One of the things Oilers fans should look for this season are subtle wrinkles in playing style. Things like how the team forechecks, how they get out of their own zone under pressure, how they run their powerplay. History tells us "systems" can make a helluva difference. A lesser team can level the playing field with hard work and a game plan the other team is unprepared to deal with; 35 years ago, it stopped a dynasty in its tracks.
Two teams kept the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970’s from running the table 1973-1979 (they pretty much did it anyway). The Philadelphia Flyers won their two Stanley’s right in the middle of 5 victories for the Habs. The Buffalo Sabres also stopped the vaunt in the mid-70s with a stifling checking style.
Scotty Bowman, Montreal’s coach, after the series: "He’s (Don Luce) one of those players who knocks around for five or six years, lands in Buffalo, fits into their system, and becomes an outstanding player. He has learned from his experiences. We get him tied up and he wiggles free. He seems to know where the puck is and both he and Craig Ramsay know how to shoot to the top of the net. Buffalo’s French Connection Line didn’t knock us out of the playoffs. It was the Luce-Ramsay line that hurt us the most. Buffalo’s system of coming in deep on us worked because of them. All these teams have systems now and we can’t sit there unconcerned."
The system was a demon forecheck that inolved both Luce and Ramsay (along with Danny Gare) forcing the play at every turn. Unlike the old timey forecheck (perfected by Dave Keon, who was so fast he could be in two places at one time. Almost) the Montreal defender would find himself under pressure AND find his defense partner being marked. That Sabres team would often have all three forwards in the offensive zone without possession of the puck. How could they do it? All three had good speed and were committed to the forecheck. A team like Montreal had such a good defense getting out of their own zone was fairly easy most nights. Buffalo made it difficult.
Don Luce after the series: "We played the game as planned. We wanted to stay on them, force the play. We went to them and I think that disrupted their attack."
Craig Ramsay: "We played a smart checking game and frustrated them. It was a job done by three lines, four defenseman and a goalie."
The ironic thing about it was that the source of the system played came from outside the organization. Although GM Punch Imlach claimed credit for it (no one on earth would have credited coach Floyd Smith. He was not an innovator), the genesis of the pressured forecheck came from Ramsay’s junior coach: Roger Neilson of the Peterborough Petes.
When fans go to an open practice expecting to see a couple of scrimmages between the instruction, it can be galling to see all instruction and no scrimmage. However, the "devil is in the details" and those details are being hammered into the young group of Oilers this fall. Beauty. I can hardly wait until the modern Luce and Ramsay emerge. We’ll have something then.