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Gretzky is great, but overall talent is key to Oiler hockey success

Dynasties used to occur regularly in all sports - the Yankees and Dodgers, the Green Bay Packers, the Canadiens, the Celtics. But that was then and this is now. No team has won back-to-back Super Bowls or World Series since the 1970s, and the National Basketball Association hasn't had a repeat champion since 1969. The principal reason can be summed up in one word: expansion. With the talent spread around to so many more teams, it's much more difficult nowadays for any one club to stockpile enough of it to dominate for very long.

But nobody seems to have explained all this to the Edmonton Oilers.

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When Wayne Gretzky & Co. reached the Stanley Cup finals this spring it was their fifth trip in six years to hockey's showcase event. And when they closed out Boston via a 4-0 sweep, it marked the fourth time they had won it all.

Gretzky, of course, is the most visible Oiler, and once again in this year's playoffs he was the star of stars. In four series comprising 18 games he had 12 goals and a playoff record 31 assists, and was a unanimous MVP choice. But the Oilers also proved - perhaps even more conclusively than in the past - that they do not depend exclusively on their superhero.

With other forwards like Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Eka Tikkannen, and Glenn Anderson, Edmonton can mount a potent attack even without Gretzky; indeed, any of these players would be a star in his own right on another team.

Furthermore, a large part of Edmonton's offensive success can be traced to the great play of Grant Fuhr in goal. These things are hard to measure, but in addition to stopping enemy shots, a goalie like Fuhr gives his own forwards the confidence to play a freewheeling game without worrying unduly about the consequences if they happen to lose the puck.

So while Gretzky is the household name, hockey buffs have long been aware that the Oilers were a lot more than a one-man team. But this year the team showed a new dimension that lifted it up still another notch - a solid overall defense.

``The six most underrated players on their team are their defensemen,'' Boston coach Terry O'Reilly said when it was all over. ``Everybody talks about Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Anderson, and Fuhr, but nothing is ever said about the defense.''

Kevin Lowe, Steve Smith, and the other Edmonton defenders were worth mentioning in this series, though - as evidenced by the trouble the Bruins had mounting any consistent attack, and by the fact that Boston players seldom found themselves alone in front of the Oiler net.

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Ironically, in terms of all the dynasty talk going around now, the Oilers did not have a very good regular season by their own standards, finishing second in the Smythe Division behind Calgary. But in the playoffs they turned it up another notch, and were pretty much invincible.

After beating Winnipeg 4-1 in the opening round, they made short work of their regular-season conquerors, the Flames, 4-0, rolled past Detroit 4-1, and closed it out with the 4-0 sweep in the finals for an overall record of 16 wins against only 2 losses.

Despite the Oilers' clear edge in speed and ability, the finals were closer game by game than the result makes it appear.

Games 1 and 2 in Edmonton were both tied until the Oilers came up with winning third-period goals. In Game 3 at Boston, the Bruins held their own for a while until Edmonton's relentless skating wore them down, 6-3. Next came the bizarre Game 4 in Boston, which ended 3-3 when a power outage stopped play late in the second period. The next game in Edmonton thus became Game 4, and again the Bruins were in it for a while before tiring in the face of the Oilers' nonstop attack and eventually falling by another 6-3 score.

Despite the incomplete game, the series is officially a sweep - the first in the finals since 1983 when the then up-and-coming Oilers were similarly dispatched by the New York Islanders (the only other team in recent years to put a string of titles together). Edmonton won the cup in '84 and '85, failed to reach the finals in '86, and has now won two more in a row.

That's a dynasty by any standards - and the way the Oilers looked in this year's playoffs, it's going to take a lot to stop them from adding to those totals.

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