Those who were anticipating a Montreal-Calgary Stanley Cup final will have to wait at least another year. Although these teams finished at the top of their respective divisions and boasted the National Hockey League's best overall records, both were summarily issued pink slips in the second round of cup play. Thus, one has to look to their vanquishers, the defending champion Edmonton Oilers and the rejuvenated Boston Bruins, as the new favorites.
The Oilers have already arrived in terms of recent playoff success, having won the whole thing three times in the last four years. Their second-place finish to Calgary in the Smythe Division, however, encouraged the notion that they perhaps had been supplanted. But with Wayne Gretzky returning to the lineup after missing 16 regular-season games, Edmonton has been infallible in the playoffs so far.
In the opening round the Oilers plowed through the Winnipeg Jets, who offered little resistance. The subsequent series with Calgary, which was billed as the battle of Western Canada, also turned out to be a cakewalk. Striking his familiar goal-scoring pose, Gretzky quickly set the precedent for victory with a breakaway goal late in the third period of Game 1. If that goal wasn't enough to affirm ``The Great One's'' return to top form, he provided another clutch performance by winning Game 2 in overtime with the Oilers skating short-handed.
Thus the stage was set for a clean sweep, affording Edmonton the luxury of rest while awaiting the winner of the Detroit-St. Louis series, which the Red Wings ultimately took in seven games.
Meanwhile, a continent away, Boston launched its bid by defeating Buffalo in a swashbuckling series that featured more fights than goals, with a lot of wide-open hockey in between.
Playing with great desire, the Sabres managed to come back from a two-game deficit to tie the series, but the Bruins' overwhelming advantage in depth eventually told as they won the next two games to close it out. Key performers for Boston in this series included power forward Cam Neely, who owned the right side of the ice from a scoring and playmaking standpoint, and slithery centerman Kenny Linseman, who netted several key goals and agitated the Sabres to the point of distraction.
But now came Boston's all-time playoff nemesis, Montreal, a team that had defeated the Bruins in 18 consecutive postseason series dating back to World War II. And when Boston lost the opener, all the old bad memories were rekindled - such as the underdog Canadiens' historic upset of the famous Bobby Orr-Phil Esposito powerhouse in 1971, and the incredible 1979 finish when the Bruins blew the seventh game via a last-minute penalty for having too many men on the ice.
This time, however, things were different, and after that opening loss at the Forum a determined Boston team won the next four games in a showing that left no doubt as to which was the better team at this point.
The key to this series was defense, as Ray Bourque and his fellow blue-liners devoured loose pucks in the Bruins' zone. And just about everything they missed, goalie Reggie Lemelin snared in a performance that led Boston fans to extoll him as ``Mr. April.''
For the Bruins and their followers, the whole thing was like a dream - not just a victory, but a purging of what seemed a lifetime of miserable playoff memories. And surely no one was happier than Rick Middleton, who played on Boston teams that lost to Montreal in the preceding four playoff seasons and who also was involved in that infamous seventh game of 1979, when the Canadiens tied the game in the final minute after the too-many-men-on-the-ice fiasco and then won it in overtime.
``Beating the Canadiens was like winning it all!'' exclaimed the veteran right winger who came out of a mild slump to score two key goals in the series.
And so like Edmonton, the Bruins earned a rest while New Jersey and Washington battled it out for the full seven games in the other quarterfinal before the Devils emerged victorious.
Thus it is now down to the penultimate round, with the Bruins and Devils launching what looks like an exciting best-of-7 series in Boston tonight, while the Oilers take on an apparently overmatched Detroit team beginning Tuesday night in Edmonton.
All of which points up the inequity that continues to exist in the final round, when the respective conference champions meet for the cup. The Wales Conference has achieved a combination of strength and parity that pretty much assures quality competition throughout its playoffs, but the same cannot be said of the Campbell Conference. Thus the eventual champion of the latter is much more likely to arrive in the final fresh and ready to go against a Wales Conference winner ground down by a series of all-out struggles.
This has been the case in most recent years, at least, and appears so again with Detroit, the champion of the league's weakest division, certainly appearing less formidable than Gretzky, Mark Messier, goalie Grant Fuhr, and the rest of that powerful Oiler array.