The No. 1 goal of hockey players everywhere is to make it to the NHL. Goal No. 2 is winning the Stanley Cup. The No. 3 goal is to be recognized as a player who makes a difference.
One of the finest examples of combining the three aspirations was Al MacInnis's Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance in the 1989 Stanley Cup when he led the Calgary Flames to a six-game triumph over the Montreal Canadiens.
(VIDEO: Al MacInnis highlights | PODCAST: MacInnis on NHL Live)
MacInnis, the star defenseman being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Nov. 12, led all players that year in playoff scoring with seven goals and 24 assists for 31 points. He registered a point in his final 17 playoff games that season and perhaps most importantly, with his team down two games to one, he had the game-winning goals in Games 4 and 5 and an assist on the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 6.
That's making a difference!
The 1988-89 season was the second of three-straight years that the Flames won the Smythe Division. They had also lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1986 Stanley Cup Final, when MacInnis led all players in the postseason with 15 assists.
The Flames were one of the top NHL teams of the 1980s and at the top of their game in 1989. They were led by left winger Joe Mullen who had 51 goals and 59 assists in the regular season; Hakan Loob who had 27 goals and 58 assists; Doug Gilmour who had 26 goals and 59 assists and Joe Nieuwendyk who had 51 goals and 31 assists.
The Flames were also led by veteran forwards Lanny McDonald, Jim Peplinski, Colin Patterson, Joel Otto, Jiri Hrdina, Mark Hunter and Tim Hunter who were augmented by bright youngsters Theo Fleury and Gary Roberts. Veteran Brian MacLellan came over at the trading deadline and performed well in the playoffs.
MacInnis was part of a solid defensive corps that included Gary Suter, Jamie Macoun, Brad McCrimmon, Rob Ramage, Dana Murzyn and Ric Nattress.
All-Star Mike Vernon was outstanding that year in net, backed up by 1982 William M. Jennings Trophy winner Rick Walmsley.
The Canadiens were the top defensive team in the NHL that season, allowing only 218 goals. Calgary was second, permitting 226 goals. Everyone expected a tight-checking, low-scoring series, especially with Patrick Roy in Montreal's net.
The first two games of the Final were played in Calgary's Olympic Saddledome. The city had hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics 15 months earlier.
"Game 1 started off with a flurry of shots, odd-man rushes, two-on-ones, old-time hockey. We were exchanging chances right off the hop. The coaches didn't like, but it was great for the fans and the players," MacInnis recalled. "Stephane Richer broke in on a power play and beat Vernon far side at 2:43 of the first period. I scored a power-play goal from the left point off a pass from Joel Otto along the left boards to tie it. Then we broke in 3-on-2 and Joel, who had Lanny McDonald in the slot, dropped a pass to me in the right faceoff circle and I put a wrist shot over Roy's shoulder.
"Then Larry Robinson beat Mike Vernon. Four goals in the first 10 minutes and I think I was on the ice for all of them."
Theo Fleury got the game-winning goal midway through the second period and the game settled into the defensive struggle everyone expected, with no more scoring.
Montreal went up 2-0 in Game 2 before Nieuwendyk scored at 5:14 of the second period. MacInnis and Mullen then set up Otto for the game-tying, power-play goal at 13:49 but the Canadiens scored twice in the third period.
The Canadiens got the split they wanted in Calgary and dug a deeper hole for the Flames when Ryan Walter scored at 18:08 of the second overtime of Game 3. Fleury and MacInnis helped break a 1-1 tie in the second period when they set up Mullen for his second goal of the game but Bobby Smith tied it early in the second period and Gilmour and Mats Naslund traded late third-period goals.
"Mullen had a great playoff run, scoring a lot of big goals for us," MacInnis recalled. "He always came through on the power play that year. I always said Joe was like a greased pig. He'd find a way to get through the defense and then he'd find a way to get his shot off. A lot of people tried to get a piece of him, but he squeezed through people and got the shot off. It was good to get that 3-1 lead because Claude Lemieux scored less than a minute later. Mullen got an empty-net goal 16 seconds after that and we all breathed easier."
MacInnis was on the ice, killing Doug Gilmour's slashing penalty midway through the second period of Game 4 when Gilmour stepped out of the penalty box and intercepted Smith's center-ice pass to Chris Chelios and went in alone to beat Roy, giving Calgary a 1-0 lead. Robinson was in the box for cross-checking late in the period when MacInnis sent a hard-around from the right point that Mullen collected on the left boards and sent cross-ice to MacInnis. The right-handed shooting MacInnis delivered a hard shot that Roy blocked but couldn't control and Mullen flipped in the rebound from the left side to make it 2-0 at 18:43 of ther second period.
Russ Courtnall made it 2-1 when he scored midway through the third period. The score remained that way until MacInnis got the game-winner at 18:22 on an outstanding individual effort. Smith and Otto faced off to Vernon's left and the puck squirted toward MacInnis, who was already skating forward. He broke out alone and skated into the right faceoff circe in the Montreal zone where he blistered a short, hard far-side slap shot past Roy.
"Joel was a big guy, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, who could win faceoffs," MacInnis said. "He was key for us because of his faceoff ability and his size."
The Canadiens were frustrated by their inability to clear the zone in Game 4 and Smith said in pre-Game 5 comments that they needed longer outlet passes to get behind the gambling Calgary defenders.
"We were back in our home building and felt that we'd gotten the momentum back in Game 4," MacInnis said. "We knew the game would be close so it was key to score the first goal. If we could do that, we could establish our game plan. We weren't overly concerned about creating offense because it's a lot tougher to do that than play smart and wait for chances."
It was snowing outside the Saddledome on May 23 and the crowd was still shaking off their clothing when that chance came. Otto stole Rick Green's outlet pass and jammed the puck past Roy 28 seconds into the game. Mullen pushed a loose puck past Roy at 8:15 and the crowd sensed a comeback but Smith silenced them at 13:24 with a power-play goal.
With 29 seconds left in the first period, Ramage put a puck on MacInnis' stick just inside the blue line, equidistant between the side boards. What followed was a prototypical MacInnis' slap-shot goal, a rocket that blistered by two Canadiens defenders, possibly deflecting off one, and past Roy for what proved to be the game winner.
Mike Keane scored for the Canadiens at 14:17 of the second period but there was no more scoring in Game 5. It was close though. With only a few seconds left, the Canadiens swarmed Vernon and pushed a puck past him but referee Kerry Fraser ruled the net had been knocked off its moorings.
Calgary had a 3-2 lead in the series and was guaranteed another game in their building if the Canadiens avoided elimination in Game 6 at the Forum, where no visiting team had ever clinched a Stanley Cup. There was another disadvantageous statistic the Flames had to overcome: The Canadiens had 15 players who had won the Stanley Cup while Calgary had none.
Unlike Games 1 and 5 when the teams scored four times in the first period, the opening frame in Game 6 was scoreless until MacInnis' outlet pass sent Murzyn up the left side. His dump-in was deflected by Chelios to Patterson, who beat Roy stick-side with a soft wrist shot at 18:51. Lemieux tied it 1:23 into the second period with his trademark slap shot that exploded into Vernon's hands that he thrust up to protect his face. The shot trickled through and into the net.
|"I'm telling you, the thing I now remember most about that game was the incredible pressure, from tension, inside my head." - Al MacInnis on playing in the Stanley Cup Final
One of the themes of the 1989 Stanley Cup was that McDonald would be retiring after the series and this was his last chance to win the Stanley Cup. He'd lost a step and had struggled late in the season. Coach Terry Crisp had benched him earlier in the series.
At 4:24 of the second period, Loob led a 3-on-2 rush into the Canadiens' zone and passed to Nieuwendyk on his left. The young centerman rocketed a pass cross-ice to McDonald who beat Roy for what many consider one of the most heart-warming moments in NHL history.
"That season that Lanny had was great. He scored his 500th goal and got his 1,000th point that year and won a Stanley Cup," MacInnis said. "I don't know if you could write a better script. His leadership was second-to-none. I think the whole country cheered when he got that goal."
Fifteen minutes later, Gilmour showcased his quick reactions on a goal that made it 3-1 at 11:02 of the third period. With Courtnall off for boarding, MacInnis outleted to Otto who passed to Gilmour. He came in on Roy's right and fired a shot that the goalie blocked. Gilmour knocked it out of the air through Roy's legs for what proved to be the game winner when Green scored less than a minute later.
Roy went off for an extra attacker at 18:52 and Gilmour put home an empty-net insurance goal five seconds later. Of all the things that happened in that game, MacInnis said that's the only thing he remembers. Let him explain:
"I was in the penalty box with Lemieux. We had gotten roughing penalties with about a minute and a half left," MacInnis recalled. "I felt terrible. What if they tied it while I was in the box?
"When Doug scored that goal, it was like someone released a vice that was squeezing my head. I couldn't believe the relief. It was unbelievable. We finally did it! I don't remember anything else from that game.
"No, wait. That's a lie. I remember Lanny scoring the game-winning goal. Lanny came over the blue line and got a pass from Joe Nieuwendyk and shot his patented slap shot right over Patrick Roy's glove ...
"It wasn't the game winner? Gilmour's first goal from Dana and me was?" MacInnis was incredulous. "My only Stanley Cup, one of the biggest games of my life, probably the biggest, and you'd think I would remember everything. Normally, I have a very good memory. Not as good as Wayne Gretzky, who I found out when we played together in St. Louis, remembers every play!
"I'm telling you, the thing I now remember most about that game was the incredible pressure, from tension, inside my head."
The tension was real. The Flames were a good team, but their Smythe Division rival, the Edmonton Oilers, had won four Stanley Cups in recent years while the Flames failed in the 1986 Finals, were knocked out in five games by Winnipeg in 1987 and got swept by Edmonton in the second round in 1988 when they won the division.
"We had a good team for a few years and the expectations to win the Stanley Cup were there," MacInnis said. "We were probably the favorites a couple of times. We won the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points that year. Anything less than the Stanley Cup would have been considered a failure. You feel that pressure. When everyone is picking you to win, it's not easy to be the favorite. When Gilmour scored, it was a weight off of all of our shoulders.
"Then, to win it in the Forum, where no visiting team ever had. I grew up in Nova Scotia, watching the Canadiens 90 percent of the time. I realized the rich tradition the Canadiens had in the Forum. There was no better place on Earth to play a hockey game on a Saturday night than in the Forum. From 9 a.m. that morning, the whole place was electric, with a ton of media and our families at the pre-game skate.
"The ovation the Canadiens' fans gave us when we won and were parading around the ice with the Stanley Cup was overwhelming. They stood up and applauded us. Talk about sportsmanship. Those fans are first class. They know hockey."