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Greatest NHL Teams

1986-87 Oilers voted No. 5 Greatest NHL Team

Motivation, improved defense helped high-scoring Edmonton win Stanley Cup

by Stu Hackel / Special to

Hockey Hall of Fame center Wayne Gretzky has long maintained that, of the Edmonton Oilers' four Stanley Cup-winning teams of the 1980s, the 1986-87 version might have been the most talented, though it needed seven games to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers for the Cup.

Video: 1986-87 Oilers win third Stanley Cup in four seasons


One indication of that talent: Seven Oilers -- forwards Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, defenseman Paul Coffey, and goaltender Grant Fuhr -- were named to the 25-man NHL team that faced the Soviet Union in the two-game Rendez-Vous '87 exhibition series in Quebec City in February.

But the Oilers waged a season-long battle in 1986-87 against a memory: their shocking elimination the previous spring by their most bitter rival just down Alberta Highway 2, the Calgary Flames, in the Smythe Division Final.


[1986-87 Edmonton Oilers roster]


After winning the Stanley Cup in 1984 and '85 and finishing with an NHL-best 119 points in 1985-86, the Oilers had sought an extended run of championships. But the Flames ended their dream in a series widely remembered for the winning goal in Game 7, scored when Oilers rookie defenseman Steve Smith accidentally banked the puck off Fuhr's leg and into the net.

The defeat stung ferociously.


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As Gretzky recalled, returning to the Final in '87 became the players' sole focus.

"From Day One in training camp, [the season] was like a blur -- the exhibition season, the regular season and, for that matter, even the first three rounds," he said. "It was, 'All right, OK, we've done this. Let's get the Final started right now.' Because that was the only thought we had in our minds among the entire group."

General manager and coach Glen Sather tweaked his roster. He shifted Marty McSorley from defense to forward (taking Dave Semenko's spot playing with Gretzky), then added defensive depth by acquiring Reijo Ruotsalainen and Craig Muni in October and promoting Jeff Beukeboom.

Sather's biggest move, however, was getting forward Kent Nilsson from the Minnesota North Stars prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. The Oilers knew Nilsson as perhaps their most skilled opponent when he played for the Winnipeg Jets in the World Hockey Association and then the Flames. As Gretzky said: "Glen meant real business. We knew [Nilsson] was a tremendous team player and very unselfish. We were so excited."

Sather put "The Magic Man" on a line with Messier and Anderson.

"He fit perfectly," Gretzky said.

The Oilers' focus on the Cup didn't prevent them from finishing atop the League in the regular season, and they remained the most potent offense in the NHL for the sixth consecutive season, scoring a League-best 372 goals and averaging 4.65 per game, roughly one goal per game higher than the League average of 3.67.

Gretzky won his eighth straight Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and his seventh straight Art Ross Trophy as the League's scoring leader with 183 points -- 62 goals and, typically, more assists (121) than anyone else had points. Kurri, with 108 points (54 goals, 54 assists), finished second in the scoring race, and Messier tied for third with 107 points (37 goals, 70 assists).

But the Oilers had outgrown their wildest run-and-gun tendencies and had begun maturing defensively. They cut their goals against to 284, an average of 3.55, down from 3.88 the season before.

They lost their playoff opener 5-2 to the Los Angeles Kings, then reeled off eight straight wins to eliminate them and sweep the Jets. The Campbell Conference Final against the Detroit Red Wings proved a tougher challenge because of Red Wings coach Jacques Demers' defensive system.

"The Messier line really carried us offensively in that series," Gretzky said. "That line went to another level."

Messier, Anderson and Nilsson each had six points in the series, which the Oilers won in five games, giving them their shot at redemption in the Final against Philadelphia.

The Flyers were stronger than they were two years earlier, when they lost to the Oilers in the Cup Final in five games, especially now that they had goalie Ron Hextall. After falling behind 3-1 in the series, Philadelphia fought back, which usually didn't happen against Edmonton: The Oilers either swept or lost only one game in 18 of 22 series from 1983-88.

"If we got a 1-0 or 2-0 series lead," Gretzky said, "you might as well put it in the bank, because we were going for the jugular."

This time, however, the Oilers found themselves at home in the first Game 7 of a Cup Final since 1971. Still, Gretzky said they felt ready.

"This is Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final," he said, "and you always dreamed about that winning goal.'"

And Gretzky played a big part in the Cup-winning goal.

With just over five minutes left in the second period and the game tied 1-1, the Flyers didn't send out Brad Marsh and Brad McCrimmon -- the defensemen matched against Gretzky's line -- for a faceoff outside the Philadelphia blue line.

"I didn't usually say a whole lot on our bench," Gretzky said, but this time, "I turned to [Sather] and I said, 'Get us out there.'"

He won the faceoff. The Oilers dumped the puck in. Gretzky won it back along the boards and then threw a pass from the corner to Kurri, who one-timed a shot from the faceoff dot past Hextall. Anderson scored a late goal, and the big silver mug was Edmonton's again after a 3-1 win.

Amid the postgame mob scene on the Northlands Coliseum ice, Gretzky first hoisted it high, then passed it off to Smith.

The demons of '86 had been exorcised.


[MORE TO EXPLORE: All-Time Stanley Cup Winners | NHL 100 | READ: Greatest NHL Teams | WATCH: Greatest NHL Teams]


The Greatest NHL Teams were voted by fans during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as part of the NHL Centennial Celebration. Stanley Cup championship teams from 1918-2016 were eligible, and the top 10 were announced during the 2017 Final.

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