Heading into the 1988 Stanley Cup Playoffs, there were those in the hockey world who felt the Edmonton Oilers had met their match. They were no longer the automatic favourite in the minds of many and for the first time in seven years, the Oilers did not win the Smythe Division crown. That honour now belonged to their provincial rival, the Calgary Flames.
For the first-time in his NHL career, Wayne Gretzky suffered a major injury and was forced to miss sixteen games during the regular season. While the knee injury he suffered against the Philadelphia Flyers would ultimately end his reign as league MVP at eight consecutive years and see his string of seven straight Art Ross Trophy's snapped by Pittsburgh's Marion Lemieux, it was a blessing in disguise.
For the first time in ages, Gretzky was able to not only rest up and recharge his battery but also hear the continual talk surrounding both he and the Oilers no longer being what they once were. Nothing like having good ol' #99 heading into the post-season with a chip on his shoulder.
Despite having won three of the last four Stanley Cups and playing in four of the last five finals, Glen Sather's crew had something to prove. With the departure of Paul Coffey to Pittsburgh in exchange for highly touted youngster Craig Simpson, Edmonton were no longer the same club but they were far from being over the hill.
After taking out the Winnipeg Jets in five games during the opening round of the playoffs, Edmonton would send the hockey world a major statement in round number two...sweeping the favoured Flames in four straight and looking damn impressive in doing so.
The Detroit Red Wings would be next and to their credit, they did manage to take a game off the Oilers but were simply no match for Gretzky and company. Meaning it would be five Stanley Cup Final appearances in six years for Edmonton...with only the Boston Bruins standing between them and a chance at becoming one of the greatest teams in hockey history.
Today marks the 25th Anniversary of the opening game of the 1988 Stanley Cup Final. It was a series that would put the finishing touches on what was arguably the most dominant single playoff run in the Oilers storied history. They clearly had more talented lineups in the past, 1987 being the one that stands out the most, but never one that was more focused on the job at hand.
In celebration of the 1998 victory, I will take a look back at how the Edmonton Oilers won their fourth championship in five years and confirmed their place among the greatest teams in National Hockey League history.
Esa Tikkanen - Wayne Gretzky - Jari Kurri
Glenn Anderson - Mark Messier - Craig Simpson
Geoff Courtnall - Craig MacTavish - Norm Lacombe
Mike Krushelnyski - Keith Acton - Kevin McClelland
Kevin Lowe - Craig Muni
Steve Smith - Randy Gregg
Marty McSorley - Jeff Beukeboom
In an opening period that featured five power plays opportunities between the two sides, three of which that went to the Bruins, neither side generated much on the man advantage. Netminders Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog did not see much in the way of rubber during the opening twenty minutes of play, though the Oilers starter made a pair of big stops, keeping the Eastern Conference champs off the board. The first coming on a point blank look from Michael Thelven and the other being a brilliant pad stop off defenceman Gord Kluzak.
Moog would also leave his mark on the period, robbing Gretzky with a sliding pad save in the dying seconds of period one. It was more of a feeling out process than an all out back and forth battle, as both sides played a fairly sloppy and undisciplined frame. That being said, Kevin Lowe did manage to send a message to the visiting Bruins, sending veteran Keith Crowder flying with a gorgeous open-ice hit at the Oilers blueline.
Edmonton would come out flying to start the second, as Glenn Anderson nearly cashed in on a lovely give and go with Mark Messier, in the periods opening seconds. The Oilers speedster simply blew past Ray Bourque as if he were nothing more than pylon but Moog would have none of it. That early pressure would eventually lead to the Bruins taking an ill-advised too many men on the ice penalty, which would come back to haunt them.
While Gretzky would eventually bank home a loose puck off a down and out Moog for his tenth of the playoffs, it was another key stop from Fuhr, mere seconds earlier, which allowed Edmonton to take the first lead of the series. Jari Kurri misplayed the puck along the Bruins blueline, leaving Ken Linseman a clear-cut breakaway from the red line in but as per usual, the Oilers all-star netminder was more than up to the task.
Despite giving up the the early power play marker, Boston continued playing a simple but effective road game and were handed a glorious opportunity to even things up midway through the frame. Unfortunately for them, Fuhr would stone Thelven for the second time in as many periods, preserving the Oilers lead. However, the Bruins would finally be rewarded shortly thereafter, as Cam Neely made the most of a costly turnover from Geoff Courtnall, powering a slapshot through Fuhr, for his eight of the post-season.
That goal seemed to give Boston life and with just over twenty-five minutes to play, the B's had themselves one helluva chance of stealing Game One of the Finals.
While Boston saw a steady diet of the Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier lines for much of the night, it was a shift from the fourth line of Mike Krushelnyski, Kevin McClelland and Keith Acton that would produce Edmonton's second goal of the night and eventual game-winner.
After watching Moog pull off his best Johnny Bower imitation, with a perfectly timed poke-check on a streaking Krushelnyski, the Oilers crashed the Bruins net in search of that go-ahead marker. Randy Gregg would miss a wide open net on the rebound but the combination of the ensuing mayhem and McClelland only being in the right place at the right time, would earn Edmonton their second lead of the night.
Despite being one of the Oilers bangers and lesser skilled forwards, McClelland was always one who was comfortable in the offensive zone and he used that to his advantage on this occasion, finding a wide open Steve Smith with a simple but effective pass.
Keith Acton, who started the whole sequence by sending in Krushelnyski, would play the role of hero, re-directing Smith's point shot past Moog and into the back of the Bruins net. For the second period in a row, the defending champs scored inside the opening two minutes of play and just like that, Northlands Coliseum and the Oilers bench came to life.
Boston tried to fight their way back but outside of a wonderful chance from Bob Joyce on the power play, Edmonton shut the Bruins down. Fuhr made the necessary stop off Joyce to keep it a 2-1 game but frankly had an easy go of it the rest of the way.
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