The irresistible offense is meeting the immovable defense in hockey's Stanley Cup finals between the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders. Defense usually wins at this stage of the playoffs, as it did in the Islanders' 2-0 opening victory at Edmonton Tuesday night. The Oilers are so explosive, however, that even traditionalists have to wonder if any team can contain them throughout an entire series.
In any event, if you like studies in stark contrast, you should love this best-of-seven showdown. Edmonton ranked first in scoring during the regular National Hockey League season, while New York allowed the fewest goals. As for experience, the veteran Islanders' steady checking approach has carried them to three Stanley Cups in a row, while the young Oilers are in the finals for the first time.
Edmonton is led, as most everyone south of the North Pole knows, by Wayne Gretzky, who annually breaks his own scoring records and occasionally defies the law of gravity. This season he led the league with 71 goals and 125 assists, almost an off year for him.
Edmonton is not, however, a one-man team. The Oilers suit up 19 other credible players, many of whom are maturing at the same time. They remind some of us of the Islanders of five years ago, most of them products of a patient but persistent organization.
If the Islander players felt as though they were looking in a mirror playing the tough-checking Boston Bruins in the semifinals, the front office is seeing a carbon copy of its own organization in the finals. Edmonton has built a winner by emulating the Islanders' management philosophy, putting together a few pieces at a time and never panicking over the inevitable lapses of youngsters.
Consider, too, that Edmonton is probably the fastest team in hockey - and the Islanders have to catch them to check them. Several Oilers are standouts at their positions: defensemen Paul Coffey, Charlie Huddy, and Kevin Lowe, and wingers Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Glen Anderson.
Huddy recorded the best plus-minus rating in the league this season (goals for vs. goals against while a player is on the ice), while Messier, Kurri, and Anderson all scored at least 40 goals.
''No way are we a one-man team,'' says Gretzky. ''We've developed good depth, and our defense is better than people appreciate. We set a record for goals, so everyone figures we play loose defense. But we've been allowing an average of under three goals a game in the playoffs.''
Gretzky lauding his team's defense is like Frank Sinatra bragging about his golf game, but his point bears scrutiny. Adds Edmonton General Manager Glen Sather, ''If we patterned ourselves after anyone, it's the great Montreal teams with their firewagon style. Those teams could make a swift transition to defense , but puck control is important. If you have the puck, it's hard for the other team to score.
''Our club has always had the ability to score a lot of goals, but in the second half of the season we matured into a much more solid defensive team. We didn't make a conscious effort to cut down on our goals against, but we emphasized overall defensive effort.
''To me, the crucial statistic is the differential between goals scored and goals given up. We led the league in that category.''
The Oilers have been hard to evaluate because they played in a weak division in the regular season, then took a smoother route to the finals than the Islanders. But the way they swept Chicago in the semifinals, they appear ready to scare the Islanders if the defending champions play at all beneath their abilities. An example of the team's balance is the fact that a dozen Oilers scored points in the concluding 6-3 victory over the Black Hawks.
New York was impressive in eliminating Boston, the team with the best regular season record, 4 games to 2, despite giving the home ice advantage. Edmonton, runner-up to Boston in the regular season, also had the home ice edge over the Islanders starting the finals, but of course must now win at least one game on Long Island after dropping the opener.
As always, a hot goaltender could carry his team to the Cup. Edmonton's Andy Moog has asserted himself well in the playoffs so far, but New York's Billy Smith has a longstanding reputation as the best money goaltender in the game - and he showed why Tuesday night. The Islanders were actually outplayed most of the way, but Smith was spectacular in turning back 35 shots and protecting a 1-0 lead for virtually the entire contest.
New York's attack figures to get a little stronger, but the overriding question still is whether the Islanders' dominating defense can contain Gretzky and the Oilers' rampant offense. Or, if you prefer, whether Gretzky and associates can continue to ring up goals the way they did earlier now that they're up against the stingiest defense in the game.