For those of us who were lucky enough to watch the Edmonton Oilers grow into one of the finest teams the game of hockey has ever produced, it was a moment in time none of us will ever forget. As successful as they were during their initial decade in the National Hockey League, reaching the finals six times in eight years and winning five Stanley Cup Championships, it was the Oilers 1981 first round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens that ultimately sent Wayne Gretzky and company on their way to greatness.
After edging the Washington Capitals by a mere two points to clinch the sixteenth and final playoff spot during the 1979-80 season, Edmonton managed to finish the 1980-81 campaign in thirteenth place earning them an opening round post-season date with the Mighty Habs.
While the Canadiens were no longer the same team that had won four consecutive cups from 1976-1979, they were still a team that featured the likes of Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt youngsters Rod Langway, Mark Napier and some guy named Lafleur who was coming off a season in which he scored 70 points in just 51 games.
Edmonton may have been bounced in three straight by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1980 but Montreal would not be facing the same team. Outside of Gretzky turning Blair MacDonald into a 46 goal - 94 point man and Brett Callighen into a point a game player in ’79-‘80, the Oilers were quite literally a one-trick pony during their first year in the NHL. While #99 was even better in year two, winning the scoring race by a mind-numbing twenty-nine points at the tender age of twenty, he received more than a little help along the way.
While MacDonald continued to contribute over the first half of the ’80-’81 season, he would ultimately be shipped off to Vancouver Canucks for veteran blueliner Gary Lariviere in early March to not only help bolster the backend but also make room for the trio of Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier as regular fixtures inside the Oilers top six forwards.
Anderson (30) and Kurri (32) combined for sixty-two goals between them during their rookie seasons, while Messier started to morph into the player he would eventually become and saw his offensive output jump from thirty-three points to sixty-three, playing alongside Anderson and the one and only Matti Hagman. While the Oilers offence still revolved around Gretzky, they had become a far mare difficult to contain.
Adding a nineteen year old Paul Coffey to a D core that already featured Lee Fogolin, Doug Hicks, Kevin Lowe and Risto Siltanen gave the blueline a completely different dimension and Gretzky the running mate he so desperately needed on the backend. The roster was clearly better but they still had a massive hole in between the pipes, using the veteran trio of Gary Edwards, Ron Low and Eddie Mio for much of the year.
Their goaltending may have been good enough to sneak into the playoffs but it wasn’t near good enough to challenge Montreal in a best of five playoff series. Obviously Glen Sather saw the same thing as he turned to unproven rookie Andy Moog as his starter for Game One, after seeing action in just seven games and starting three of the Oilers final seven regular season games.
It was certainly a risky move and while Edwards wasn’t happy with the decision, Sather stuck to his guns and went with the kid in the opener. In hindsight it was a brilliant decision but at the time, no one gave Edmonton much of a chance. With an inexperienced lineup and a goaltender with all of seven NHL appearances on his resume, the Oilers seemed to be in over their heads.
It was obvious the Canadiens didn’t see them as much of an opponent either, as netminder Richard Sevigny decided to add fuel to the fire by suggesting Lafleur would “put Gretzky in his back pocket” during the series. Unfortunately for him, that statement would comeback to haunt both him and his teammates, as the Oilers were about to turn the hockey world on its ear.
Gretzky wasted little time in making his mark in the series opener, as Edmonton jumped out to a 3-1 first period lead on the strength of three assists from #99 and a pair of goals from the stick of Jari Kurri. Moog was solid when he had to be but the night belonged to Gretzky who finished with fiver assists and in an absolutely dominating performance.
While the 6-3 final was certainly an impressive debut many doubted the young Oilers had would it took to get the job done. It was supposedly nothing more than blip on the good ol’ radar screen for Claude Ruel’s side. That all changed within twenty-four hours, as Edmonton made it two-for-two in La Belle Province, taking a commanding 2-0 series lead following a stunning 3-1 win on night number two of the playoffs.
After being ripped to shreds by Gretzky in the opener, Montreal came out with a fine effort in Game Two but the Oilers diminutive netminder stole the show. Moog stopped forty of the forty-one pucks fired his way, including his memorable lunging glove stop off Doug Jarvis with the Oilers nursing an early 1-0 first period lead, courtesy of a wonderful end-to-end rush and finish from Paul Coffey.
The line of Callighen, Gretzky and Kurri combined for five point on the night, as Kurri potted his third goal in two games and Gretzky saw his series point total grow to seven. Risto Siltanen’s second period power play marker would turnout to be the eventual game-winner and the blink of an eye, a series that was supposed to be nothing more than a cakewalk had the Canadiens on the brink of elimination with the series about to shift out west for a pair of must-win games at Northlands Coliseum.
Unfortunately for them, the Oilers had plans of their own and it revolved around sweeping the Habs away in three straight games and sending their fans into a state of hysteria. Game Three was a near carbon-copy of the series opener, as Edmonton jumped out to an early lead thanks to first period goals from Matti Hagman and Coffey before Gretzky would stretch the lead to three with his first of the series eight minutes into the second period.
It looked as though Montreal had met their match but to their credit, they would quickly cut the lead back to one following goals from Brian Engblom and Steve Shutt but the kid from Brantford would put an end to that in short order, sliding home his second of the frame before the period was up. There was still twenty minutes to go but you could sense the Oilers would not be denied.
With their season on the line, all the Canadiens could muster up was a measly five shots on goal in the third and watched as Dave Lumley put the final nail in their coffin with an empty netter at the 19:23 mark. As if being swept away by the Oilers wasn’t already enough for coach Ruel and his players to stomach, Gretzky would score his third of the night with seven seconds left on the clock and Mr. Sevigny back in goal.
That gave #99 ten points in three games while Lafleur finished with a single helper for his troubles. Gretzky was magnificent from start to finish and Edmonton were by far and away the better team and deserved to be moving on to the next round. In retrospect many have referred to this as the series Andy Moog stole, when in reality that was not the case at all.
The native of Penticton, British Columbia certainly stole Game Two of the series and gave the franchise their first-ever run of clutch goaltending at the NHL level but suggesting in anyway shape or form that they were fortunate to be going on to a second round matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champs was simply false. They were the better team and proved as much in pushing the New York Islanders to six games before bowing out to the eventual champs.
While the Edmonton Oilers had a couple of more years of growing pains to go through before hoisting their first Stanley Cup following a record shattering 1983-84 campaign, they got a taste of what greatness felt like during their stunning first round upset of the Montreal Canadiens back in 1981. That win drove this team to want to be better and played a major role in helping them propel themselves into what they would eventually become.
Fans can only hope the likes of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the rest of the current batch of young Oilers are lucky enough to experience something similar and hopefully it will help push them towards wanting to not only become better individual players but ultimately a far better team.