Do a YouTube search for the greatest glove saves of all-time and you’re bound to see a couple Mike Vernon stops from the 1988-89 season, when Calgary won the Stanley Cup.
What’s remarkable about that is they came from the same period in the seventh and deciding game of an opening round series with the Vancouver Canucks. And that period was overtime.
“I can still see that glove save he made on Tony Tanti,” said Calgary Flames original and current play-by-play man Peter Maher. “I can still see it. And I can still see the one he made on (Stan Smyl).”
Ask around and you’ll hear about the other big saves he made in overtime April 15, 1989. There was one on Trevor Linden.
“I remember ones on Petri Skriko and Greg Adams, too,” said center Joel Otto.
It was then Otto’s destiny to get the series winner at 19:21 of overtime.
“(Hakan) Loob got it to (Jim) Peplinski wide,” Otto recalled. “There was no secret to our line. Just try to get it to the net and create havoc. Luckily it went in off my foot and the rest is history.”
Said Maher: “If they had a review today, it might not have counted. It went off Otto’s skate into the goal. In those days, there was no review.”
Good thing for the Flames. They might still be searching for their first Cup had that goal been waved off. The ’88-89 Flames played as though they were a team of destiny. They led the league with 117 points on a 54-17-9 record and were first or second in the league in goals for, goals against, power play efficiency and penalty killing.
“We lost to Montreal in the 1986 final and we just assumed we’d be back every year after that,” said co-captain Lanny McDonald. “By 1989, we realized if we didn’t win it then, because everyone was getting a bit older, would they or could they stand to leave the team together?”
Terry Crisp had taken over from Bob Johnson behind the bench in 1987 and the emphasis was on offense, initiated by puck-moving blueliners Al MacInnis and Gary Suter and executed by finishers such as 50-goal men Joe Mullen and Joe Nieuwendyk.
“That team had everything,” Maher said. “The bench was solid offensively and defensively. There didn’t seem to be a flaw. I talk to guys on that team now and they talk about the fourth line. That fourth line could be the No. 2 line on the current team. There was so much depth, they were able to trade a scorer like Brett Hull just to get insurance.”
Hull was 23 when he broke in with the Flames in 1987-88. The right winger scored 26 goals and 50 points in 52 games as a rookie when GM Cliff Fletcher felt he needed blueline depth and a proven backup to Vernon. So, on March 7, 1988, Fletcher dealt the future Hall of Famer to St. Louis for Rob Ramage and Rick Wamsley, a trade that looks one-sided today, but at the time was one of the final pieces to Calgary’s Cup puzzle.
The Calgary defense had hard-shooting MacInnis and crafty Suter running the power play, Brad McCrimmon and Jamie Macoun playing robust two-way games and Dana Murzyn and Ric Nattress in shutdown roles. Ramage, the first-overall draft pick in 1979 was an all-around defender versatile enough to excel in any game situation.
When Suter went down with a broken jaw in the first round, the ability of Ramage to fill his role on the power play and eat up additional minutes on the blueline proved invaluable. The Calgary defense didn’t miss a beat.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing throughout for the Flames. The fact they were pushed to seven games in the opening round by a Vancouver team that finished 43 points behind them during the regular season is proof there was a lot of anxiety. Calgary lost the opener in overtime, but rebounded for wins in Games 2 and 3. After splitting the next two games, the Canucks forced Game 7 with a convincing 6-3 win in Vancouver.
“I remember getting on the bus after the post-game radio show of Game 6 and I was no sooner on than they told me to get off,” Maher recalled. “They asked all the media people to leave the bus. Cliff (Fletcher) went in and they closed the door. I don’t know if he ripped them or what, but he did have a sermon with them. That might have been a turning point for that team.”
Otto remembers that series against Vancouver as being a confidence builder.
“The whole season was a focus for us,” said Otto, now an assistant coach with the Western League’s Calgary Hitmen. “Guys had a lot of personal pride during the season. As the season wore on we were fighting for first place and the Presidents’ Trophy. Then the playoffs came and we knew it was now or never.
“We played a Vancouver team that had nothing to lose. They came in and played great. Whether we were gripping the sticks too tight or it was just first-round jitters, I don’t know. But Vancouver found a way to get that opportune goal and we ended up needing Mike to stand on his head in goal.”
In the second round, the Flames had little trouble with their old nemesis, Wayne Gretzky, in his first season with the Kings. Calgary swept Los Angeles, outscoring them 22-11. The Flames then disposed of Chicago in five games in the conference final, setting the stage for a rematch of the 1986 final with Montreal, the No. 2 team during the season.
“Everything was pointing towards a Calgary-Montreal showdown,” said the famously moustached McDonald. “We still had quite a few guys from that ’86 team. But this time we just weren’t willing to let each other down. We had great goaltending, phenomenal depth up front. Our three centers down the middle were Joe Nieuwendyk, Doug Gilmour and Joel Otto. Where are you going to find two better offensive guys and one better checker in the middle?”
Nieuwendyk, then 22 and already a two-time 50-goal scorer, centered 22-year-old Gary Roberts and Loob. The second line consisted of Gilmour between Joe Mullen and Colin Patterson. Mullen led playoff goal scorers that spring with 16 in 21 games. Otto, a hulking shutdown specialist, also contributed offense with 53 points and 19 in 22 playoff games. He played with a variety of wingers, including McDonald, Peplinski, Mark Hunter and Jiri Hrdina.
The fourth line consisted of late-season acquisition Brian MacLellan with enforcer Tim Hunter and 20-year-old mid-season call-up Theoren Fleury.
“The Flames lost three games in a row in December and called up Fleury from Salt Lake in the IHL,” Maher recalled. “After that, they never had a losing streak of significance. Not to say Fleury was a huge difference-maker, he just added to their great depth.”
Forward depth and Vernon’s opening-round Game 7 heroics aside, the key contributor that spring was MacInnis. Known more for his booming shot than his two-way game, MacInnis led playoff scorers by a six-point margin, with seven goals and 31 points in 22 games. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
“Everyone knows what MacInnis did that spring,” McDonald said. “Thirty-plus points is unbelievable for a defenseman. He was that good. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame. When he first came in, he couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn with his shot. It wasn’t long before he knew precisely where that shot was going.”
In the final, the teams split the first two games in Calgary. Ryan Walter’s double overtime goal in Game 3 gave Montreal a 2-1 series lead and had Calgary fans thinking deja vu from the ’86 series. The Flames rebounded with 4-2 and 3-2 victories with Game 6 back in Montreal.
McDonald, 36 at the time, was a healthy scratch the previous three games. But coach Crisp knew the future Hall of Famer had a flare for the dramatic and a terrific sense of timing. It was the bottom of the ninth in McDonald’s storied career and he had just four goals and 11 points in 40 games of sporadic duty that season. With less than a month remaining in the season, McDonald was at 493 career goals and 999 career points. The milestone of 1,000 points was so close, but 500 goals was seemingly unattainable.
But in a magical three-game run, McDonald scored five goals, then later reached the 500-goal plateau with a marker in his second-last regular season game. In the deciding game of the final, he broke a 1-1 second-period tie with his first and last goal of the playoffs. The Flames went on to win 4-2.
“McDonald’s key ingredient that final year was leadership,” Maher said. “He was the ringleader of the bunch. He was the glue that kept things together. He wasn’t happy about being benched, but it didn’t become a problem, either.
“That last game was a storybook finish for him. When Nieuwendyk had the puck, I said on the air, ‘There’s McDonald open on the right wing.’ No sooner were those words out of my mouth than the puck was on his stick, then in the goal. It was fate for him and that team that season.”
This is an excerpt from THN’s special issue, Greatest Teams of All-Time.