Facing a 3-1 series deficit in the face, Game Four saw the young, fiery Ron Hextall take his aggravations out on the leg of the unsuspecting Kent Nilsson with his stick. Hextall was suspended for the first eight games of the following season for the incident.
This will probably go down as one of the most in infamous moments in Stanley Cup Finals history. It also seemed to mark the beginning of the Flyers' fight back in the series.
Watch Game Four highlight video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXUrExDZkl0
Game Five: Series over? Prior to the game, plans for the parade in Edmonton were confidently made and published in the local newspapers. Once again the game saw Edmonton jump out to a 2-0 lead and planning the parade looked like a pretty good move.
The Flyers would get one back to make it 2-1 at the end of the first. Edmonton would take a 3-1 lead in the opening moments of the second period when Marty McSorley, of all people, would tip one past Ron Hextall.
Personally, I have often wondered how the Flyers did not just give up at this point. I think any other team would have. Think of what they were facing. The series was 3-1 and what seemed like another comeback for them was suddenly cut short. They had given their best to the Oilers and were once again facing a two goal deficit.
With the Northlands Coliseum smelling victory and abuzz with confidence, it had to seem like the end of the line for this group of Flyers. Just like in 1985, done in five?
The game and Flyers' chances looked so bad there were stories of champagne being prepared in the Oiler's locker room at this point.
Somehow this gutty group of Flyers would claw their way back and win the game 4-3 stunning the Oiler faithful. Simply unreal.
Watch Game Five highlight video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUhf8GNQhwA
Game Six: In what many believe is the greatest game in Flyer's history, once again , the Oilers would jump out to a 2-0 lead in Game Six.
Do you see a pattern here? The Flyers were just not able to take advantage of their home ice and the Oilers would go on to out-shoot the Flyers 15-5 in the first period. If it were not for some amazing saves by Ron Hextall, the game and series would have been over…again.
In the second period, Lindsay Carson would score to make it a 2-1 game. Unfortunately the goal only seemed to wake up the Oilers who were suddenly reminded of previous comebacks.
The Oilers completely took the game over, overwhelming the Flyers well into the third period. The Flyers struggled to even get a single shot on net for extended periods of time. The Oilers were in complete control of every aspect of the ice.
With only eight minutes left and the Flyers showing no signs of life, Glen Anderson took a careless high sticking penalty against Peter Zezel. The Flyers' Brian Propp would score what would be one of the greatest goals in Flyers' history on the ensuing power play to tie the game leaving the Oilers shaking their heads once again.
Then, with the Spectrum as loud as it has ever been before or since, the Flyers took the lead just 84 seconds later on a goal by unlikely hero J.J. Daigneault.
Finding themselves victim of blowing yet another two goal lead, the Oilers did not quit. The would pour it on for the remainder of the game throwing everything they had at the Flyer's net.
The Flyers would hold on for the win despite a heart stopping moment in the closing seconds when Mark Messier would knock down a Hextall clearing attempt and walk in on a seemingly empty net. Hextall would scramble back into his net, come up with one more remarkable save to seal the victory.
For the first time since 1971 there would be a Game Seven in the Finals. Unreal.
Watch Game Six highlight video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ-fzIsKTKQ
Game Seven: After two early penalties by the Oilers, the Flyers would, for the first time in the series, score the game's first goal on a two man advantage only 1:41 into the game. This is only the second first period goal the Flyers would score in the entire series.
Once again the Oilers would respond with wave after of wave of artistically executed offensive chances. They would tie the game just six minutes later on an amazing tick-tick-toe goal by Mark Messier & Co.
The game would remain tied till late in the second period when Jari Kurri found the far side of the net behind Hextall to gave the Oilers a 2-1 lead.
From the first period on, the Oilers completely controlled the game, out-shooting the Flyers 13-6 in the second period and 21-2 in the third. If it were not for an amazing MVP sealing effort by the Flyers' rookie goalie, the game and series would have been long over.
Somehow they managed to hang in the game, still with a chance to tie it till Glen Anderson would deliver the final blow on a back breaking 30 foot goal with just over two minutes to go.
As Gene Hart so eloquently put it, "the longest exodus in professional sports" was finally over.
After 26 playoff games and 117 over the course of the season, the Flyers just seemed to finally run out of gas.
Ron Hextall would go on to make 40 saves on a staggering 43 shots in the game. He set an NHL record that year for most games played in a playoff year by a goalie and would go on to win the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP.
This would be only the the fourth time in NHL history that this award would be given to a player on the losing team. Ironically Reggie Leach, who also wore No. 27 for the Flyers, was one of the other players to win the Conn Smythe on the losing team. He did it in 1976.
Watch Game Seven highlight video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-QWL-G4ZA4
Other Series Notables
• In the Oilers' other four Stanley Cup Final wins they lost a total of just three games. The Flyers beat them three times in this series alone.
• In the seven games of the series, the Oilers would outscore the Flyers 10-2 in the first period alo ne .
• The Flyers would fall behind by at least a score of 2-0 in four straight games (games 3, 4, 5, and 6) and go on to win three of them.
It really was a series for the ages and an example of hockey at it's absolute finest. I can't imagine that there has ever been another playoff series like it before or since.
The Oilers had a team with so much talent, it was almost unfair. In this day of free agency, salary caps, and athletes who care more about money than loyalty to the city or team they play for, I doubt we will ever see one like it again.
They were able to dissect a very good Flyer defense with scalpel-like precision. The only thing that was stopping them from delivering a knock out blow was a brash rookie net minder who seemed not to be intimidated or aware of the word "quit."
The Flyers on the other hand showed more heart, guts, and flat out determination the likes of which I have never seen before or since. To this day, every time I see a team get down in a series and just quit, I am reminded of this group of Flyers and what they accomplished. Did they win the series? No, but they are champions in every sense of the word. They were my heroes and through their efforts they taught me a valuable lesson. Never give up.
Like a heavyweight fight. They entered the ring battered and bruised. They looked like they had been through three tough bouts already only to find the champ standing there in his corner, fresh, rested and ready to go.
From the opening bell, the underdog challenger took everything the champ could throw at them. Getting knocked to the mat by a relentless barrage of powerful punches only to pick themselves up for one more round time and time and TIME again.
They took everything the Oilers threw at them and in the final round, they were standing right there, toe to toe exchanging blows with a real chance to win. When the final bell sounded the Oilers were battered and bruised more so than ever before. They were indeed Champions but they knew they had been in a fight.
I don't know for sure but I imagine that Cup is probably sweeter to them than any of the rest they won. Because they know they were forced to earn it…and they did.
This series saw what is arguably the single greatest playoff performance by a goalie in NHL history.
His performance as a rookie was nothing short of remarkable when you consider who it was he was facing. Again, SIX future Hall of Famers on the ice and three of the league's top 10 scorers, including Wayne Gretzky. His winning the MVP award was one of the few times in NHL history that the MVP was awarded to a goalie on the losing team.
The game's greatest player Wayne Gretzky had this to say about Ron Hextall after the series:
"Hextall is probably the best goaltender I have ever played against in the NHL. Just when you think you'll bombard him, he comes up with the big saves. We always seem to get a 2-0 lead. Then he tightens up, plays really well and doesn't give us anything."
I think Flyer's announcer said it best after Game Six when he said:
"Years to go, in '95 and 2000, as long as this league exists, those who have seen this series will say you should have seen the one in '87 with the Oilers and Flyers."
So true. It is now 2010 and I and many other are still saying it. I do not think Gene Hart had ever said anything so prophetic.