Bucky, takin' 'em wide. Stephen Dunn/Allsport, from Getty Images.
When most fans think about the history of the Edmonton Oilers, they look to the stars. The glorious days in the 1980s when we could run out a line of first-ballot Hockey Hall of Famers in their primes plus Kevin Lowe and play them for fifty-seven minutes in important games. Most pundits would agree that this is a moderately effective way to win hockey games. Those were great days. The ice was choppy, the goaltenders were terrible, and some skinny farm boy from Brantford could get 200 points in a season because who was going to stop him?
I've always felt more affection for the plugs, the grinders, the inglorious bastards, the Esa Tikkanens and the Mike Krushelnyskis. Sure, if you get me drunk I'll admit that Wayne Gretzky was kinda a good player, but that's not where my love lies. There's no hockey player more entertaining than a really dedicated, balls-to-the-walls defensive forward, and there's no sight in hockey like when one of those scoreless wonders somehow discovers a nose to the net and starts piling up goals like the apocalypse is coming.
Right now, those of you who read articles before you read the headline or look at the photo are nodding smugly. "Look," you're saying, "Ben's about to go off about Fernando Pisani again." But I'm not. I'm talking about a grinder who, for one brief moment in an otherwise typical cementhead's career, turned into Lanny Macdonald. I'm talking about a guy who grabbed the post-dynasty Oilers by the scruff of the neck and dragged them, kicking and screaming, on a playoff run that only looks remarkable in hindsight.
In 1991-92, the Edmonton Oilers scored 295 goals, which is quite a few. Of those 295 goals, Kelly Buchberger scored twenty in seventy-nine games. He also chalked up 24 assists and finished seventh in team scoring. This from a guy who was openly mocked by the Coliseum crowds for taking guys wide, had a lower career goals-per-game than Dave Semenko, never scored more than five goals in the first four years of his career, and never scored more than eight in the last nine.
That, my friends, is the most awesome season in Edmonton Oilers history.
If the 1991-92 season is remembered at all these days, it's as part of the post-dynasty hangover. Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, and Jari Kurri were of course long gone. Mark Messier had just left, giving us the 1990 Stanley Cup and one final, futile season in 1990-91 before taking his talents to Broadway. The last core players from the dynasty days were Esa Tikkanen, who struggled with injury and played less than half the season, and Kevin Lowe who was not only hurt but largely ineffective when he did get into the lineup. It wasn't a good time to be an Edmonton Oilers fan.
Except, of course, that it totally was. It might have felt like a disappointment at the time, but the Oilers were a perfectly reasonable 36-34-10 that season. They got that record the exciting way, running sixth in the league in goals for while going sixteenth in goals against. The playoff hero of 1990, Bill Ranford, was in standard Bill Ranford regular season form, allowing goals from the other blue line and so forth. His backups were a heartbreaking combination of Peter Ing, Norm Foster, and (of all people) way-the-hell-future NHL All-Star Ron Tugnutt, which led to childhood trauma for young Edmonton Oilers fans playing NHLPA '93 on their Segas who had to win all their games 7-6.
The good news was that the Oilers boasted eight twenty goal scorers including Buchberger and Derek Zona's boy Petr Klima. 29-year-old sophomore Anatoli Semenov hadn't lost his hands yet and also scored twenty without making a single pass all season. Vincent Damphousse and Joe Murphy both broke thirty and the Oilers wrangled fifteen goals out of Dave Manson, possibly the best Oiler of all time who almost everyone has forgotten about. With the exception of Klima, the team generally punched above its weight at even strength, but they fell down on special teams. They killed only 78% of their penalties, lousy even for that era, and strangely for such a deep offensive team, their power play was also well below average.
I go into all this nauseating historic detail to make a point: Buchberger's glorious 1991-92 didn't come because the Oilers, in post-dynasty sell-off mode, were playing two good forwards plus an AHL team, and Buchberger was the only guy available to round off the first line. He wasn't Warren Young, a decent but largely talentless player thrown with superior linemates and allowed to deflect pucks off his face into the goal for a season. In terms of offensive depth the Oilers were in fine shape and didn't need the likes of Buchberger dragging Damphousse and Murphy down. What the Oilers did need was good defensive forwards: Craig MacTavish was getting a bit long in the tooth and guys like Martin Gelinas weren't experienced enough yet, leaving Buchberger and Scott Mellanby as the team's best penalty killing options. As far as we can tell, given that time on ice hadn't been invented yet, Buchberger was getting the same old third and fourth-line minutes. It's just that, all of a sudden, he was Darryl Sittler.
If it wasn't additional ice time or brilliant linemates, then how did those twenty goals happen? Bucky shot 22.2% that season, which you will not be surprised to learn was a career high. His career average was an actually-still-not-bad 9.9%, but all the same, Buchberger's 90 shots in 1991-92 marked only the fourth-best total of his career.
It wasn't all scoring in bunches either, though Bucky had a few excellent games. On November 16, Buchberger scored two goals and an assist in Quebec, helping to snap a four-game road losing streak. His only other two-goal effort came in a losing cause against the surprisingly strong Washington Capitals.
Buchberger did manage three game winners during the season and produced a few other key tallies, including a last-ditch shorthanded tying goal against the New Jersey Devils in March, when the Oilers were fighting to save their playoff bacon. That was just one of Buchberger's four shorthanded goals in the 1991-92 season: far from the franchise record, but tied for it among post-dynasty players, and among players who didn't score a power play goal that season. Kelly Buchberger is not for the power play, twenty goal season or no! Instead, he scored enough shorties that his short-handed goal total would have made him ninth on the team in power play goals.
As the season dragged on, Buchberger's consistent scoring got notice. In May the Boston Globe wryly observed that "for the first time in his career, Edmonton's Kelly Buchberger may end the season with more goals than fights," while a March note in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted head coach Ted Green saying "Kelly's been vastly underrated by previous Oilers coaches," presumably including Green's boss Glen Sather.
The Oilers went 4-4-2 in their last ten regular season games, which proved enough to get them into the playoffs. Buchberger was keeping his scoring up; playing all ten of those games, he went +3 with five points and a relatively tame eight penalty minutes. It was good enough to book the Oilers a first-round playoff date with the Los Angeles Kings whose leading stars at the time included Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and a few guys like Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake who were pretty good but irrelevant for narrative purposes. The Kings had a mere seven 20-goal scorers to the Oilers' eight, so presumably Ted Green would look to use snipers like Kelly Buchberger to outduel Gretzky and Kurri in a roaring offensive battle.
For whatever reason, Green didn't do that. Instead, in his home games he sent Buchberger out with orders to shut down Gretzky, surely a waste of such a fine scorer but that was the fashion of the day. "I'm telling you, Wayne will be dreaming about Kelly Buchberger the next two games," said Green after a Game Two in which Buchberger, unable to match up against Gretzky as the Kings were at home, settled for going even in an 8-5 loss and racking up fourteen minutes in penalties. After a ferocious late game melée in which Marty McSorley suckered Buchberger to get a brawl going and Buchberger responded by, according to Los Angeles general manager Rogie Vachon, biting McSorley on the neck. With Buchberger shadowing Gretzky, the Kings split the next two games at the Coliseum but Gretzky managed only a single assist and went -1. So much for scoring.
During the regular season Buchberger may have been a sniper, but come the playoffs he was the same old Bucky. Throughout the first two rounds, against the Kings and the Vancouver Canucks, Buchberger had only two assists. It was just like old times for Buchberger, right down to getting his butt kicked by ex-Oiler Randy Gregg in game five of the Vancouver series. Buchberger also went +1 being paired off against formidable scorers such as Pavel Bure and Igor Larionov. In his first-round series Bure got eleven points against Winnipeg but could only get two in six games against Buchberger and the Oilers, including a solitary assist in Edmonton.
Only in the Campbell Conference final did Buchberger's scoring start to turn around. He went pointless in the first game but nailed assists in the last two. Unfortunately, as Kelly was scoring more the Oilers were scoring less. Edmonton's attack was being stymied by young goaltender Ed Belfour, a name Oilers fans would know very well in the coming years. The Oilers scored a combined nine goals in their first three games which was enough to get them three losses. Facing elimination in Game Four at the Coliseum, the Oilers came out and died. Chicago blew the doors off while the Oilers mustered only fifteen shots in the first two periods. It was only in the third that the Oilers salvaged some self-respect, if not the game, picking up a goal that spoiled that brat Belfour's shutout. The last goal of the Edmonton Oilers' season came at 1:23 of the third period in one of the most crushing blowouts in Edmonton history, a 5-1 loss.
Naturally, it was Kelly Buchberger's first goal of the playoffs. That year, even in defeat, Bucky was awesome.