For over twenty years of existence, the Los Angeles Kings had been a non-factor. After their founding in 1968, they had never made it past the second of the playoffs. In 1989, the franchise made a splash for the ages when they acquired Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers. But even after four years with the greatest player in NHL history, the Kings had yet to reach a conference finals. The 1993 Los Angeles Kings took that next step and finally reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
Gretzky was the big name, although at age 32 he was starting to slow down a bit and injuries limited him to 45 games in the regular season. The team’s best player was Luc Robitaille, a future of Hall of Famer himself, who scored 63 goals and was a 1st-team All-Star.
More Hall of Fame talent was on the back end, with Rob Blake and Paul Coffey as defenseman. They combined for 92 assists. Jari Kurri, another great veteran of the Edmonton dynasty, scored 27 goals and passed for 60 assists. Tony Granato lit the lamp 37 times and Mike Donnelly added 29 more goals.
It added up to a potent offense, fifth-best in the league. The problem was keeping pucks out of the net. Kelly Hrudey was an average goaltender and the Kings were 21st in the NHL in goals allowed.
After a nice 12-4-2 start to the regular season, Los Angeles gradually fell back to the middle. A six-week stretch starting in mid-January saw them struggle to a 5-13-2 mark. They were sub-.500 on March 1, but a nice closing push got them on track for the playoffs. The final record was 39-35-10, good for third place in the Pacific Division.
The NHL playoffs were seeded strictly by division, even more so than today. The top four from each division made it and played amongst themselves for a spot in the conference finals with no wild-card crossovers. Los Angeles would draw Calgary in the opening round.
The Flames were a steady contender in this era, including winning the 1989 Stanley Cup. They were led by Hall of Fame center Joe Nieuwendyk and veteran Hall of Fame players in defenseman Al MacInnis and 34-year-old Sergei Makarov. A 21-year-old center in Rob Reichel was the top scorer with 40 goals, while Theoren Fleury was a terrific scorer and passer.
In short, Calgary was a lot like Los Angeles—a roster of veteran Hall of Famers combined with up-and-comers who could score. And the Flames were better defensively, ranking 9th in the league and having Mike Vernon in goal.
But the Kings struck first on the road, getting two goals from Jimmy Carson in a 6-3 win. The defensive woes came back to haunt in Game 2, a 9-4 loss and again in Game 3 as the Flames won 5-2.
The pressure was on for Game 4 and LA turned up the defensive intensity. A change in goalie put Robb Stauber in net and he stopped 28/29 shots. Los Angeles led 2-1 late and an empty-net goal sealed the series-tying win.
LA’s offense returned to form for the pivotal Game 5 and their stars made the first big mark of the series. Robitaille scored twice, Gretzky handed out three assists and the Kings rang up nine goals. Stauber faced 44 shots and stopped 40 in the 9-4 win.
Calgary came out swinging in Game 6, and hit Stauber shots. The backup goalie didn’t play well, and coughed up six goals. But the Los Angeles offense was in high gear and benefitting from a Calgary decision to bench Vernon in favor of Jeff Reese. With just 23 shots, the Kings ripped off another nine-goal performance, with a combined five assists from Kurri and Gretzky. The 9-6 win sent them to the Division Finals.
Vancouver was the top seed in the Pacific bracket, ranking in the top five both offensively and defensively. Pavel Bure was an electric scorer, ringing up 60 goals and 50 assists during the regular season. Geoff Courtnall, Terry Linden and Peter Nedved were all 30-plus goal scorers, while Kirk McLean provided competent goaltending.
Los Angeles looked outmatched in the series opener, outshot 42-27 and losing 5-2. But they came back strong in Game 2. Three first-period goals set the tone and with a 4-3 lead late, Gretzky got a key goal to help secure the 6-3 win.
The series came south to LA and Game 3 was scoreless after one period and tied 2-2 going into third. Then the Los Angeles stars unloaded. Robitaille, Kurri and Gretzky all scored in the final period and the result was a 7-4 win. The momentum continued in the very early part of Game 4, with a couple Gretzky assists putting the Kings up 2-1.
But early in the second period, the defense came apart at the seams. The 7-2 loss sent the series back to Vancouver all tied up.
Hrudey was back in net and played his best game of the postseason in the crunch spot of a road Game 5. He faced 39 shots, stopped 36 and Los Angeles eventually pulled out a 4-3 win on a Gary Shuchuk goal in the second overtime.
Again at home in Game 6 with a chance to clinch, the Kings played aggressively. They attacked with 50 shots and while McLean held up reasonably well, the dominance in the flow of play was too much to hold off. Five different players scored for LA. Gretzky had two assists and a goal. The 5-3 win sent Los Angeles to a long-awaited conference finals.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were in the Western Conference at this time and like Los Angeles, the Maple Leafs had finished in third place during the regular season. After knocking off Detroit, Toronto got a break when Chicago—the best team in the West—lost in the first round and the Maple Leafs cashed in the break.
Toronto was a mirror image of Los Angeles in that the Leafs were not very good offensively—16th in a 24-team league. But they could defend. Head coach Pat Burns would later lead the 2003 New Jersey Devils to a Stanley Cup based primarily on defense. Felix Potvin was a good 21-year-old goaltender. And their 44-29-11 record in the regular season gave Toronto home ice advantage in this series.
Los Angeles could not solve the Leaf defense in Game 1, only taking 29 shots and losing 4-1. They were similarly handcuffed in Game 2, but this time the maligned Kings defense tightened up its own game. LA pulled out a 3-2 win, with Gretzky feeding Tomas Sandstrom a big third period goal.
The Kings played more good defense back home and led the third game 3-2 into the third period. Dave Taylor scored a shorthanded goal for LA to seal the 4-2 win and the series lead.
Los Angeles’ team defense continued to be good in Game 4 at home and Game 5 back in Toronto. But Hrudey did not play well in the fourth game against a limited number of shots and the 4-2 loss tied in the series. And back in Toronto, even hitting Potvin with 43 shots wasn’t enough in a 3-2 loss.
It was another Game 6 at the Los Angeles Forum and this time the Kings were fighting for their lives. Robatille had three assists and LA built a 5-3 lead into the third period. But with Toronto’s Wendell Clark going for a hat trick, the lead disappeared and the game went to overtime. The Robatille-Gretzky combo stepped up early in the extra session, producing the goal that set up a Game 7.
The seventh game would be the kind of classic that the NHL playoffs produce more consistently than any other sport. Gretzky scored early for a 1-0 lead. After two Toronto goals, Gretzky tied the game 2-2. With Los Angeles holding to a 4-3 lead and the clock approaching the three-minute mark, Gretzky completed the hat trick. The last goal was needed insurance in a 5-4 win. The Kings’ great players had finally solved Potvin with all the money on the table.
Montreal was waiting in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Canadiens were the league’s great dynasty, having won four straight Cups in the late 1970s and making a return to the top in 1986. The ’93 Canadiens were not loaded with offensive talent, although the quartet of Vincent Damphousse, Kirk Muller, Brian Bellows and Stephan Lebeau gave them a respectable attack.
What really set Montreal apart was the great goaltending of Patrick Roy. The 27-year-old’s Hall of Fame trajectory was already well-established and he had won the Conn Smythe Award at the tender age of 20 during the Canadiens’ last Cup run.
But when the Finals opened at Montreal’s historic Bell Centre, it was Kelly Hrudey that stole the show. He shut down the Canadiens, while Robatille scored twice, Gretzky had three assists and the Kings grabbed a 4-1 win.
The cruelty of playoff hockey would now turn on Los Angeles. Over the next three games, the Kings played well and competitively. Hrudey was good, but Roy was a little bit better and Montreal scored the key goal when they had to. All three games went to overtime. And LA lost all three.
Game 5 was tied 1-1 early in the second period, but the Los Angeles defense was being strangled. They only mustered 19 shots. That’s not enough against anyone and especially not against an all-time great like Roy. The Canadiens gradually pulled away to a 4-1 win and the series was over.
It had still been an outstanding postseason run for the Kings. Gretzky scored 15 goals and passed for 25 assists in the 24 playoff games. Robatille and Kurri combined for 18 more goals. Sandstrom was an unlikely hero with 17 assists. And Hrudey’s 88.7% save rate in the playoffs was right on track with his regular season—a good showing, giving the elevated competition he faced each night.
Alas, this 1993 run was the last one the city of Los Angeles would see for a while. The Kings collapsed and missed the playoffs the next four years. Gretzky was moved out in 1996. It wasn’t until the three-year stretch of 2012-2014 when the franchise won two Stanley Cups, that they again made an impact on the league. But those ’93 LA Kings did something special and finally put hockey on the map in SoCal.