They were a franchise that had only been in existence for five years, yet they were one that had been steadily knocking on the door and it was time to break through. The 1984 Edmonton Oilers did just that and won their first Stanley Cup in the Wayne Gretzky era, taking down a reigning dynasty in the process.
Gretzky had arrived in the NHL the same year as the Oilers, breaking in for the 1980 season. All he had done was win four MVPs in four seasons. In 1984 Gretzky made it 5-for-5. His 87 goals led the league, as did the 118 assists, leaving no doubt about who the best player in the game was.
Edmonton was hardly a one-man show though. Jari Kurri scored 52 goal, the fifth-best in the NHL. Glenn Anderson was even better, with 54 goals, tied for third in the league. Mark Messier scored 37 goals and had 64 assists. On most teams that would have made him the star. On Edmonton, it made him a role player. Defenseman Paul Coffey added 40 more goals and his 86 assists were second only to Gretzky.
Given those individual numbers, it will come as no surprise to learn that Edmonton led the NHL in scoring. The defense was a little spotty, ranking 10th in a 21-team league. Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog split goaltending duties.
The Oilers had reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1983 before being swept by the New York Islanders, who won their fourth straight championship. Edmonton was hungry to get back and it showed right out of the gate. They won their first seven games, had another eight-game winning streak in November and were 28-7-4 at the New Year.
There was a hiccup in late January and early February when Edmonton lost six of seven, the bulk of it coming on an East Coast trip and one of the losses coming to the Islanders. With every other serious Cup contender being in the Wales Conference, as the East was then called, the losing streak raised issues about whether the Oilers would be sufficiently toughened up to win the Finals.
An 0-3 regular season record against the Islanders was further cause for concern, but at the end of the day, Edmonton finished the regular season 57-18-5 and their 119 points were the best in the NHL. Now they had to finish the job in the postseason.
The format of the Stanley Cup playoffs then was to take the top four teams in each division and simply seed them 1 thru 4, then pairing up the conference finals and the Finals themselves. Edmonton played in the Smythe Division (basically the Pacific) and drew Winnipeg in the first round.
The Jets were a pretty good offensive team, with 30-goal scorers in Dale Hawerchuck and Lucien DeBlois. But they were poor defensively and there was just no way Winnipeg—or anyone else—could win a scoring race against these Oilers. Edmonton blasted their way to a 9-2 win and closed out what was then a best-of-five series with a 5-4 overtime win and a 4-1 victory in Game 3.
Edmonton’s next opponent was Calgary, a middling team who had gone 34-32-14 and finished in the middle of the league both offensively and defensively. The Flames had good offensive balance, with Kent Nilsson, Eddy Beers, Lanny McDonald and talented rookie Haken Loob all 30-plus goal scorers. And with that balance, Calgary would give Edmonton everything it wanted.
The Oilers grabbed a 5-2 win to start the series, but dropped Game 2 in overtime, 6-5. When Edmonton went on the road and won tough games by 3-2 and 5-3 counts, the series appeared all but over. But the Flames stole a 5-4 win in Edmonton, and then got another one by the same score in overtime.
Gretzky’s push for a title was now down to one game, and he and his mates came through. The offense got cooking and Edmonton won 7-4 to reach the finals of the Campbell Conference, as the West was known.
The Oilers faced the Minnesota North Stars (forerunner of the current Dallas franchise). The North Stars had been the best in the Norris Division, which was basically the Central. They had the fifth-best offense and sixth-best defense.
But the offense was top-heavy reliant on Brian Bellows, meaning Minnesota could not answer Gretzky’s greatness with balance, the way Calgary had. What’s more, the North Stars were inferior to at least six teams in the East.
The mismatch was evident in Game 1, a 7-1 Oiler blowout. They won a close 4-3 game, and then alternated blowout and close win on the road. Edmonton took the third game 8-5 and completed the sweep with a 3-1 win.
Edmonton was not only back in the Stanley Cup Finals, but they would get a crack at their nemesis, the New York Islanders. The four-time defending champs had great offensive talent in Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, along with defenseman Denis Potvin, who joined Coffey as the 1st-team All-Stars at the position.
The Islanders had an explosive offense, ranking third in the NHL and giving them at least a chance of winning a scoring battle with the Oilers. More important, New York had top defense and goaltending with Billy Smith, and were the fourth-best defense in the league. They were battle-tested, both from their previous Cups and from coming through the tougher conference.
This battle was anything but preordained from the outset, but Edmonton made it look that way. They won the kind of game that had eluded them in the previous year’s Finals, a defensive battle. Fuhr spun a shutout in a 1-0 win. New York was still able to bounce back and take a 6-1 win in Game 2, and had kept Gretzky scoreless thus far in the Finals.
Just when drama seemed promised, Edmonton sucked the life out of the dynasty. The NHL was using a 2-3-2 format for the Finals (something they would only do in 1984-85) and the Oilers stunned the crowd at Nassau Coliseum with consecutive 7-2 wins to put them on the brink of a title.
The key moment came when Game 3 was still a tight 2-1 game in the second period, when Messier scored and the floodgates unleashed. Gretzky finally got off the schneid in Game 4, with goals that both began and ended the scoring. Edmonton finished the job with a 5-2 win in Game 5, Gretzky tacking on two more goals.
Messier was named winner of the Conn Smythe Award, as MVP of the postseason. Messier finished with eight goals and 18 assists, a nice showing to be sure. But was it really more MVP-worthy than Gretzky’s 13 goals and 22 assists? Or Kurri’s 14/14? Or Fuhr lifting his game and posting a 2.99 goals-against average, after being at 3.91 in the regular season?
I’m sure it’s safe to say no one associated with the organization or its fan base was all that concerned. The 1984 Edmonton Oilers were not only champs, there was every reason to think this was just the beginning. None of the key players were older than 23-years-old. And this franchise would fulfill that promise, with this Cup being the first of five in a seven-year period.