Springtime, 1993. The Los Angeles Kings enjoyed quite a run in the NHL playoffs.
It began with victories over Calgary and Vancouver. The surprising Kings were led by the all-time greatest hockey player ever, Wayne Gretzky.
Even with the Great One, the Kings were overachievers to say the least. Along with Gretzky, the Kings were sparked by sniper Luc Robitaille, a very young Rob Blake, and a goaltender playing better than he had any right to be, Kelly Hrudey.
The victories over the Flames and Canucks were impressive, but awaiting the Kings in the Campbell Conference finals was a much tougher task. There, the Kings met the mighty impressive Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs were led by Wendell Clark, Dave Andreychuk, Doug Gilmour, Glenn Anderson—all in their primes—and rookie sensation, goaltender Felix Potvin.
It was the best Toronto team in 20 years. The Kings would have to have the greatest effort in their team history to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
The series that followed was a classic battle. Big goals, bigger hits, drama, and an all-time classic fight between Wendell Clark and Marty McSorley. It had everything that makes hockey the greatest sport.
The underdog Kings surprised everyone with a gritty effort, but after five hard-fought games, the Maple Leafs led the series 3-2. The teams entered Game Six in Los Angeles with the Leafs needing one win to move onto the Finals. The Kings needed a win just to make it to Game Seven back in Toronto.
Wayne Gretzky was held to limited production in the first five contests. The Los Angeles media, and the entire nation of Canada seemed to think Wayne had lost his touch, lost his leadership, and lost the ability to be the difference in a big game.
The Great One knew he would have to step up if the Kings were going to get past the Maple Leafs.
While the Kings prepared in the L.A. room before their do-or-die Game Six, Gretzky addressed the team. Knowing they needed to win or see their season end at home, Wayne called out his teammates. He asked for their help in giving their best effort in front of the home fans. The Great One asked them to win Game Six, and he would take care of Game Seven.
Inspired by their captain's words, the Kings battled through regulation and took the Leafs to overtime. Now it was truly do-or-die. One goal for the Kings, and they would get their Game Seven—one goal for the Leafs and they would be in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The end of the game came with a Kings rush into the Leafs zone. Luc Robitaille found himself in the corner with the puck, and saw a white jersey in front of Potvin. He threaded a pass in front, and found Gretzky for the winning goal. Buoyed by the strong effort that he asked of his teammates, Gretzky led the Kings into what was sure to be a classic.
In historic Maple Leaf Gardens. Canada—and moreso Toronto, the hockey capital of the world—was teeming with anticipation. The city was hungry for their first trip to the Finals since the 1960s. The nation of Canada was hungry for a final between the Montreal Canadiens, who had already advanced, and the beloved Maple Leafs.
Despite netting the game-winning goal in the previous game, everyone still wondered if Wayne Gretzky could put up one more great effort and push his team to victory. It seemed that, despite the effort of the rest of the Kings, it was The Great One who was going to have to win it for Los Angeles.
The contest that followed lived up to the anticipation. It was the last true old-time hockey game.
The scoring began midway through the first period. The Leafs were on the power play, but an errant point pass was knocked clear by the Kings' Jarri Kurri. The puck slid loose and was picked up by the Great One. He and teammate Marty McSorley rushed into the Leafs zone. Gretzky fed a perfect saucer pass over a Leaf defenseman's stick to McSorely, who in turn made a nearly equal return pass to Gretzky, who put a short-handed goal past goalie Felix Potvin.
The Kings were up 1-0, and made it 2-0 later in the first when Tomas Sandstrom scored a goal—set up by Gretzky. The period ended with the Kings up by the same margin, and looking like they were going to upset the favored Leafs with ease.
The beginning of the second period saw the Leafs battle back. Goals from captain Wendell Clark and later Glenn Anderson tied the contest. The Leafs had stolen the momentum the Kings had enjoyed.
Los Angeles coach Barry Melrose sensed the game was slipping away from his team, and signaled for a time out. He tried to settle the upstart Kings, and dull the Leaf's edge. Back from the stoppage, the Kings did not respond. The Leafs dominated the next minutes of the game, and it seemed it was a matter of time before they would take the lead.
The Leafs sustained a long rush in the King's zone, but another pass was broken up and picked up by Gretzky. He fed a pass to forward Sandstrom and followed him into the Leaf zone. Sandstrom left a pretty drop pass for Gretzky, but as Wayne neared the puck, Leaf Kent Manderville closed in.
In an instant, Wayne let the puck pass through Manderville's poke check, gained possession, and moved towards the net. Wayne's beautiful move on Manderville left him alone in the slot, and he blasted a slapper past Potvin. Now 3-2, the Kings had stolen the lead and the momentum, and silenced the partisan crowd as the second period ended.
The beginning of the third period saw the resilient Leafs tie the game in the first minute on a Wendell Clark goal. The game was now knotted 3-3, and the rest of the third and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals hung in the balance.
The teams battled back and forth to the 15-minute mark, when scrappy forward Tim Donnelly scored a rebound goal to give the Kings the edge, 4-3. Seconds later, with the Leafs fighting for their season, Gretzky stole the puck and moved into the Leaf end. Wayne circled behind the net, and saw that no teammate had joined him on the rush.
Gretzky noticed Leafs defenseman Dave Ellet guarding the front of the net, and made a split second decision to backhand the puck off Ellet's skate. The puck bounced off his skate, past the shocked Potvin, and into the net, giving the Great One the hat trick.
The goal was enormous for the Kings, because the Leafs would not go easy, netting another goal with a minute left to make it 5-4. The final minute ticked off with the Leafs scrambling in the Kings zone to tie the game, but time ran out and the Kings had won, making their first Stanley Cup Final.
Wayne Gretzky finished with four points, including a Game Seven hat trick--a feat that hasn't been matched since. The Great One, who it was said played the series like he had a piano on his back, had silenced his critics and dashed the hearts of everyone in Toronto.
True to what he told his teammates, he had taken care of game Seven—being the difference in one of the NHL's greatest games ever.