The Phanatic Magazine
The 1987 Stanley Cup Finals were rapidly approaching June, and the Oilers were on the verge of winning their third Cup in four seasons.
Game 6 returned to the Spectrum in South Philadelphia on Thursday, May 28th, with Edmonton holding a three games to two series lead. It could have been, should have been all over two nights before but the Oilers blew leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in Game 5 as the Flyers shocked the hockey world by pulling out a thrilling 4-3 win at Northlands Coliseum thanks to Brian Propp’s four assists and Rick Tocchet’s game-winning goal.
However, the shift away from the distractions of home seemed to power the visitors, who scored twice in the first period and out shot the Flyers by an incredible 15-5 margin. The goals were not classics, as Kevin Lowe scored when he booted in a wraparound pass by Wayne Gretzky then Kevin McClelland stuffed home the rebound of Craig MacTavish’s shot in close.
Philly seemed tired and lost until Lindsay Carson’s goal with a little more than seven minutes gone in the second cut into their deficit. Even then luck was a huge factor since Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr appeared to stone Carson cold on the shot, only to see it trickle through his pads and curl inside the right post.
Down by a goal heading into the third, the Flyers had only 13 shots, came up empty in four power-play chances, and gave up a shorthanded goal. It looked like Edmonton had the game wrapped up in a defensive shell, until Glenn Anderson decided to turn his stick into the side of Peter Zezel’s face with 7:39 to play.
Propp tied the game with a beautiful snap shot which beat Fuhr’s glove in the top left corner 43 seconds later and finally things were looking a lot less bleak. Over a minute later, J.J. Daigneault, little used in the game to that point stepped up to greet the puck and into franchise lore with 5:32 to play in regulation…
Of course, history records that after Daigneault’s go-ahead score, nothing else happened as the Flyers marched on to victory and Game 7 returned to Edmonton three days later.
Not so. Not by a long shot.
The Oilers kept coming in waves over the final five-plus minutes, and it took a heroic effort by each Flyers line to keep them at bay. Fuhr went to the bench for an extra attacker with just over a minute to go, and Tocchet had two chances to ice the game with an empty-netter but failed. After the second attempt with 20 seconds left, Paul Coffey fed ahead for the rush and Kent Nilsson’s missed outlet through center ice went into the Flyers’ zone. Hextall came out to the edge of the right circle to play it, and decided it was a good time to shoot for the empty net right up the center of the ice.
Except…Mark Messier smartly read the play, came zooming up the middle and used the full extension of his body plus a few inches off the ice to grab the clear. He skated in on Hextall with no Flyers player within 10 feet, and got off a shot which Hexy kicked out - but right back to Messier, who thankfully pushed the second shot over the net. He backhanded a blind clear through the crease all the way back to defenseman Randy Gregg, but his weaker point shot was knocked down by Mark Howe’s thigh with two seconds to go.
When the clock finally hit three zeroes, the Spectrum crowd erupted with a sonic thrust that did not subside for almost 15 minutes. Gene Hart’s call of those final frantic seconds was almost unintelligible on TV and radio due to the noise bouncing off the walls of the venerable arena.
Wrote Al Morganti in the opening paragraph of his story in the following day’s Inquirer: “This was the type of comeback, the type of gut-busting effort, with which the Flyers have established a very special place in Philadelphia sports history.”
Narrator Earl Mann put it more dramatically in “Blood, Sweat and Cheers,” the story of that 1986-87 squad: “The legend of this team and this series will live on forever for those that witnessed it.”
For anyone under the age of 40, this remains the defining moment in Flyers history. Even the surprise run in 1995, the first three-quarters of the 1997 playoffs, and the miraculous 2000 journey all pale in comparison collectively.
The buzz in the whole Delaware Valley over the next three days was so positive and wondrous, because the Stanley Cup was there for the taking in a deciding seventh game. We should all be so lucky if a future Cup winning Flyers team garners one-third the respect the 1987 team earned.
For now, 20 years to the day, it’s nothing more than a distant poignant memory, caught up in the emotion of the ensuing years of heartbreak.