Commentary

Like the '83 Oilers, must these Pens lose before they can win?

Updated: May 25, 2008, 7:51 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- So, here's the Stanley Cup version of the Pythagorean theorem. Before a monumental step is taken, there must be a monumental tumble, and we're not talking about Marc-Andre Fleury tumbling onto the ice before Game 1.

The theory goes, if you want to walk up the NHL playoff mountain, the tumble has to happen on that last step in full view of the summit, before you can know how to reach the peak.

[+] EnlargeWayne Gretzky
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesIn 1983, Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers were swept in their first Cup finals by Bryan Trottier and the Islanders.

It was so with the Detroit Red Wings. Before winning three Cups between 1997 and 2002, the Wings lost to a less-talented New Jersey Devils team in the 1995 Cup finals and Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 Western Conference finals. It was so for the Anaheim Ducks, who lost in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals and the 2006 Western Conference finals before winning it all in 2007.

So, where do the 2007-08 Pittsburgh Penguins fit in this theory?

At the start of these Stanley Cup finals, one of the persistent parallels being drawn was between the Penguins and the youthful 1982-83 Edmonton Oilers, and the lessons that those Oilers learned against the dynastic New York Islanders.

In the spring of 1983, the Oilers were on the brink of greatness, boasting a lineup full of future Hall of Famers, including Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr and Paul Coffey.

The Oilers compiled a gaudy 11-1 record en route to the finals (the opening round was a best-of-five affair in those days) and squared off against a New York Islanders team that had won three straight championships.

Still, many believed the Oilers would prevail based on their level of talent. They didn't, of course, as the battle-tested Islanders swept the Oilers in four games.

The Penguins naturally play the role of the Oilers in this 2008 production of Stanley Cup finals drama, while the Wings are a viable stand-in for the Islanders after winning three Cups since 1997.

"I think you can draw some parallels," Neil Smith, who was part of the Islanders management team from 1980 to 1982 as an advance scout, said before these Cup finals began. At this stage of the playoffs, experience is crucial.

"It's not something you can buy. You either have it or you don't," Smith said. "Everywhere you look on Detroit, they've got more experience than Pittsburgh, from the coach on through the lineup."

Smith, who was also the general manager of the 1994 Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers, predicted that, at some point early in the finals, the Penguins are going to realize they are overmatched.

"All of a sudden, a light bulb is going to go on," Smith said.

Just as a light bulb went on for the Oilers.

The 1983 finals opened in Edmonton and the Islanders took Game 1 and Game 2, 2-0 and 6-3 respectively. In a blink of an eye, the series was half over. In a second blink, it was all over as the Isles won two at home, 5-1 and 4-2.

Current Oilers GM Kevin Lowe won five Cups as a player in Edmonton and another with the Rangers in 1994. The most important lesson of that 1983 series was that raw talent alone, regardless of the amount of raw talent, wasn't nearly enough.

"We learned that systems were so important, that you just couldn't throw out a lot of good talent and that was going to be good enough," Lowe said this week. "That's why I think that Pittsburgh has an advantage over us at this juncture [of the teams' evolutions].

[+] EnlargeSidney Crosby
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMuch like the 1983 Oilers, Sidney Crosby and the Pens blistered through the first three rounds before facing a traditional NHL power in the Cup finals.

"They're very disciplined. They're very committed," he said. "They play a real team game. I think there's a misconception. It's not having to lose to learn how to win, it's learning how to win."

Where the Oilers' engine was driven by Gretzky and Messier, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin give the Pens the most devastating 1-2 punch in the game. Both teams had/have strong supporting casts up and down the lineup.

Another person who sees parallels between that seminal clash of NHL powers is Butch Goring, who played six seasons with the Islanders during their dynasty years.

"I think [the Oilers] learned a whole bunch of things about playing for the Cup [in 1983]," said Goring, who is now a broadcast analyst in the New York area.

The Islanders also learned some things about themselves that spring, too. At the start of the finals, Goring acknowledged the Isles didn't know what they were going to get from the high-flying Oilers.

"Our team was really, really concerned," he said. "We knew these guys could score. I think we weren't just sure what was going to happen."

But the Islanders' familiarity with the routine of playing that late in the playoffs served them well, especially opening on the road. "You almost have to know what it is to expect in order to survive it," Goring said.

And one of those lessons is one of the urban legends surrounding those finals. The story is that when the Oilers went by the victorious Islanders dressing room, they saw more relief than celebration because the Islanders looked like they'd been through a war and the Oilers hadn't. Gretzky and Co. took that to heart and said, essentially, "That's what we have to do to win."

"I can tell you it was a true story because we were beat up," Goring said.

Whatever lessons were learned, they were quickly evident when the two teams met in next season's finals. That series opened on Long Island and the Oilers stunned the Islanders with a 1-0 victory. It was a close-checking affair the Oilers might never have won in 1983.

"It wasn't a great goal, but it was a great lesson," Goring said. "They figured out how to beat us."

The Islanders won Game 2, but lost three straight to see their Cup string come to an end as the Oilers outscored them 19-6 over the final three games. Lowe, too, said that first game was being pivotal.

One of the fashionable reasons to compare the 1982-83 Oilers to the 2007-08 Penguins team is that both were young and wildly talented. The difference is that from 1983 to 1984, the Oilers lineup saw very little change. There was no salary cap, it was just a matter of convincing all the players to stay.

Now, there is a cap and this Penguins team, win or lose, will likely look different next season as Marian Hossa, Brooks Orpik, Pascal Dupuis and Ryan Malone are all potential unrestricted free agents who may have to find other homes given Pittsburgh's other financial issues.

In the old days, when the term dynasty didn't refer to a museum piece, "You had time for a team to learn," Smith said.

Now, you have to learn on the go or watch your window of opportunity for success close. Still, Smith believes the Penguins are destined for greatness.

"I just don't think they're a great team now," he said.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.