To say the Calgary Flames were behind the eight ball heading into Game Three of the 1988 Smythe Division Final, was an understatement. After dropping the first two games of the series on home ice, they now were facing the near impossible task of having to take four of the next five against the Edmonton Oilers. To make matters worse, they would have to accomplish the feat by winning at least three of those games at Northlands Coliseum.
Most teams would have folded like a cheap suit with those types of odds staring them in the the face but to the Flames credit, they came out hard in Game Three and were looking to get back in the series that many of the so-called experts picked them to win. They were hoping for an early break and got just that courtesy of an ill advised pass from Oilers winger Esa Tikkanen.
With Edmonton on an early man advantage, Tikkanen was carrying the puck out of the end when he telegraphed at his own blueline. Calgary's Hakan Loob was more than happy to intercept Tikkanen's weak effort and broke in all alone on Grant Fuhr. The diminutive Swede kept it simple, making a quick move wide, before snapping a perfect shot to the stick side and give Calgary an early 1-0 lead. It was just the start the visitors were hoping for and the absolute opposite for the Oilers.
The Flames had the momentum but Edmonton continued to press and were helped along by defenceman Brad McCrimmon's decision to take a swing at Glenn Anderson's face with his stick, resulting in a four minute high sticking double minor. After each side took a quick minor penalty, Edmonton were working on a rare 4-on-3 power play. It would quickly become a 5-on-3 when Craig Simpson's minor ended and seconds later, we were all even at one.
Steve Smith ripped a bullet from the top of the circle past Vernon, as Calgary's penalty killers were unable to handle the continuous Oilers onslaught. It was just a matter of time before they tied it up and just like that, Calgary's early lead was gone.
Edmonton had a bit of a scare early in the second, after Joel Otto ripped a shot high on Fuhr from about ten feet out, that sent the Oiler tender crashing to the ice. The puck nailed the hard charging netminder in the shoulder/collarbone area but after a brief stint on the ice and to the disappointment of Calgary fans everywhere, the Spruce Grove native was back on his feet and ready for more.
Soon after the Fuhr incident, the series would get its first bit of controversy courtesy of Edmonton blueliner Marty McSorley. After being drilled head first into the end board by Calgary's Gary Roberts, the Oilers defenceman looked to be out on his feet but surprisingly, there was no call on the play from referee Andy Van Hellemond. As the Oiler regained possession of the puck and started back up ice, McSorley slowly made his way to the Edmonton bench. On the way, Flames forward Mike Bullard jumped over the boards on a line change and McSorley gave him a quick jab to the mid-section. Bullard crumbled to ice but the play went unnoticed by all three officials.
Seconds later, Charlie Huddy beat Vernon for the second consecutive night with a point blast and suddenly the Oilers were up by a score of 2-1. The Flames were obviously not happy but after a lengthy delay, the goal was allowed to stand but McSorley was assessed a fight minute major and a game misconduct for spearing It was a tough pill for Calgary to swallow but in all honesty, if the original penalty would have been called on Roberts, the entire situation could have been averted.
It was a tough break for the Flames but with a lengthy man advantage starring them in the face, they had a great chance to not only get back on level terms but maybe even re-gain the lead. To the Oilers credit, the completely shutdown Calgary's power play and rarely called upon Fuhr to even make a stop throughout the five minute kill. Opportunity wasted and Edmonton would make them pay before the period was out.
After not seeing much ice time in either of the penalty filled affairs in Calgary, Glenn Anderson made his long awaited appearance on the score sheet, knocking home a loose puck past Vernon, after the Calgary goaltender made a brilliant stop off a hard charging Mark Messier. In typical Anderson fashion, it was a huge goal for Oilers, giving them a two goal bulge heading into the intermission.
Both sides came out hungry in the third period but it was a devastating check from Messier that changed the entire tone of the period. Calgary's Perry Berezan was trying to corral a loose puck behind the Flames net, when the big Oilers centre absolutely destroyed him with one of his trademark hits, leaving the Calgary forward out cold. There are those that will argue it was dirty hit but in those days, it was considered clean. Messier simply finished his check and because Berezan was in a awkward position, his head was at the same level as Messier's left elbow...not surprisingly, his evening was done.
Give the Flames credit, they would fight back and cut the lead to one, when Joe Nieuwendyk finished a pretty give and go with Jim Peplinski, beating Fuhr to the stick side with an absolute laser. With their season in the balance, Calgary was not about to go quietly but it would be the Wayne Gretzky/Jari Kurri duo that would once again, deliver the final blow.
With the Flames desperately trying to find an equalizer late in the third, Messier hit Gretzky with a cross ice pass from the Oilers zone all the way up to the red line and Mr. Gretzky would do the rest. After drawing both Calgary defenders as he neared the Flames blueline, #99 flipped one of his trademark passes to the open side of the ice, where the fast approaching Finnish sniper appeared out of nowhere, with a clear path to the Calgary net.
Kurri would make no mistake, waiting just long enough for Vernon to open up the five-hole, before snapping a quick shot between the wickets and putting this one to bed. No matter what the Flames did, the Oilers seemed to always have an answer, as their best players continued to produce when it mattered most.
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