The 1990 Edmonton Oilers were sailing in unchartered waters. The trade of Wayne Gretzky, only the franchise icon and the greatest hockey player in history, prior to the 1989 season had been bad enough. Now head coach Glen Sather was also gone. Edmonton had won four of the previous six Stanley Cups, but it seemed unlikely that a group coached by John Muckley and led Mark Messier could make it five.
Messier stepped up with 45 goals and 74 assists and won the MVP award. Reliables like Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson helped sustain the ninth-best offense in the league. Edmonton turned to 23-year-old Bill Hanford to handle goaltending, a move away from Grant Fuhr, who had been in net during the championship years. The move paid off and Edmonton’s defense ranked sixth in the NHL.
Edmonton still finished second to the Calgary Flames, last year’s Stanley Cup champion, in the Smythe Division (more or less, the Pacific Division by geography). The Oilers were then pushed to the limit by the Winnipeg Jets. The underdog won a pair of overtime games and ending up forcing a seventh game before the Oilers survived.
It was time for Round Two, and that was a double entendre this year. Edmonton would play Los Angeles and squared off against Gretzky. The two teams had met in the 1989 NHL playoffs, and Gretzky led the Kings to a seven-game series win. This year, the second round of the playoffs offered an Oilers-Gretzky Rematch.
Los Angeles hadn’t been a very good team in the regular season, but were good enough to upset Calgary in the first round of the playoffs. The Kings started coming back to earth almost immediately when the rematch started.
The Edmonton defense was stifling and Gretzky didn’t so much as take a shot on net in the first game. Six different Oiler players scored and the result was a 7-0 rout. Game 2 wasn’t quite as mismatched, but it was still a 6-1 Oiler win. The games in Los Angeles were close, but with a pair of one-goal wins, the last one in overtime, Edmonton swept their former teammate out of the playoffs.
In the Campbell Conference Finals (the West), the Edmonton lost two of the first three to the Chicago Blackhawks, who had won the Norris Division (a Midwest/Central group). But Chicago was a mediocre defensive team, and Messier scored two goals to key a Game 4 win. The Oilers then lit the lamp twelve times over the course of Games 5 & 6, won both and closed out another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Boston Bruins had the best record in the NHL, and they also had revenge on their minds, having lost the 1988 Stanley Cup Finals to Edmonton. Game 1 went triple overtime and Boston consistently got more shots on net than did Edmonton, as the final shot numbers of 52-31 in favor of the Bruins bear out. But Ranford turned in the kind of game every champion needs from its goalie somewhere along the line. He carried them, and the Oilers won the marathon game 3-2.
Edmonton followed it up with a blowout 7-2 win in Game 2, The Bruins answered in Game 3 with a 2-1 win, but it was apparent that Ranford had the number of the Boston offense. Over the next two games, the Oiler goalie stopped 53 of 55 shots, Edmonton won both games decisively and won the Stanley Cup.
Ranford was a deserving winner of the Conn Smythe Award, as MVP of the entire postseason, cutting his goals-allowed average by over half a goal per game against the best competition the league could offer—a postseason run that included having to face Gretzky, and then two consecutive division winners. The 1990 Edmonton Oilers had their first—and what has thus far proven to be the only—Stanley Cup of the post-Wayne Gretzky era.