Flyers Make Opening Night A Winner Tip Oilers, 2-1, With Late Rally

Posted: October 10, 1986

The calendar said it was only Oct. 9, and while the attention of many sports fans was on the baseball playoffs and the football season, the Flyers and the Edmonton Oilers cranked up a dandy season-opener last night.

With surprise starter Ron Hextall staring down Wayne Gretzky and the rest of the Oilers' gunners, the Flyers rallied with third-period goals by Ron Sutter and Peter Zezel to gain a 2-1 win before a screaming, sellout crowd of 17,222 at the Spectrum.

With arguably the two best teams in hockey going at each other for 60 minutes, one has to wonder what they can do for an encore in the next 79 games.

"It's only one of 80 games," Flyers coach Mike Keenan said. "Game 1 is done; it's 2 points and I'm really happy about it. We played an outstanding team, but to beat the Oilers is special."

Keenan subjected himself to what might have been a massive dose of second- guessing by starting Hextall, a 22-year-old rookie playing his first NHL game, instead of veteran Bob Froese, last season's league-leader in goals- against average.

But Hextall, whose 4-0 record and 1.75 goals-against average in the preseason almost forced the Flyers to go with three goalies for at least the early part of the season, was a 6-foot-3 tower of strength.

After getting beat by Jari Kurri on the first shot of the game at 2 minutes, 8 seconds, Hextall was perfect on the Oilers' final 21 shots, including breakaway opportunities by Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Esa Tikkanen.

"I thought I played fairly well," said Hextall. "The team played really well in front of me. They were protecting me; they knew it was my first game."

Keenan said he told Hextall of his opening-night assignment after the morning skate yesterday.

"It was a difficult decision," he said. "Bob Froese did an outstanding job for us last year. I'm sure he understands the function of tonight's decision. In due course, he'll get his opportunity."

Froese was clearly disappointed at watching the curtain-raiser from the bench, but he chose his words carefully.

"I'm just extremely disappointed," Froese said. "I had been gearing myself to this for a while. I'll try to be positive, no matter what. That's the only thing I can be.

"I wasn't overjoyed when I found out. But that's part of the game. I have to keep my head up. I know what kind of goaltender I am.

"Something like this does spur you on. I'm just going to keep working as hard as I can."

The Flyers worked and worked to get to Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr. They finally did so at the 9:20 mark of the third period, although they needed a little help from Fuhr to do it.

After catching up with Rick Tocchet's dump-in into the right-wing corner, Sutter looked to center a pass while standing between the goal line and the bottom of the right-wing circle. But his pass banked off the inside of Fuhr's pads and trickled between his legs.

About five minutes later, a Flyers rush was extended when Brad Marsh knocked down an Oilers attempt to clear at the left point. He fired the puck toward Fuhr, who stopped a deflection attempt by Zezel. But the goalie was down and out of position.

Zezel, standing about 20 feet away, claimed the rebound and fired the puck over Fuhr and into the net at 14:24.

"Brad had all the time in the world to take the shot," said Zezel, a workhorse all evening. "I skated in front and wanted to tip it, but it hit

Fuhr's pads.

"But I slipped through between (Fuhr) and the defenseman and got the puck. I had a wide-open net. In that situation, all I can think about is shooting the puck. That net was all that I saw."

It didn't take long for Hextall to be rudely welcomed to the free-wheeling world of the Oilers.

Tocchet went off for hooking at 1:34 of the first period. It took only 34 seconds for Kurri - the NHL leader with 68 goals last year - to pounce on a loose puck that banked off Tikkanen's skate in front of the Flyers' net. Tocchet backhanded a shot past Hextall's glove to make it 1-0.

But Hextall stood up to the Edmonton onslaught for the remainder of the game, showing the sellout crowd that he wasn't afraid to come out of his net and challenge the Oilers.

The biggest challenge came late in the period, when Hextall stood eyeball to eyeball with The Great Gretzky himself.

Gretzky took a pass behind Mark Howe at the Flyers' blue line and skated in alone. But as he swung to his left and into the circle, Hextall followed him about 15 feet out of the net and smothered the shot with his right pad. Gretzky collected the rebound but shot wide from a bad angle.

Hextall's other close call came in the second period with the Flyers two men down. Mark Messier roared in on a 2-on-1 and had the goalie helpless, but his shot clanged off the right post, then the left post, then away.

"You're just trying to stop the puck," Hextall said. "It doesn't matter who is shooting. Of course, when you know No. 99 (Gretzky) is out there, you can't help but notice him."

But No. 1 in the Being Noticed category last night was not Gretzky, but Hextall.

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