EDMONTON, Alberta — It was quick and silent murder. Played inside a sterile Northlands Coliseum — where an electronic voice has to urge the spoiled crowd to chant “Here we go, Oilers” — the Red Wings discovered what everyone had been warning them about in this Campbell Conference Final:
These are not the Toronto Maple Leafs.
These are not the St. Louis Blues.
These are the Edmonton Oilers, hockey’s answer to the driver’s training manual, and with all guns firing, they made the Red Wings seem out of place Tuesday night, lost, overwhelmed, at times even helpless. That was the ugly truth of this 4-1 defeat in Game 1. That is the dark nightmare the Wings must face the rest of the way.
“Not like that, like this,” every Edmonton pass seemed to say to every Detroit pass. “Stick to stick, clean and crisp.”
“Not like that, like this,” every Edmonton shot seemed to say to every Detroit shot. “Straight and hard and to the net. The purpose, after all, is to score.”
Yes. To score. On Tuesday night, the Wings had a hard enough time just shooting. They were outshot, 32-16, a ridiculous margin. On six power-play chances they managed just six shots on goal. That’s not good defense by the Oilers. That’s a damn cork.
“We spent too much time watching them play,” said a disappointed coach Jacques Demers afterward. “It was like we were in awe of them. Like we said,
‘These are the Edmonton Oilers, the Stanley Cup champions, look at them.’ I thought we were over all that, but we just went out there and watched.” You can almost understand it — but like Demers, you cannot accept it. The Wings knew they were not facing a Norris Division rival this time around. These are the Edmonton Oilers, who stormed Calgary in the Smythe Division Finals last week the same way the Russians stormed Calgary two months ago at the Winter Olympics. You go out there like an audience, and you might as well attend your own funeral.
This is what the Wings saw Tuesday night: Wayne Gretzky. Over there. Then over there. Then over here, then there, then here again. Gretzky was simply everything his press releases say he is, and at times he held center stage the way Curly Neal used to do it with the Harlem Globetrotters, dribbling in circles, daring anyone out there to “catch me if you can.” Gretzky was in on each of the Oilers’ first three goals — three assists, beautiful passes.
He didn’t need to be there on No. 4. Esa Tikkanen, whose main role was to shadow Petr Klima, took a weak deflected pass from the Wings’ Dave Barr, and broke away down the ice. He cut left at the last second, leaving Wings’ goalie Greg Stafan sprawled helplessly on the ice. Flick went the stick. In went the puck.
Good night, Detroit.
“It was like all night long we were in between, sitting back and playing defense and taking charge and playing offense,” a weary Stefan said in the locker room afterwards. “They got all the neutral ice, and you can’t give guys like Gretzky and (Mark) Messier that kind of room. They’ll kill you.”
Death by excellence. Just hours before the game, the Wings had been upbeat, high on their chances in this series, half of them sporting the new Red Wings hairdo — red and white down the side of the head. But all the color in the world couldn’t prepare them for the dazzle they received when Edmonton revved it up. This was a team playing with purpose, with definition, with excellence.
In other words, playing typical Oilers hockey. The Edmonton fans are so accustomed to this that you can barely hear them in their home arena. A beautiful pass draws a smattering of applause. A strong shot brings an occasional “ooh.” A goal brings the kind of applause Red Wings fans give when their team breaks up a power play.
But applause does not win games. Hockey does. So here, on this night when you could hear the players yelling instructions from high up in the press box, Edmonton outmaneuvered, outpassed, outshot and outdefended the Wings. And in the end, the Edmonton fans rallied long enough to chant an unnerving mantra:
“SWEEP! SWEEP! SWEEP!”
Now, OK. It is not impossible to beat the Oilers. It simply takes everything you can muster. The Wings actually may have been expecting a tougher time in Game 1, because Edmonton was determined not to make the same mistake it did in last year’s semifinal, when it lost the opener. This time Game 2 may be the best one to steal. But it won’t be done if the Wings repeat Tuesday night’s effort. No way.
“Nice game,” the Edmonton skates seemed to say to the Detroit skates as they left the ice with the final horn. “You gave it a good try. Watch how we do it next time. It’s easy.”
No thanks. The Wings have done enough star-gazing already.