Five years ago the Edmonton Oilers joined the National Hockey League just as the New York Islanders began their domination of the game. The young Oilers from out west were quick skaters, quick shooters - and quick learners. Half a decade later they have overthrown the Islander dynasty and perhaps begun one of their own.
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, the Islanders should consider themselves supremely flattered as well as soundly beaten four games to one.
''They serve as our model,'' says Edmonton's Glen Sather, a former 11-year NHL journeyman who looks little older than his fresh-faced players. Sather scores a hat-trick in organization titles, operating as president, general manager, and coach with the Oilers.
Like Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, he built a Stanley Cup champion by drafting promising juniors and making a few judicious trades. He was patient enough to develop his own stars to complement Wayne Gretzky, who scores more than anyone else in history.
When it comes to style of play, though, the teams are less similar. Unlike Torrey and Islander Coach Al Arbour with their emphasis on defense, the flinty Sather put his money on offense, teaching fast-moving, five-man rushes. ''Possession is a key to our game,'' he says. ''If we have the puck, the other team can't score.''
In other words, ''the best defense is a strong offense'' - an emphasis on attack that unquestionably is influencing the game toward a more entertaining style. The pity, however, is that the NHL's far-flung schedule seldom permits fans in major US markets to see it.
''We have our own philosophy of offense,'' says Gretzky, ''but we learned from the Islanders to work harder along the boards and to make a 60-minute effort. We learned we had to tighten up in our own end and use our speed going both ways, not just offensively.''
That lesson was administered forecfully a year ago when the Islanders swept them 4-0 in the finals. Gretzky did not score in that series, and was shut out in the first two games this year as well.
Wayne's frustration was deep at that point, and Sather chided him for not moving well. He responded with a better effort when the series moved to Edmonton for Game 3, picking up two assists in a 7-2 victory, then erupted for two goals as the Oilers won Game 4 by the same score and two more in the 5-2 clincher.
Sather had looked forward to the three games in Edmonton, where as the home team coach he could make the last line change during play stoppages and shift Gretzky away from Bryan Trottier, the Islanders' fierce checking center. This is the first year the middle three games have been played in the same city (the format formerly went back and forth 2-2-1-1-1), and it worked in Edmonton's favor once the Oilers had been able to grab a split of the first two games.
Trottier also was instrumental in a late-season switch of the rugged Mark Messier from wing to center - Sather's rationale being that the Oilers needed a physically imposing center to counter the rugged Islander veteran. Messier was the scoring star in Games 3 and 4, tied up Trottier with determined checking, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs.
Even an offense-minded team must have good goaltending to win the Cup - and the Oilers got it from Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog. Fuhr's spectacular netminding was the key to the 1-0 opening game victory that ensured the all-important split on Long Island, then when Grant was injured late in Game 3, backup man Moog held the Islanders at bay in the final two contests.
Another factor was the steady play of Paul Coffey, a high-scoring defenseman who has sometimes been prone to mental lapses in front of his goaltender, but who was a commanding presence on defense in this series as he moved the puck quickly, surely, and consistently up the ice.
Here too the Islanders must rue the good example they have set, because New York's Denis Potvin is Coffey's role model. ''I've learned from him that you don't have to make a Hall of Fame play every time,'' Paul says. ''He'll dump it around the boards, make short passes - nothing fancy. But he's terribly consistent.''
The leading Islander skaters in their reign of four straight Stanley Cups, one short of Montreal's record - were Potvin, Trottier, and goal scorer Mike Bossy, who barely got a shot launched against Edmonton. The Oilers have developed their own tremendous - and considerably younger - triumvirate in Gretzky, Messier, and Coffey.
The Islanders have begun a transition to youth, with rookies Pat Flatley and Pat LaFontaine both outstanding in the playoffs. For the present, though, the team of the future is Edmonton.