‘It was the perfect script’: How underdog Oilers shocked Stars in ’97

Gene Principe sits down with former Edmonton Oiler Patrick Maroon and discusses life at home during social isolation. He reminisces about his time in Edmonton, his Stanley Cup journey with the Blues and how he enjoys life with his new team in Tampa.

Tune in to Sportsnet West on Saturday at 8 p.m. MT/10 p.m. ET for NHL Rewind as the Edmonton Oilers take on the Dallas Stars in the Game 7 from the first round of the 1997 playoffs.

Below, Mark Spector tees up the game to get you ready.

EDMONTON — "I didn’t think Marchant was going to score, because he’d had a number of breakaways during the year and hadn’t scored."

It was April 1997, and Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock had just watched Curtis Joseph make the miracle save on Joe Nieuwendyk that had breathed hope into the Edmonton Oilers, and kicked his Stars square in the nards.

Dallas was that team that was supposed to win Round 1 easily — they had finished 23 points ahead of Edmonton and beaten them four times that season. Now, in overtime of Game 7, the Stars had long passed the point where they’d expended more energy than a Stanley Cup contender is supposed to waste on a team like these Oilers.

And now, here comes Marchant, wheeling past a stumbling Grant Ledyard and steaming in on Andy Moog.

"As you know, I never had a lot of luck on breakaways," Marchant said some 23 years later, moving into a story about he and then-Oilers general manager Glen Sather. "Glen used to always rib me, ‘Are you worried about scoring on breakaways?’ And I knew it was a double-edged sword. Because if I said I didn’t, he’d say, ‘Well, you should.’ And if I said I did, he’d say, ‘You shouldn’t be.’"

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The Oilers were the ultimate underdog. "It was the perfect script," Joseph said.

Financially, their payroll was under $20 million at a time when small market Canadian teams were in the National Hockey League’s crosshairs. Winnipeg had gone south to Phoenix for the 1996-97 season, and the season prior to that saw the birth of the Colorado Avalanche — formerly the Quebec Nordiques.

The Oilers were next in line, and everyone knew it. Attendance was at an all-time low as a fan base realized that the new NHL cast their Oilers as an "opponent" and a "farm team." They’d become a franchise that the rich clubs needed to fill their schedules, but those same large market clubs would relieve the Oilers of any good players they might develop as soon as they became free agents.

So, Edmonton trundled down to steamy Dallas that spring, first-round fodder if ever there was. In the regular season, the Oilers had been outscored 18-6 by Dallas and had not held a lead for even a single second in the four games. Edmonton had fallen from fourth place in the West to seventh in the final week of the season.

Meanwhile, Joseph hadn’t stolen a game in weeks.

"We were so naïve – just a bunch of kids who went out and said, ‘Let’s see what happens,’" said Marchant, now the director of player development for the Anaheim Ducks. "And every period, every game that went by we gained more confidence. ‘Wow, we can actually play with these guys.’"

Against the older, more experienced Stars, Edmonton head coach Ron Low’s mantra was "let’s get 100 hits every game," Marchant recalled. Dallas was hoping for a four-round playoff run, and in the depth of their collective psyche, they must have been hoping/planning to have plenty of energy left after the Oilers series, a healthy reserve intended for the true contenders like Colorado and Detroit.

"We may never have held the lead in any of the regular season games against those guys, but the playoffs is a different animal," Marchant said. "You’re playing the same team, over and over and over again. So, you get a legitimate hate for certain players on the other team. You get more emotionally involved as the series goes on."

The season before, Dallas had traded a draft pick off the Kamloops Blazers roster named Jarome Iginla to Calgary for Nieuwendyk. They were a "right now" team. It was their time to win.

"We were in last place the year before — we went from last to first in the Central Division," Hitchcock said. "Everything we touched turned to gold. Every bit of adversity, we came out of it quick. We had a 38-point turnaround."

But there was one problem.

"We were a good team that wasn’t hard yet."

That became clear in Game 3, after the Oilers had won Game 2 at Dallas to earn a split. The teams arrived in Edmonton, where the locals had not witnessed an NHL playoff game in five years. The old Northlands Coliseum – renamed the Edmonton Coliseum the year before — was packed on a Sunday night, and Dallas scored twice in the first period and once in the second.

By the 15:00 mark of the third period it was 3-0 Stars and a good 30 per cent of the crowd had left. Then Doug Weight scored at 16:00. And Andrei Kovalenko scored at 17:44. Then Mike Grier tied the game just 12 seconds after that.

"I remember hearing stories of people turning around in their cars and heading back to the arena," said Joseph. "It’s Edmonton, where hockey matters. It’s everything. It was fun for me to play in that environment, where hockey mattered to everybody."

Kelly Buchberger drifted a wrist shot over Moog’s glove in overtime to give the Oilers a 2-1 series lead. It was a game that heavily impacted this series, putting a dent in Dallas’s psyche while pumping Edmonton’s tires to capacity.

Dallas Morning News columnist Randy Galloway was, like the rest of the writers, forced to delete almost everything he’d written when that puck hit the twine behind Moog. His elegant, thoughtful prose now deleted, with deadline looming, Galloway instead offered this hastily written lede to the Morning News faithful:

"My Gawd! What happened?"

"You know, it’s gradual," said Joseph, when asked when he thought his Oilers truly believed they could win the series. "There are times when you start to really believe. When you can feel it in the room. ‘We can play with these guys.’ ‘We’re right here.’ Certainly, when you win in overtime it is so deflating for the other team, and so elevating for your team. As the series goes on, you look around the room, guys start to believe. You believe in one another. We really started to have no fear."

"We started the series in Dallas, and it was just a hockey series," recalled Hitchcock. "Then, when we went to Edmonton, it was emotionally at a whole other level.

"It was the first time that we felt like we weren’t playing 20 players — we were playing a million players. We got discouraged and outworked at times by a goalie that, I thought, took over the series."

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The Stars won Game 4 by a 4-3 score. The Oilers won Game 5 in double-OT on a Ryan Smyth goal. Dallas walked into Edmonton and took Game 6 by a 3-2 count, a fabulous, wide open hockey game in which the shots were 41-35 for the Stars.

It all set up Game 7 down at old Reunion Arena in Dallas, where the humidity was high, the ice was soft, and the Stars were nervous. They went to overtime once again, tied 3-3, when a rebound slipped out to Nieuwendyk in the low slot, with Joseph stranded near his left post.

He sprawled across the crease to deny Nieuwendyk, a save that play-by-play man Bob Cole called, "The play of the series." It was one of the finest, most impactful saves in the history of an Oilers franchise that can claim five Stanley Cups.

"We couldn’t see what an unbelievable save he made on Joe Nieuwendyk," said Marchant, who was on the Oilers bench at the time. "Just where the bench was situated, all the players in between. We really didn’t know what a save it was."

Did Hitchcock get a good look?

"I saw it in my nightmares for a few years," he said. "We had a perfect angle on it, and everybody on our bench thought that was it. That’s what happens sometimes. You’ve got to remember, (Eddie) Belfour did that to Colorado two years in a row. So, we got it done to us. But we got it back too, you know?"

Joseph modestly allowed that it was one of his better saves.

"You know, I don’t really rank games, or saves or anything," Joseph said. "But I hear about this save more than any other save I’ve ever made. So, it’s got to be up there.

"I actually didn’t know where it was. You can see on the replay, I played the shell game with my gloves. I didn’t even know where it was lodged, but I knew it wasn’t in the net."

The fact that save occurred just one shift prior to Marchant’s breakaway lends the context necessary for all great athletic feats. What we didn’t know, however, was the role the Oilers goalie played in the Marchant goal.

"Toddy used to ask me where to score, because he’d get a lot of chances, with his speed," Joseph said. "I remember telling him, ‘Look at where Andrei Kovalenko scores all his goals: low blocker. It’s such a good shot for a left-handed shooter.’ With his speed, he kept on changing the angle as he went in, with that tremendous speed. And he buried it."

With the team at four-on-four, Low went with his best passer (Doug Weight) and best skater (Marchant).

"I don’t know why, but I just took off," recalls Marchant of how he flew the Oilers’ zone as soon as Weight collected a loose puck below the face-off circle to Joseph’s left. "I always say to my kids, or the prospects that I work with: ‘Never turn your back on the puck.’ But I did. I turned my back on Dougie and just started to skate. He put it on my tape.

"If I had that breakaway 10 more times, I’d probably only score once or twice. As you know, I never had a lot of luck on breakaways, but there wasn’t much time to think. I just shot the puck."

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For Dallas, it was no different than the Pittsburgh Penguins losing to Ottawa in 2007, before the Penguins made it to two straight Stanley Cup Finals. It was the Maple Leafs upsetting the heavily favoured New York Islanders in 1978 before the Isles went on their four-straight Cup dynasty from 1980-83. It was the Miracle on Manchester in 1982, Edmonton’s upset loss to the Los Angeles Kings that preceded the Oilers’ dynasty.

They would win a Stanley Cup in 1999, steeled by a little small market team from Edmonton.

"That series hardened us up for the next five years. Hardened us beyond belief," Hitchcock said. "We knew how deep we had to dig, and any time we got to that point, whether it was against Detroit, Colorado… We knew how deep we had to go emotionally, because we’d gone through it once before.

"Winning in the playoffs, you need to do anything and everything to win. Give Edmonton credit: they did that. They put their faces in front of pucks. They did anything they could — everything they could — to try and win those games. They played way, way outside their comfort zone. That’s what that series taught us — how far outside our comfort zone we had to go to win."

The win came on Joseph’s 30th birthday.

"The boys sang an impromptu ‘Happy Birthday’ in the dressing room, when we were still in our equipment," he recalled. "It was a surreal moment. A bonding moment, where somebody starts singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ a real emotional time. I get chills now, just thinking about it."

Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Gil LeBreton wrote this, under the banner headline FALLEN STARS: "In the end, the Stars were found guilty and sentenced to five months of golf. All series long, the precocious Oilers had tried to make the Stars pay for every slower step and every second of patience."

And in the end, the Stars just stood there, hoping Todd Marchant would do what he usually did.

"I didn’t think he would score," Hitchcock said. "But, then he did."

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