The 1988 Edmonton Oilers didn’t dominate the regular season in the manner they had been accustomed to since 1983, a year that marked their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals with Wayne Gretzky and was followed up by their first championship a year later. But what the 1988 edition of the Edmonton Oilers did have was an ability to step it up in the playoffs and they added another Cup to their Gretzky-era legacy.
Edmonton finished behind the Calgary Flames in the old Smythe Division, consisting of teams on the Pacific coast. Gretzky finally had a year where he didn’t win the MVP award, ending his 8-for-8 streak going back to the rookie year of 1980. Gretzky’s 40 goals were low by his lofty standards, though he still dished out 109 assists. It was an emerging star, Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins that grabbed the honor.
But Gretzky was still supported by the same cast that had helped him win three of the previous four Stanley Cups. Jari Kurri lit the lamp with 43 goals. Mark Messier scored 37 and was the team’s second-best passer behind Gretzky. Glenn Anderson and Craig Simpson were productive threats at the forward positions. It added up to an offense that was still second-best in the NHL, and goalie Grant Fuhr anchored a defense that ranked eighth.
No one would be under any illusions that Edmonton’s slippage to second place in their division meant they would be an easy out in the playoffs. But no one could have been prepared for just how thoroughly Gretzky and his mates would turn on the engine.
The first-round opponent was Winnipeg. They had two excellent offensive threats in Dale Hawerchuck and Paul MacLean, along a reliable third scorer in Andrew McBain. The defenseman, Randy Carlyle and Dave Elliot were good passers. But the defense was lacking and the Jets were a sub-.500 team.
Edmonton opened up with seven goals in the opener, keyed by Anderson’s hat trick. Anderson came back with two assists the following night in a defense-oriented 3-2 win. After a 6-4 road loss in Game 3, the Oilers cranked up the engine gain. Gretzky passed for seven assists combined in Games 4 & 5. Kurri scored four goals over the two games. Edmonton wrapped up the series with wins over 5-3 and 6-2.
Calgary was a stiff test in the Division Finals. The Flames had won the division. They had also ousted Edmonton in the 1986 postseason and were just a year away from winning the 1989 Stanley Cup. They had the league’s most prolific offense, led by 50-goal scorer Hakan Loop. Joe Nieuwendyk also lit the lamp 50-plus times. Mike Bullard and Joe Muller were 40-goal scorers. The goalie was 24-year-old Mike Vernon.
Fuhr stepped up against this potent attack, saving 26 of 27 shots in the opener. Even though Edmonton only got 19 shots of their own on goal, it was enough to grind out a 3-1 win. Game 2 was more wide-open, with Fuhr and Vernon each coming up with 30 saves. Gretzky scored twice, Kurri passed for three assists and the Oilers won 5-4 in overtime.
Edmonton was heading back to home ice with a chance to put their foot on Calgary’s throat and the Oilers did not let up. Messier and Gretzky put on a passing display in a 4-2 win in Game 3. The Flames pulled Vernon from goal, even though their problems were more about getting the offense untracked. The panic move predictably backfired as the Oilers got their own attack untracked in a 6-4 win that clinched the series.
The Detroit Red Wings weren’t as explosive as Calgary, but the Red Wings still had the third-best offense in the league and their defense was stronger than the Flames. Goalie Glen Hanlon anchored a good team and future franchise legend Steve Yzerman scored 50 goals and passed for 52 assists at the tender age of 22.
Edmonton’s postseason defensive control continued in Game 1 of the conference finals as they limited Detroit to 15 shots on goal. Gretzky’s three assists delivered a 4-1 win. In Game 2, it was Gretzky, Kurri and Messier leading a balanced attack that eventually chased Hanlon in a 5-3 win.
The series went to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, but the Edmonton defense did not make the trip, at least for Game 3. They lost 5-2. But Kurri’s two goals keyed a 4-3 win that put the Oilers in firm control. They went back home for Game 5 and unloaded. Relative no-names like Mike Krushelnyski and Craig Simpson each scored twice and the 8-4 final sent Edmonton to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Boston was the fourth-best team in the NHL over the course of the year and had a future Hall of Fame defenseman in Ray Borque, who passed for 64 assists. Cam Neely was a second-team All-Star, Geoff Courtney scored 32 goals and the Bruins’ defense was third-best in the NHL.
Edmonton’s defense was even better. In the first two games, the Oilers allowed just 26 shots combined. They ground out wins of 2-1 and 4-2. Game 3 was a little more open, but Fuhr saved 25 shots. And in open ice, no one was slowing down Gretzky who passed for four assists in a 6-3 win.
On the brink of a Stanley Cup, a bizarre circumstance went down in Game 4 in Boston Garden. The power went out and the game could not be completed. The series picked up with Game 5 was usual back in Edmonton where a balanced attack delivered a 6-3 win. The Oilers had completed the odd feat of wrapping up a four-game sweep in a fifth game.
Gretzky won the Conn Smythe Award, scoring 12 goals and handing out 31 assists over eighteen games, of which his team only lost twice. The 1988 Edmonton Oilers weren’t the best edition of their dynastic run if we go start to finish. But they were the most dominant in the postseason.