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Messier relates to Penguins in their Cup rematch

by Dan Rosen
Without a shred of doubt, Mark Messier said the Edmonton Oilers were not ready to beat the New York Islanders in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps one day Sidney Crosby will say the same thing about the Pittsburgh Penguins circa 2008.

The Oilers, Messier said, weren't ready to spill all of their guts like the Islanders had become so accustomed to doing in winning four consecutive Cups from 1980-83. They weren't ready to handle the adversity every team inevitably faces in the Stanley Cup Final. They weren't ready to be Islander tough.

That's why the Oilers were swept in their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 1983. All of those same reasons could very well be why the young Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings, 4-2, in the Stanley Cup Final last year.

"They knew how to win, how to play a solid defensive system that was hard to penetrate and we knew in order for us to win we had to shore up our defensive game and play tight as a team," Messier told about the 1983 Islanders in a phone interview Thursday. "They took things we like to do away from us."

The Red Wings did that to Pittsburgh last season, but just like the Penguins have now, the Oilers got a second chance in 1984. As Messier said, because they figured out how to beat the Isles at their own game, the hockey world is celebrating the silver anniversary of Edmonton's first championship.

Maybe come mid-June the Penguins will have started a dynasty of their own.

"We used them as our guide to winning hockey," Messier said of the Islanders. "We had to be tougher mentally, in the trenches, in shot blocking, in all the areas."

It can be argued that Edmonton's dynasty actually started the moment the players walked out of the visitor's locker room at Nassau Coliseum the night of May 17, 1983.

After losing Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, 4-2, a still spry group of young Oilers walked past the celebratory Islanders' dressing room and saw ice packs covering many of the veteran players who had just paraded the Cup around the ice.

The thought among the Oilers is they didn't hurt enough to win. The Isles did.

"They knew how to win and sacrificing yourself in a lot of different situations was all part of it," Messier said. "That story is true."

The Penguins don't have a similar story to use as motivation, and unlike the Oilers of 25 years ago, the Penguins were inconsistent from the start of this season and fought adversity until a coaching change and some shrewd roster moves stabilized them.

The Oilers, meanwhile, opened the 1983-84 season with seven straight wins. They were 16-3-1 by the 20-game mark, 29-7-4 at midseason and 39-9-5 after 50 games.

The Oilers, though, embarked on a five-game road trip starting Feb. 5 in Washington. A 9-2 loss was followed by a 5-3 loss on Long Island, a 4-3 loss at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and a 4-1 loss at the Boston Garden.

The last game of the trip was in Hartford, where the Whalers bombarded the Oilers to the tune of 11-0. The next day in practice, Messier said coach Glen Sather put on his equipment and started showing Wayne Gretzky how to pass, Jari Kurri how to shoot, Glenn Anderson how to skate and Dave Semenko how to fight.

"It was a humbling experience for all of us," Messier said.

It turned out to be their first defining moment they came back and won 18 of their last 22 games before rolling through Winnipeg in three games to start the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Ironically, after Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as coach exactly 25 years and three days after the Whalers crushed the Oilers, the Penguins took off and won 18 of their last 25 games before opening the playoffs with a six-game series win against Philadelphia.

For the Oilers, their next defining moment came on April 22, when they beat the Calgary Flames, 7-4, in Game 7 to advance to the Campbell Conference Finals. Four games in that series were won by a single goal.

Similarly, the Penguins needed seven games to dispatch the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Semifinals this year. Five games in that series were won by a single goal.

"Being in certain situations and knowing how each other will react under pressure situations is very important," Messier said. "Certainly we had the confidence we could react in the right way when push came to shove."

The Minnesota North Stars were no match for the Oilers in the Conference Final just as Carolina was no match for the Penguins this year. Both series ended in sweeps.

"We had to beat the Islanders at their own game and change some of the things we liked to do. We had to be more committed defensively. We had to change our game and beat them at their own game."
-- Mark Messier on 1984 Cup Final

When the '83 Final opened on Long Island, Messier remembers a confident aura around the Oilers because they knew what they needed to do to beat the Islanders. The Penguins are feeling the same way now as they head into the series against the Wings.

"We had to beat the Islanders at their own game and change some of the things we liked to do," Messier said. "We had to be more committed defensively. We had to change our game and beat them at their own game."

It worked in Game 1 as the Oilers won, 1-0. New York flipped the switch in Game 2 and raced out to a 6-1 victory that convinced a lot of people that the Islanders were going to cruise to their fifth straight Stanley Cup championship.

"A game like that will make you think," Messier said.

By the end of Game 3, the Oilers had the Islanders thinking instead.

Messier scored the goal of the series when he undressed rookie defenseman Gord Dineen before beating Islanders goalie Billy Smith to the short side for a goal that tied Game 3 at 2-2 in the second period.

The Oilers scored five more times to win Game 3 by a 7-2 margin. They won by the same score in Game 4 and hoisted the Stanley Cup after a 5-2 victory in Game 5. Messier won the Conn Smythe Trophy.

"For a lot of different reasons it really gave us confidence that we could play our game against this team and that was what we were really struggling with," Messier said of his goal. "It was hard for us to unleash the offense so we felt restrained in our game and it was tough. That goal freed us up to believe we could play our game and open the offense and still be committed defensively. Sure enough that's what happened. From that point on we broke their backs. They were tired and beat up and we were able to take it to them. The flood gates opened and it all changed."


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