North Stars' win may signal end of era Oilers' run atop NHL is coming to a close


Before the game, the players growled and glowered at each other, threatening to brawl during the warm-ups and forcing officials in street clothes to come on the ice to keep them apart.

After the game, the participants lingered on the playing surface, lining up for the traditional handshakes and chatting the way opponents do at the end of a National Hockey League playoff round.

In between these scenes Friday night, there came one good hockey game, and perhaps a momentous one for both the winners and the losers.

The scoreboard showed the Minnesota North Stars with a 3-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers and a 4-1 victory in the best-of-seven Campbell Conference championship, a semifinal of the Stanley Cup tournament.

The North Stars will meet the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals, which will begin Wednesday.

Last night, in the Wales Conference final, the Penguins beat the Bruins, 5-3 to win the series, 4-2.

For the North Stars, the series victory was the third of an improbable string of upsets.

After finishing the regular season with the 16th-best record in the 21-team league, they eliminated the two teams with the best records, the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, before eliminating the defending champion Oilers.

For the Oilers, the defeat may have marked the end of an era. After winning the Stanley Cup in five of the previous seven years, they finished the regular season with a .500 record before upsetting the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs.

Those early-round triumphs may have been the last flickers of fire. Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri are gone and veterans Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe were playing with the nagging injuries that grow more frequent and troublesome with the years.

"It's such an empty feeling to lose like this," said Charlie Huddy, an Edmonton defenseman. "Eight days ago, we were on such a %% high after the win over Los Angeles. We were flying. Now, bang, bang, we're out."

In the Minnesota locker room, the players whooped and embraced. They wore black and gold sweat shirts that said "Minnesota North Stars, 1991 Campbell Conference Champions." They passed around the conference championship trophy and took turns posing for pictures with it.

"We deserve to let our emotions run wild for a few days," said Stewart Gavin, a right wing. "We worked hard; we've been underdogs. We've been low-key and tried to focus on what we've had to do. Now, it's just the time to celebrate what we've accomplished."


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