The 1988 Stanley Cup final shapes up as a classic battle between offense and defense - the speed and flash of Edmonton's defending champion Oilers against the rugged, physical style of the Boston Bruins. Wayne Gretzky & Co. are heavy favorites as they seek a fourth title in five years. But the hungry Bruins will be going all out to reclaim the hockey glory their city hasn't enjoyed since the days of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in the 1970s.
``Edmonton has four or five of the best players in the world, but it is a team game and we can beat them,'' said Boston defenseman Ray Bourque on the eve of the best-of-seven final opening tonight in Edmonton.
The possibility of an upset always exists, of course - especially if the favored team pays too much attention to its press clippings. But assuming that the Oilers can avoid complacency, they are clearly a team that will take a lot of beating.
The first order of business, of course, is to control Gretzky - at least to some extent. But it is a mistake to think that this will do the job alone. ``The Great One'' is still an incredible scoring machine, as his 40 goals and 109 assists in the regular season attest, but he is far from the only superstar on this Oiler team.
Neutralize Gretzky and his linemate Jari Kurri (43 goals, 53 assists) will probably get you. Control this entire line and you have to contend with another one centered by Mark Messier, whose brilliant play would make him the headliner on just about any other team. Stop them all and you still have to get around a solid defense bulwarked by Kevin Lowe. Even if you manage all this you must beat Grant Fuhr, considered by many the best goaltender in the National Hockey League.
This is a lot to ask of any team, as Edmonton's foes have found out over the last five seasons. The Oilers have dominated regular-season and postseason play, reaching the Stanley Cup finals four times and winning the cup in 1984, '85, and '87.
They're not invincible, though, as shown by their failure to make the finals in 1986, and by the fact that they finished second to Calgary in this year's Smythe Division race. They decisively turned the tables on the Flames in the playoffs, though, sweeping them in four straight games. Indeed, they've been well nigh unstoppable in postseason play this year, rolling past Winnipeg, Calgary, and Detroit with the loss of only two games altogether.
Now Boston stands as the final obstacle - which is exactly what the Bruins will try to be. Speed is Edmonton's game, and the classic antidote to speed is a tough, close-checking, grind-it-out game with plenty of body contact aimed at wearing down the opposition. All of which describes exactly the way Boston teams have traditionally played the game.
One reason is the ice surface at Boston Garden, tiny by NHL standards at 191 by 83 feet. Not much room there for wide-open hockey, but plenty of chances for close encounters of a not-too-friendly kind in the corners.
Over the years, Boston has built its teams for this rink, concentrating on rugged ``Big Bad Bruins'' types. Not surpisingly, such teams have historically done a lot better at home than on the road, where wider rinks place more emphasis on skating and less on contact. But even on the road they know they must play a checking game against Edmonton, which is bound to win any free-skating contest.
Of course most teams try to play that way against Edmonton, but planning and execution can be two different things. The Oilers are so quick and elusive that one has to be careful lest a missed check opens the door for a breakaway. Furthermore, if the hitting gets too enthusiastic it can result in penalties - not a good idea in view of Edmonton's highly effective power play.
Obviously, it is quite a dilemma - and one few teams have been able to solve.
Boston must mount an offense of its own, of course, and the Bruins have some legitimate threats. Bourque, the classic rushing defenseman, led the team in regular-season scoring, with forwards Ken Linesman, Steve Kasper, and Cam Neely next in line. Kasper's role in this series will be different, however, since over the years he has shown an uncanny ability to ``shadow'' Gretzky and hold him in check - a job he will be put on as regularly as possible.
Finally, this series has more than its share of irony and unusual emotions due to the presence of so many people on each side with previous connections to the other. Four Edmonton players - Geoff Courtnall, Mike Krushelnyski, Craig McTavish, and backup goalie Bill Ranford - are former Bruins; assistant coach Ted Green was a popular defenseman there in the 1960s and '70s and a member of Boston's last Stanley Cup champions in 1972; and Edmonton president, general manager and co-coach Glen Sather began his 11-year NHL playing career with the Bruins.
On the other side of the ledger, Linesman played for Edmonton a few years ago and scored the game-winning goal in the Oilers' 1984 Stanley Cup-clinching contest against the New York Islanders. And Andy Moog, who will start in goal for Boston tonight, was Edmonton's backup netminder for several seasons and a member of all three Stanley Cup championship teams.