How can two supposedly well-matched, tight-checking teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Islanders be playing such a wild and crazy Stanley Cup final round, with the Flyers routing the Islanders 8-3 Thursday and then being routed 6-2 Saturday?
The Islanders now lead the up-and-down series two games to one going into tonight's fourth game here. And even though the first game of the series was close on the scoreboard (a 4-3 Islander victory in overtime), it, too, was really a case of the winning team emphatically outplaying its rival most of the way.
Behn Wilson, a student of Shakespeare and drama when he isn't knocking down opponents as a Flyer defenseman, thinks he knows why the plot has been so uneven.
"The two teams are so evenly matched, so well-disciplined, and so well-coached that the first couple of goals tend to dictate the game," he says. "If you fall behind you have to change your game to try to catch up. It makes no sense to play conservatively and hold the score down to 2-0. You might as well lose 10-0 taking chances that could get you back in the game. At this stage you play every game as if it were the only one you'll ever play.
"In the first game, both teams were cautious and not at their best. The second and third games were more typical of the way the two can play. We go two goals up on them early in the second game and they got the first two goals Saturday, and the team that was behind had to open up. Monday night's a whole new story."
The fourth game is when we will find out if Flyer coach Pat Quinn has found a way for his team to (a) take fewer penalties, or (b) kill them off efficiently. On Saturday night the Islanders were the grateful recipients of five power play opportunities -- and they scored on all of them.
It is the Flyers' style to play aggressively and not worry about going to the penalty box, and until this series they were successful because their penalty killing was outstanding. In the fourth game of the semifinal series against Minnesota, the team that upset defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal, they were assessed 12 penalties -- and killed them all.
But before Saturday's game here, Quinn said, "We can't keep taking so many penalties against the Islanders' power play."
He could not have been more prophetic. With the home team leading 1-0 early Saturday, Denis Potvin, the leader of the Islander defense and sometimes the leader of the offense as well, weaved his way up the ice on the first power play , broke free, gathered momentum and bore down on Philadelphia goalie Phil Myre. Myre came out to stop Potvin's hard shot, but Potvin -- by now going at nearly top speed -- alertly picked up the rebound and popped it behind Myre into the net.
Before the party was over Potvin scored another power play goal, on a rising wrist shot from the point, and engineered two others by Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy.
Said Islander coach Al Arbour, who could not have drawn the plays any better on his blackboard, "Before tonight on the power play we were shooting when we should've passed and passing when we should've shot. Tonight we made the plays, and those shots were labeled."m
Like his counterpart Quinn, Arbour had said something before the game that proved revealing.He pointed out that his team might have been blown out in the second game but had been resilient all year, often rebounding from a seemingly humiliating loss to play exceptionally well. The key, he'd said, would be the power play.
Said winning goalie Billy Smith, who shut out the Flyers Saturday until the last 10 minutes. "They took a lot of foolish penalties, and the referee was there to call them. Our power play was sharp -- but then so was our penalty killing. We had the same number of penalties they had, but they got no power play goals. Bryan Trottier and Butch Goring and Lorne Henning and Bob Bourne and those fellows were terrific killing penalties."
Henning, in fact, scored the first goal short-handed on a feed from the speedy Bourne, whom the Flyers have been unable to contain. The Islanders have now scored a record seven short-handed playoff goals overall.
Clark Gillies, the big Islander forward whose thumping checks kept the Flyers off balance Saturday, stroked his neat beard in the locker room in contemplation of a question about whether the Flyers would change their tactics Monday (the Islanders have sprouted nearly as many beards these days as the old House of David baseball team, with Potvin, Trottier, and others joining Gillies in the striking hirsute look).
"I don't think they'll change their game," he said softly. "They always hook and pull, and they've won a lot that way. Tonight we started fast and handled them. The game before we lost by five goals. You can't predict what will happen from here."
The most predictable feature of this Stanley Cup Final so far has been its very unpredictability.