By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
It could be argued that the best Stanley Cup Final in history is the one that took place in 1987. The Flyers were the top team in the Eastern Conference, led by a rookie goaltender, a wealth of scoring talent and a strong defensive core that was second-best in the league in goals against.
The Oilers were the top team in the NHL, largely considered one of the greatest teams of all-time and voted the best NHL team of all-time. They had the league’s best player, a number of other bonafide stars, a defensive stalwart and a goaltending dynamo and overall the league’s number one offense.
When the two teams met in the Stanley Cup Final, what ensued was a battle of wills that featured two epic comebacks and nearly saw the Flyers top a legendary team in a seven-game war. Even the greatest player in the league called Flyers netminder Ron Hextall the toughest he ever faced.
Here is a look back on a series epic that fell just short, the 1987 Stanley Cup Final between the Flyers and Edmonton Oilers.
Game 1: Oilers 4, Flyers 2
In Game 1 of the series, the Flyers got a welcome from a number of the future Hall-of-Famers that the Oilers possessed. Wayne Gretzky opened the scoring at 15:06 of the first period by picking up a rebound to make it 1-0 Oilers.
The Flyers got the only goal of the second period to tie it up. Rick Tocchet dropped the puck to Brian Propp, who fired from the left circle and beat Grant Fuhr up high to make it 1-1 at 16:08.
But early in the third, the Oilers put a stranglehold on the game. Glenn Anderson put one home from the doorstep off a feed from behind the net from Mark Messier to give the Oilers the lead just 48 seconds into the period. Paul Coffey added another at 7:09 off a flurry of chances for the Oilers to extend the lead to two. Just 2:02 later, Jari Kurri scored on a one-timer to make it 4-1. While Tocchet added a goal to cut the lead back to two just 1:07 later, the damage was done and the Flyers fell behind in the series, 1-0.
Game 2: Oilers 3, Flyers 2 (F/OT)
At the end of a scoreless first period, Brad McCrimmon took a holding penalty that proved costly early in the second. Gretzky struck on the power play just 45 seconds into the second period by tucking in a backdoor pass from Kurri to make it 1-0.
But in this game, the Flyers were able to keep pace throughout, matching the Oilers in the game with 34 shots apiece for the game. After going nearly half of the second period without a shot, the started to turn up the pressure and Derrick Smith was able to tie the game on a rebound at 13:20. Just 3:03 later, Propp scored his second goal of the series on another rebound to make it 2-1 Flyers and give them their first lead of the series.
For the rest of the second and over half of the third period, the Oilers started to turn up the intensity and pressure and simply could not solve Hextall. Finally, at 11:40, Anderson scored his second goal of the series by cutting around Doug Crossman and beating Hextall to even it up at two.
That forced overtime, and while the Flyers had matched the Oilers for much of the game, Edmonton was all over the Flyers at this point. It took 6:50 of overtime for the Oilers to get the game-winner and again it was three Hall-of-Famers helping execute it. Gretzky got the puck into the high slot for Coffey who fed Kurri at the side of the net to score and give the Oilers a 2-0 advantage.
Game 3: Flyers 5, Oilers 3
The Flyers certainly deserved a better fate in Game 2 after matching the Oilers for most of the game, but they would need a win in Game 3 to make it a series again. Instead, the Oilers dominated the first period.
Messier scored shorthanded at 4:14 on a breakaway, beating Hextall through the five-hole to make it 1-0. With just nine seconds remaining in the period, Coffey scored by following up a play where the Oilers had nearly scored by batting a floating puck out of the air. As the Oilers players started to celebrate, play essentially froze and they were able to get the puck out to Coffey for the shot from the slot.
On an early power play in the second, the Oilers made it 3-0 as Anderson slid the puck through Hextall at 1:49 of the period.
Facing a 3-0 deficit, the Flyers were looking at a potential 3-0 deficit in the series and it was starting to become that kind of night. As the game neared the midway point, Mark Howe hit the post on one of the Flyers best chances of the night.
Finally, at 9:04, the Flyers scored on a power play with Murray Craven tipping a Tocchet pass in front to get the Flyers on the board. That turned some momentum in the Flyers favor and they were back on the power play late in the period. Once again, the Flyers were able to score as Peter Zezel threw a shot from an angle that just crossed the line to make it 3-2.
Early in the third, the Flyers put the game in their favor with two quick goals. At 4:37, the comeback came complete with a goal by Scott Mellanby on a slap shot from the top of the right circle to tie things up at three. Just 17 seconds later, the Flyers came up on another rush and Mellanby set up McCrimmon for a tip from the front of the net to give the Flyers the lead.
For the rest of the period, Hextall put on a display of outstanding goaltending, shutting down the Oilers high-powered offense. In the final minute, Propp iced the game with an empty-net goal to cap the scoring and bring the Flyers back into the series with a 5-3 win.
Game 4: Oilers 4, Flyers 1
After pulling off a tremendous comeback in Game 3, the Flyers may have had momentum on their side. But any momentum they had was gone quickly as the Oilers again took a first-period lead.
Kurri scored on a one-timer at 5:53 of the first period to put the Oilers on the board. With 1:16 remaining in the period, Kevin Lowe scored a shorthanded goal off a feed from Gretzky to the front of the net to make it 2-0.
This time, the Flyers never recovered. While they did get the next goal with McCrimmon scoring on the power play at 8:17 of the second period, a power-play goal from Randy Gregg at 12:31 quickly restored the two-goal lead for the Oilers.
Mike Krushelnyski capped the scoring at 4:17 of the third period as Fuhr made 27 saves and put the Oilers on the cusp of their third Stanley Cup in four years.
Game 5: Flyers 4, Oilers 3
It was do-or-die time for the Flyers in Game 5 and once again they fell behind early. Kurri scored another power-play goal at 2:58 to give the Oilers the early advantage and Marty McSorley added another goal on a rebound at 6:35 to make it 2-0.
With their backs against the wall, the Flyers did get the next goal with Tocchet scoring in the final minute of the first period to cut into the lead.
It took the Oilers almost no time to restore the two-goal lead in the second as McSorely added his second of the game at 1:32. It felt like the magic for the Flyers had simply run out against this powerhouse of a team. But in the middle of the second, they found another rally. Crossman scored at 8:08 after a drop pass from Propp to cut the lead to one. Then Pelle Eklund scored on a rebound on the power play at 12:40 to tie the game at three.
In the third, the Flyers grabbed the lead after Propp stole the puck behind the Edmonton net and got it to Tocchet in front to beat Fuhr and make it 4-3. Both Hextall and Fuhr finished with 31 saves in the game, as the Flyers were able to hang on to force a Game 6 back in Philadelphia.
Game 6: Flyers 3, Oilers 2
It is a game that lives on in Flyers lore and for good reason. For the second straight game, the Flyers had their backs against the wall and were able to find a way to rally back.
For the sixth straight game in the series, the Oilers took the lead, getting a shorthanded goal from Lowe at 5:02. At 15:16 of the first, Kevin McClelland tucked in a rebound to make it 2-0 and put the Oilers in control again. It was the fourth straight game in the series that the Flyers had fallen behind 2-0 and to that point in the series, the Oilers had a 9-1 goals advantage in the first period.
It took the Flyers until 7:12 of the second to get on the board when Dave Brown set up Lindsay Carson at the front of the net to make it 2-1. The Oilers peppered the Flyers net for the remainder of the period, getting several great scoring chances. Hextall was stellar, making 30 saves in a game where the Flyers were outshot 32-23.
As the third period progressed, time was running out on the Flyers. That’s when Anderson went to the box for high-sticking with 7:39 remaining in the third to give their power play a chance.
On the power play, the Flyers got the equalizer as Eklund got the puck into the slot to Propp and he beat Fuhr with a shot high to the glove side to tie the game at two with 6:56 remaining. Just 1:24 later, some fortune favored the Flyers as a pass for Propp was broken up and a clear failed. J.J. Daigneault, who had just 11 games of playoff experience and 15 goals in 208 career games, fired a shot and beat Fuhr, sending the Spectrum crowd into a frenzy. It is regarded as “The Night the Spectrum Shook” by fans who were in attendance.
Over the final 5:32 of the game, the Oilers made their push. In the final seconds, Hextall tried to clear the puck and turned it over, leading to two great chances for Messier. One last shot was blocked by Howe and the Flyers survived to win the game and force Game 7.
In the moments following the final horn, Gene Hart proclaimed: “My friends, 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 the Flyers.”
Game 7: Oilers 3, Flyers 1
This epic series still had one more chapter back in Edmonton. One team was going to take home the Stanley Cup. It was either going to be a resilient group in Philadelphia or a dynasty in Edmonton.
Two early penalties against the Oilers in the first 1:13 of the game gave the Flyers a 5-on-3 and for the first time in the series, the Flyers scored the first goal of the game. Craven scored from the side of the net at 1:41 to give the Flyers the lead.
But from there, the Oilers imposed their will, taking 43 shots in the game while the Flyers were held to just 20. At 7:45 of the first, Messier finished off a brilliant passing play with Kent Nilsson and Anderson to tie the game at one with his 12th goal of the playoffs.
For the rest of the first and a majority of the second, the goaltending shined, but it was clear that the Oilers were the more dominant team, outshooting the Flyers in the second period, 13-6. Only one shot found the net, as a lost battle led to a centering pass from Gretzky to Kurri for the one-timer from the left circle to make it 2-1. It was Kurri’s 15th goal of the playoffs.
Hextall was stellar again in this game, somehow holding the Flyers to within a goal for a majority of the third period despite another huge shots advantage for the Oilers. By the end of the period, the Flyers had been held to just two shots in the final 20 minutes.
Finally, with just 2:24 remaining in the third, the Oilers struck for the dagger as Anderson fired a slap shot from the high slot to make it 3-1. The deflation in Gene Hart’s voice was evident, as he followed up the goal call with a dejected, “that should do it…and it may be that the longest exodus in the history of professional sports — 26 games, 117 over a season — may fall a bit short. And how can you do anything but love this club.”
Despite the defeat in the series, Hextall was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP, only the fourth time it had ever been awarded to a player on the defeated team in the Stanley Cup Final.
There are three key areas of discussion when you look at this series. The first has nothing to do with the Flyers, but the powerhouse team they faced. The Oilers had six future Hall-of-Famers on the roster — not to mention a Hall-of-Fame head coach in Glen Sather behind the bench — and each left their imprint on the series.
Gretzky finished with a series-high 11 points and had nine assists in the series. Kurri was tremendous, scoring five goals to lead all players and posting nine points. Coffey had two goals and six points. Anderson had four goals and five points. Messier had five points. Fuhr allowed just 17 goals in the series and had a .917 save percentage. They were all key parts to that series win and it took them and every bit of depth the Oilers had — from Lowe to Nilsson to Gregg to McSorely to Krushelnyski to Charlie Huddy right on down the lineup — to defeat the Flyers.
One thing that may have done the Flyers in was an extreme road to the Final. The Flyers had to get through a six-game series with the Rangers in the division semi-finals, a seven-game series against the Islanders in the division finals and a six-game series against the Canadiens in the conference finals to simply get to the Oilers, a total of 19 games. The Oilers entered the Final with a 12-2 record in just 14 games played and were well-rested entering the series.
While the Flyers possessed some players who could score, guys like Propp and Tocchet and Zezel and Dave Poulin, they were missing their leading scorer for the series. Tim Kerr was out for the entire series with injury and not having a 58-goal and 95-point player — who also already had eight goals in just 12 playoff games — was an irreplaceable loss for the Flyers. Certainly having someone of Kerr’s scoring prowess could have made this series even closer than it was. The Flyers certainly did their best in this series to match Kerr’s production.
Propp had four goals and nine points in the series, going toe-to-toe with some of Edmonton’s
greats and Eklund had eight points and Tocchet finished with three goals and seven points, but beyond that, the Flyers didn’t have another player with more than four points. Zezel, who had finished the regular season with 33 goals and 72 points and had two goals and 11 points already in the playoffs, had just one goal and one assist in the Final. Even a player like Howe, the only future Hall-of-Famer on the Flyers roster, who had two goals and nine assists in the playoffs entering the series, was held to just one assist in the seven games.
As for Hextall, his rookie season that featured a Vezina and Conn Smythe win ended in bitter defeat, but certainly an admirable playoff run. Against a team with six Hall-of-Famers and considered to be the best the NHL has ever seen, Hextall allowed just 22 goals over seven games to the Oilers, an average of 3.14 per game. In the regular season, the Oilers had averaged 4.65 goals per game and maintained nearly that identical average in 14 playoff games. To cut that down by 1.5 goals was nothing short of spectacular. In the playoffs as a whole, Hextall finished with a 15-11 record, a 2.76 GAA and a .908 save percentage.
So while this series may look like another Game 7 defeat where the Flyers came oh so close to finally getting another Stanley Cup only to fall short, it was really a testament to the quality of this team in Flyers history and the greatness of the Oilers dynasty of the 1980s. What it produced was what is largely considered to be the greatest Stanley Cup Final ever.
Tomorrow, we will continue our Series in Review with a look back at the 1980 Stanley Cup Final.