Wayne Gretzky is understandably upset, though he's taking great pains not to show it. Fresh from a postgame shower, natty in a pink shirt and tie, Edmonton's young wonder tried to explain why the New York Islanders had completely shackled him throughout three games of what could be a four-game sweep to the Stanley Cup.
"(Goalie) Billy Smith is playing exceptionally well," Gretzky said. "He's made some fabulous saves, and it's been a big part of the difference."
Gretzky and Smith, the central characters in what became the focus of Game 3 in Edmonton Thursday, are not friends. Smith, noted for brandishing his stick when clearing his crease, chopped Gretzky as he skated around the Islanders net, bringing the center down.
Smith said he was not trying to hurt Gretzky, but the NHL's scoring champion cried foul and the incident threatened to overshadow the league's long-awaited showcase series. But after Smith's 33 saves in the Islanders' 5-1 defeat of the Oilers on Saturday, Gretzky and teammates spoke only of the goaltender's skill, not his extracurricular style.
"I've had a lot of opportunities (in this series), but so many times it has either hit a post or Smith has made a great save," Gretzky said. He permitted himself a slight smile, reflecting upon his statistics against the Islanders in three games: no goals, two assists, including the feed to Jari Kurri for Saturday night's only Edmonton score.
"I am definitely paid to put the puck in the net, and I am concerned about what is happening."
Gretzky said he has not altered his style to play the Islanders. "Maybe I'm watching a different game, because I think we've played some good hockey," he said. "We just haven't scored goals."
Islanders' experience has limited the Oilers to just four goals in three games, and pushed the final series newcomers to the brink of extinction. Smith said he hadn't really envisioned being 3-0 over the Oilers, especially after two sluggish periods by the Islanders Saturday. "I think Edmonton played very well, but then we broke it open in the third period, just coming at them," he said.
Bob Bourne, who scored one goal and set up another by Duane Sutter, called his club a patient team, and illustrated the point. "I think experience showed up in the Boston series. A lot of younger teams would have been rattled after being outplayed in the first and second periods then, as we were. As long as Smitty keeps us in there, we weren't concerned on the bench, because we knew we would come out and score a couple goals."
Bourne credited the Islanders' defense with neutralizing Gretzky. "It's impressive," he said. "I know, because in practice, you skate one on one, or two on one with those guys (Ken Morrow, Denis Potvin, Stefan Persson, Dave Langevin) and you just don't score on them. They are helping to keep Gretzky and (Mark) Messier away from the net." He smiled. "And now it's just one more game."
Langevin, who had been out with a strained knee since before the playoffs began, returned Saturday night, but said he "felt the knee pop" during an early shift. Coach Al Arbour used Langevin sparingly after that, but intends to keep him in the lineup for Tuesday's Game 4 here.
Messier, who scored 48 goals during the regular season, has been playing with a "first-degree" shoulder separation, Oilers Coach Glen Sather confirmed today. He suffered the injury in the third game of the series against Chicago and missed one game.