The Edmonton Oilers were beginning to wonder if they ever would beat the Calgary Flames again.
The Flames shocked the hockey world last spring when they knocked the Oilers out of the playoffs. They followed this by beating the Oilers four times in a row this season.
In their fifth meeting Sunday night at Edmonton, it didn't appear the pattern was about to change. The Flames, with goaltender Mike Vernon stopping the Oilers as usual, jumped in front, 2-0, after just 13 minutes.
It wasn't until the second period that Wayne Gretzky rejoined the offense, the Oilers solved Vernon and began their surge to a 5-3 victory.
Gretzky, who scored only one point in the two previous games, assisted on 2 of the 5 Oiler goals and, for the seventh consecutive year, became the first player in the league to reach 100 points. In the next couple of weeks, he will clinch his seventh scoring title.
Vernon was just a rookie last season when he became the key player as the Flames ended the Oilers' hopes for a third consecutive Stanley Cup. In the Smythe Division final round, the Flames won out in seven games and Vernon was brilliant.
He picked up right where he left off when the new season began. In the first three games, he held hockey's best offensive group to eight goals. They finally reached him for five goals in the fourth meeting in late November, but still the Flames won, 6-5.
The Oilers fired 35 shots at Vernon in this game. He stopped the first 11, but after that he had problems.
Defenseman Craig Muni scored the winning goal halfway through the final period when he took a pass from Gretzky. With 2 1/2 minutes remaining, another defenseman, Randy Gregg, assured the Oilers of the victory by scoring his third goal.
"I think the big thing was that we won the individual battles," Gretzky said. "No matter what the game plan is, no matter what the coaches say, you have to win your individual battles to be successful and that's what we did."
The victory enabled the Oilers, for the time being, at least, to quit worrying about losing first place. They lead the Flames by five points.
Chicago 5, Detroit 3--The second half of the regular season figures to be sensational in the Norris Division. Every team has a chance to win it.
When Steve Larmer fired a 15-footer midway through the final period at Chicago to break a 3-3 tie, the Blackhawks were on their way to first place.
With 40 points, the Blackhawks share the top spot with Detroit and Minnesota. Toronto is one point out of first and last-place St. Louis has 38 points.
Washington 2, Philadelphia 2--It is not unusual for a team to pull its goalie in the closing seconds of a game and wind up with a tie. But it was a little out of the ordinary when the Flyers did it at the end of the second period to get a tie in this game at Philadelphia.
The Flyers trailed, 2-1, with three seconds left in the period and there was a faceoff in the Washington zone. Coach Mike Keenan removed goalie Ron Hextall, knowing that time would run out before the Capitals could score.
Keenan's strategy worked. Peter Zezel won the faceoff and passed to Scott Mellanby, who shot a 40-footer that went into the net with just one second remaining.
"It was a safe bet with three seconds left," Keenan said. "I used Mellanby at the point because he has such a quick release and I used the extra player to jam things up in front of the net. We were fortunate that it worked out."
All the scoring came in the second period. Craig Laughlin scored both Capital goals on passes from Dave Christian.
New York Rangers 8, Vancouver 3--Tomas Sandstrom scored four goals, two of them in a five-goal final-period outburst at New York.
The Canucks, although they were playing their fifth road game in eight nights, trailed only 3-2 after two periods.
But the Rangers fired 18 shots at goalie Richard Brodeur in the last 20 minutes. The Canucks were too weary to clear the puck.
Sandstrom, who has 17 goals, also had an assist. Walt Poddubny had a goal and two assists to help the Rangers end a three-game winless streak.
Ranger Coach Tom Webster thought his team was in charge all the way, although he conceded the Canucks were weary at the end.
"We were strong in the offensive zone," he said. "We utilized our strength in the corners. Tomas is a goal scorer and has a feel for the net."