Although the Philadelphia Flyers are technically alive in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup, there would be a shock producing a high number on the Richter scale if the Edmonton Oilers were unable to finish them Thursday night.
When the Flyers could not hold a 3-1 lead Tuesday and wound up 5-3 losers, they were watching a wonderful opportunity -- and most likely their last -- go glimmering.
The Oilers now hold a 3-1 advantage in the best-of-seven final, with the next game to be played at Northlands Coliseum, where they have won a record-tying 15 straight playoff games.
The most difficult decision to be rendered Thursday figures to be the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. Unlike last year, when the Oilers' Mark Messier was a clear choice, there are three candidates with dazzling credentials -- Edmonton center Wayne Gretzky, defenseman Paul Coffey and goaltender Grant Fuhr.
A panel of writers will make the selection and, since Oilers defenseman Kevin Lowe is writing a column here and is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, his opinion was sought.
"I won't mention any names, but I can think of three guys who qualify and rightfully deserve the award," Lowe said. "Yes, one is a forward, one a defenseman and one a goalie. Maybe this could be one of the years they could deserve a tie."
Gretzky has totaled 43 points, topping his own playoff record by five. He has 27 assists, breaking another of his marks, along with 16 goals. In 17 games, he has compiled a plus-24 rating.
Coffey has set Stanley Cup records for offensive achievements by a defensemen. His 10 goals, 24 assists and 34 points are playoff standards. The old records were nine by Bobby Orr and Brad Park, 19 by Orr and 25 by Denis Potvin. Only Gretzky has more assists in one playoff year than Coffey, whose plus-23 rating is second to Gretzky's.
Fuhr has started all 17 of Edmonton's playoff games, posting a 3.11 goals-against average and a save percentage of .896. Philadelphia's Pelle Lindbergh has better statistics -- 2.50 and .914 -- but he does not face the breakaways routinely given up by the offensive-minded Oilers.
Fuhr, for example, yielded three goals in the first period of Tuesday's win, but he made some sensational saves, including one on a penalty shot by Ron Sutter.
"If it wasn't for Grant in the first period, we don't win it," said Edmonton assistant coach John Muckler. "I'll admit I'd hate to have to pick between Wayne and Paul, but . . . I think you've got to consider all three guys."
Gretzky has been sensational in the last two games, scoring five goals and setting up linemates Mike Krushelnyski and Jari Kurri for so many botched opportunities that they have felt compelled to apologize to him.
The third candidate has long been a subject of controversy, because of some obvious defensive shortcomings. But besides his remarkable offensive statistics, Coffey continues to amaze onlookers with his speed and unmatched grasp of the transition game.
Tuesday, he managed to punch the puck out of the Edmonton zone during a four-on-three Philadelphia power play. The Flyers' Doug Crossman turned back to retrieve the puck and was shocked to find Coffey racing past him. Crossman was forced to pull Coffey down to prevent a breakaway, and the sides were even.
This has been a memorable season for Coffey, beginning with a superb performance as Canada won the Canada Cup. Nothing he does in the Stanley Cup playoffs can match his effort in overtime of the semifinal game against the Soviet Union, when he broke up a Soviet two-on-one, then turned the play around and launched the shot that caromed into the net off the shaft of Mike Bossy's stick to put Canada in the final.
"Paul Coffey has never played a better game than that and he probably never will," Muckler said. "Paul has been criticized for his defensive play, but at times he plays very well defensively. And when he has the puck in our end, it's the best defense you could ask, because he gets it out so quickly."