EDMONTON, Canada — After eight months of the regular schedule and two months of the playoffs, the National Hockey League season has come down to this: one game.
The Edmonton Oilers and the Philadelphia Flyers will meet tonight at the Northlands Coliseum in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals--and sighs of relief will doubtless coincide with the final siren.
Although this well-played series has been riveting for those who have followed the remarkable comebacks of the Flyers, both teams are nearing their physical limits. After tonight, one team will win its third championship.
The Flyers, with several people injured and having played 25 playoff games to the Oilers' 20, can't be expected to summon too many more miracles.
The Oilers, who have endured enormous pressure that demands they win the Cup that eluded them last season, have played well, but they are wearing down.
Each team had Friday off after traveling from Philadelphia. The Oilers had a closed practice Saturday and produced only Coach Glen Sather for a brief press conference.
The Oilers were at a players' meeting, and although Wayne Gretzky was supposed to attend the press conference, he was excused.
Asked if he'd just as soon his players didn't face the media before the seventh game, Sather said: "If you want a truthful answer, yes. I think they've had enough distractions. Now is the time when the players need to have a little privacy . . . especially someone who has been as congenial as Wayne. He's been tremendous with the pressure that has been on him. Hundreds of thousands of questions have been asked of him the last couple of weeks, and he's been very patient through it all. I wish I had his patience."
Sather described his team as being a little nervous and short-tempered, eager to play. That was in contrast to the Flyers' brief and loose practice Saturday, which was open to the public.
The Flyers ended the practice with a spirited relay race around the rink, passing the sticks as batons to other players.
"We have a relaxed hockey team," Flyer Coach Mike Keenan said. "The confidence level is very high."
The Flyers are riding a two-game winning streak and, in the three games they have won, have rallied from a two-goal deficit twice and a three-goal deficit once.
The Flyers have led for only 50 of 366 minutes in the series, about eight minutes a game.
--The Flyers get better as the game progresses. The Oilers have outscored the Flyers, 9-1, in the first period.
--In the second period, the Flyers have outscored the Oilers, 9-4, and in the third period, the Flyers have outscored the Oilers, 7-5.
While the Flyers obviously don't want to be in the position of having to come back, at least they know that they can.
"It's an advantage in the fact that when you get down now, you know you can come back," Dave Poulin said. "In that sense, when we get down 2-0, the bench doesn't get down about it."
The Oilers don't need reminding about their failures to hold those leads. In fact, the Oilers are painfully aware of several shortcomings they have exposed over the course of six games.
Of prime concern for Edmonton is the lack of contribution from some of its standout players. Gretzky has scored two goals in this series. Glenn Anderson has three goals, all in the first three games, and has not had a point in the last three games.
Mark Messier has one goal and three assists in six games, and Esa Tikkanen, who had 78 points in the regular season, has had no points in this series and only nine in the Oilers' 20 playoff games.
For a team that relies on a high-scoring offense, that's a major failure.
"There's a lot of players who haven't been productive," Sather said. "As a team, we can't rely on one or two guys. We've got opportunities to score and we haven't when the chances have been there."
The Oilers' best player has been goaltender Grant Fuhr. The same can be said of the Flyers' Ron Hextall. Game 7 should continue to be a goaltender's duel.
Stanley Cup Notes Ron Hextall is the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs. Even if Philadelphia loses, Hextall should win, although in the history of the award, only three players from losing teams have won. . . . Neither team was able to practice in the Coliseum because of a circus scheduled in the building Saturday night. The Flyers arrived as the lions and tigers were being fed. As the team crowded around one particularly big tiger guarding a piece of meat, the beast roared loudly. The Flyers, thought to be the beasts of hockey, jumped back in unison and screeched. . . . Flyer captain Dave Poulin, already playing with badly bruised ribs, has a broken index finger on his left hand. . . . The Oilers announced Saturday that they signed 18-year-old forward Ivan Matulik, who defected from Czechoslovakia on May 17, while on vacation in Hungary.