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THE VERDICT: Blackhawks, Oilers to Renew Playoff Rivalry

Chicago and Edmonton went toe-to-toe three times in eight seasons in the 1983, 1985 and 1990 Stanley Cup playoffs

by Bob Verdi /

Embracing that call to action, Return to Play, fans can rejoice over hockey picking up where it left off in mid-March, when the world's fastest sport screeched to a halt.

Also, given the intriguing Stanley Cup Qualifiers matchup between the Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers, some of us harken an era when those franchises were elite postseason rivals.

Troy Murray identifies with both now and then. When the Blackhawks take on the Oilers in the opener of their five-game series Saturday, the popular radio analyst shall join play-by-play nonpareil John Wiedeman on WGN Radio AM-720 for the puck drop and all that ensues.

Meanwhile, Murray might regale about a time when he was a fixture on the Blackhawks, who were very, very good.

However, on three occasions -- in 1983, 1985 and 1990 -- they were vanquished by a dynasty that skated in his hometown, Edmonton.

"We thought then that maybe we were the second best team in the National Hockey League," recollected Murray. "That said, I'm guessing we weren't the only team that felt the same way. We also felt we were maybe one move away. A trade, or a free agent. But there seemed to be some hesitation by management, which you don't see here now. Again, there were probably other teams who figured they were one player away. Whatever, we were all trying to get past the Oilers, but they just had too much."

Video: Blackhawks depart for Edmonton

Even with the NHL on pause, that reality was coupled with current events. When former Blackhawks Marian Hossa and Doug Wilson were recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, they were joined by Kevin Lowe, the seventh member of that Oilers machine to be inducted.

Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier were previously honored. As was coach Glen Sather. Anderson, Fuhr, Kurri, Lowe and Messier are among seven Oilers to earn five Cups, including in 1985 and 1990, after they eliminated the Blackhawks.

"That Edmonton team was similar to what we've seen here in Chicago," Murray went on. "Look at the Blackhawks, and how they won three in six years, 2010, 2013 and 2015. If you check the record under coach Joel Quenneville, those three teams were unbelievable at closing series. They might be tied, 2-2, after four games. But their record in Games 5, 6 and 7 was crazy good.

"When they had to win at crunch time, they had another gear. They would not lose. The Oilers were the same. They were better than average maybe to start a series, then they turned it on. I remember a time, I think 1990 in the Conference Finals. We were up on them, 2-1, in the series.

"Don't forget, this is after Gretzky left for Los Angeles. But Messier in Game 4 at the Stadium, he had that look. He was not going to let them lose that night, and he destroyed us. They went on to win three straight, and then the Cup. Just like our guys, Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, took over for their run. Certain guys, they have that intangible."

Video: One More Shift: Troy Murray

Murray's task, unlike any other, was to shadow Gretzky during those taut encounters. The Great One to this day cites Murray as among the very best at doing so.

"When he went on the ice, I went on the ice," Murray said. "The first priority was to deny him the puck as much as possible. You didn't want to try anything stupid, like trash talking or a cheap shot, to get him angry. Power play, he was poison. You just tried to frustrate him. When he had the puck, eliminate time and space. Sit back and you're toast. But everybody tried to do that with him.

"Like Kane, all he needed was that one moment in a game when he saw something or sensed something that nobody else could. Then, boom. He had great instincts. Say he didn't have the puck. Well, he would then drift toward one of our defensemen. So now, maybe Willy (Wilson) is watching him along with me. Those were my orders. 'Where he goes, you go.' Well, now it's two of us on one, him. Leaving someone open on their side. He could kill you in a lot of ways."

On Jan. 11, 1984, Gretzky came to Chicago having registered a point in 44 straight games. A Stadium banner read: "THE STREAK STOPS HERE." Gretzky said that was when he realized it was a national story, not just an Edmonton thing. Down a goal late, the Blackhawks pulled goalie Tony Esposito. Fans booed. They then counted down the closing seconds, as if their team was leading.

"I'm right in front of our bench, the puck comes to me," said Murray. "I'm not thinking about the streak. I'm wanting the tying goal. I saw Willy across neutral ice. I passed the puck toward him, and there's Wayne. He picks it up with his stick out of mid air, then goes in to score on the empty net at 19:58 of the third period. I chase him, and break my stick over the cage. He got in my brain. That was 45, and he wound up with 51. Amazing. Still a record."

A few years ago, Gretzky and Murray partook of an alumni game in St. Louis. From between benches, Murray asked for a stick.

"Wayne laughed and said, 'you might as well have one, you were always holding it,''' Murray recalled. "He signed it and I have it hanging up in my house. One of my proudest mementoes. That and the fact that Wayne often said I was good at what I did, or tried to do, against him."

These Oilers are also explosive, and they know well perhaps the best sheet of ice in the NHL at the Rogers Place. Murray has friends and family in Edmonton. Brother Todd, Troy confesses, will root for the Oilers. They are fast, the Blackhawks are among the youngest teams in the league, while fortified by experienced champions.

"You look at the Blackhawks and they might also have seven Hall of Famers before it's over," volunteered Murray. "Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, along with Hossa. What about Niklas Hjalmarsson? Three Cups, same as Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp. Two for Corey Crawford. That's eight. Why not?" 

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