On a goal by Jari Kurri with six seconds left in regulation time, the Edmonton Oilers defeated the New Jersey Devils tonight, 3-2, and the defending Stanley Cup champions' unbeaten streak grew to 14 games.
That ties the NHL record from the start of a season, set by Montreal in 1943, and sets up further high drama Friday night at sold-out Capital Centre, where Edmonton, 11-0-3, goes for 15 against the Washington Capitals.
And when they skate out, the Oilers not only will present as usual the NHL's top offense -- 73 goals in 14 games -- but, in a remarkable double, they also will be putting on display the No. 1 defense. Edmonton has permitted only 33 goals, 2.36 per game.
Both teams had several chances to win in the closing minutes tonight. New Jersey goalie Chico Resch made three saves in the sequence that led to a faceoff at his left with 11 seconds on the clock.
The draw between Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky and the Devils' Rick Meagher was indecisive, but Gretzky followed the puck into the right-wing corner and made an accurate pass to the unguarded Kurri at the goalmouth. Kurri took the puck on his forehand, shifted it to his backhand and beat Resch.
The assist was Gretzky's third of the game, for a league-leading total of 37 points. He has at least one point in each game this season and has scored in his last 66 road games, dating to Dec. 9, 1982.
Mike Krushelnyski executed a power-play breakaway in the first period and Gretzky faked out two defenders to set up Kurri for a 2-0 lead in the second.
Pat Verbeek replied for New Jersey 10 seconds after Kurri's first goal and Paul Gagne tied the score with 5:38 left in the second period. Thereafter, Resch and Edmonton's Andy Moog exchanged superb saves, while each team also was often off-target from in close.
"We were physically tired, but we came out like gangbusters in the third period because of the record," Edmonton defenseman Kevin Lowe said. "We didn't want to come down to the last minute of the last game and give it away."
"The guys are real excited about tying the record," Gretzky said. "I think they're finally beginning to feel the way I felt when I was going through my streak last year (scoring in 51 straight games)."
"The streak is very, very important to us," defenseman Paul Coffey said. "We don't want to be known just as a team that won the Stanley Cup. A chance to set a league record that stood for 40-odd years is a chance to do something very special. It's not in a class with Philly's 35 in a row (in 1979-80) -- that's hard to believe -- but for the start of the year it's not too bad."
"I don't put a great deal of significance in records -- to tie a record set 40 years ago doesn't have a great bearing, because I wasn't around," Coach Glen Sather said. "But I think the team is starting to feel pressure from it. It became realistic today.
"The last two games the guys have looked uptight out there, almost like a team trying not to lose. It's great to get a good start, but the only record we want is to win the Stanley Cup."
The Oilers know Washington will be the consummate test. The teams tied in Edmonton, 3-3, on Oct. 24, when Mike Gartner's potential game winner was deflected by the shaft of Moog's stick. On Edmonton's last visit to Capital Centre, without Gretzky, the Capitals won, 9-2.
"Washington is a great checking team, a team to be reckoned with," Coffey said. "That 9-2 game, they forechecked us into the ground. Not even Bobby Orr could move the puck with his face in the glass. That should be some game against them, with the record at stake."
Before tonight's game, Coffey, who made his reputation on offense (40 goals, 86 assists last season), said, "We're taking more pride in our defense.
"We're working a lot harder defensively. We can't forget what got us here and won the Stanley Cup, which was scoring goals. And our offense hasn't been all that good the last couple of games. But we want to improve our defensive record."
Coffey has a special reason for seeking greater recognition as a defensive player. Despite his phenomenal point production, second only to Gretzky in the NHL last season, many scorned Coffey in voting for the Norris Trophy as best defenseman and for the postseason all-star teams. Washington's Rod Langway was a runaway winner in the Norris balloting and Boston's Ray Bourque joined Langway on the first all-star squad, with a disgusted Coffey relegated to the second team.
"The thing with Rod, he's a different type of player," Coffey said. "The way he plays, he's very deserving of all the recognition he gets. He deserves to win the award. What upset me about the thing was that so many people claimed I couldn't play defense."