1989 NHL Playoffs: Gretzky Changes Side & The Calgary Flames Burn Bright
Wayne Gretzky had only won the NHL’s MVP award eight times since coming into the league in 1980. His team, the Edmonton Oilers, had won four of the last five Stanley Cups, and showed no signs of slowing down. So when Gretzky changed sides, and was traded to the Los Angeles Kings—within the division no less—it’s fair to say this was pretty big news. Edmonton’s ownership needed money and getting rid of the greatest player of all time was their way to go about getting it.
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Gretzky won another MVP award—make it ten in a row—and as luck would have it, Los Angeles and Edmonton met in the first round of the 1989 NHL playoffs. And as luck would have it, the series went the full seven games.
Edmonton took three of the first four and appeared ready to give their former favorite a come-uppance. But in the final three games of the series, Gretzky scored three goals and passed for four assists. Two of the goals came in Game 7, and Los Angeles rallied to advance.
The Kings lost in the second round, and it isn’t often a series that doesn’t see either team advancing deep is the most historically noteworthy. But Wayne Gretzky changing sides was anything but normal.
In the midst of the Gretzky saga, there was still championship-level hockey being played elsewhere in Canada—indeed at both coasts. The Calgary Flames accrued 117 points in the regular season and was the best team in the Campbell Conference (West), while the Montreal Canadiens’ 115 points was tops in the Wales Conference (East).
The two powers were in collision course to meet in the Stanley Cup Finals, but Calgary was nearly derailed early. The Vancouver Canucks pushed them to a first-round Game 7, and then to overtime, before the Flames survived. They went on to end the Gretzky run by sweeping Los Angeles and then dispatching the Chicago Blackhawks in five games.
Montreal was never challenged in the playoffs, rolling through Hartford, Boston and Philadelphia with a record of 12-3. The Canadiens were built around their defense, keyed by Vezina Award winner Patrick Roy in goal. They got just enough offense to win, through the work of Mats Naslund and Bobby Smith.
Calgary had more balanced, ranking second in the NHL in both offense and defense. Joe Mullen was the best all-around offensive player, while Joe Nieuwendyk knew how to light the lamp and defenseman Al MacInnis was an excellent passer. The Flames’ goalie was Mike Vernon, who was embarking on a fine career at age 25, and this wouldn’t be his last trip to the Finals—Vernon would be a key part of future Detroit Red Wings’ championship teams.
MacInnis scored two goals in Game 1, and Calgary grabbed the opener 3-2. Montreal’s young Chris Chelios, inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2013, scored once and assisted on two more to lead the Canadiens to a Game 2 win. Montreal then took the series lead when Game 3 went two overtimes and the Canadiens prevailed 4-3.
Montreal’s 1986 Stanley Cup was the one interruption of the Gretzky dynasty in Edmonton and they were poised to get another. But Mullen had seen his two goals in Game 3 wasted, and he came right back with two more, while the Calgary defense locked down and limited Montreal to 19 shots. A 4-2 win evened up the Finals.
Calgary won Game 5 by a 3-2 count and then Game 6 proved to be a grinding defensive game, with few shots, but also surprisingly subpar goaltending. No one in Calgary was picking any nits though, as their 4-2 victory brought home the championship. MacInnis only had seven goals in the playoffs, but his passing was fabulous, with 24 assists and he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the entire postseason.
The Calgary Flames were hoisting the Cup, and a run of NHL dynasties that had seen only Montreal, the New York Islanders and Edmonton win the title since 1975 finally ran its course in the 1989 NHL playoffs.