What child was this, hoisting the black-and-silver-clad Los Angeles Kings onto his scrawny shoulders? It must have been an apparition. Wayne Gretzky, skating like the Great One of young? And was this hockey in May? In the City of Angels, where thoughts this time of year usually turn to basketball? The divine number 99, the king of Kings, back atop the list of the NHL's playoff scoring leaders, sporting a follow-me glint in his eye? Could any of this possibly be?
Believe it. Better yet, ask the Calgary Flames or the Vancouver Canucks if it was Gretzky or Memorex who burned them for six goals and 13 assists in the Kings' first 10 postseason games. After suffering through the longest and worst season of his career, the 32-year-old Gretzky, the league's alltime leading scorer, was recharged, rejuvenated and playing like a man whose legs have been born again. Good thing, too, for the run-and-gun Kings are going to need a miracle worker to lead them if they are to continue their improbable march toward Lord Stanley's Cup.
You've heard of playoff hockey? Tight-checking, disciplined, close to the vest? The Kings prefer playground hockey. This team never met a two-on-one it didn't like. Bucking traditionalist thinking, 36-year-old coach Barry Melrose has had his Kings keep the showtime machine on full throttle in the postseason, the result being a declaration of war on goals-against averages. Through those first 10 playoff games the Kings had scored 50 times—but they had allowed 47 goals.
Says Gretzky, who has had points in nine of the 10 games, "The teams that do the best in the playoffs are the ones that change the least. We can't play like [Toronto Maple Leaf coach] Pat Burns's teams. We have to play like our team. Our attitude is to attack, to be aggressive, to apply pressure."
Unfortunately for long-suffering Los Angeles fans, those who live by the attack, die by the counterattack. On Sunday, with an opportunity to build a three-games-to-one lead over the favored Canucks, the Kings were drubbed 7-2 at the Great Western Forum. The loss returned the home-ice advantage to the Canucks, and the teams went back to Vancouver, where Los Angeles had already won once in the series. "It would have made life simpler if we'd won," said Gretzky, who missed on a breakaway but assisted on both of L.A.'s goals in Sunday's defeat. "But we're in the same position now that we were in against Calgary. We've shown that we can win on the road."
The entire hockey world—O.K., except Flame and Canuck fans—has been thrilled by Gretzky's resurgence. Overshadowed in recent years by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux, Gretzky has become the marquee name that hockey forgot. A career-threatening herniated thoracic disc sidelined him for the first 39 games of the season, and after Gretzky rushed himself back into the lineup in January, he was no longer hockey's Superman. Instead, he skated like someone was standing on his cape.
In his first 18 games back Gretzky got only 19 points, less than half the 2.265 points-per-game average he had maintained in his 13-year NHL career. He finished the regular season with 65 points in 45 games, the first time that Gretzky had ever failed to accumulate at least 100 points in a season. In one dismal stretch he went 16 games without scoring a goal, seven games more than in any of his previous droughts. This from a man who had averaged more than 50 goals a season for his career.
"Maybe I came back a month earlier than I should have," says Gretzky, "but the whole reason for returning as quickly as I did was so that I could be the best that I could be in April. And I played pretty well in the last 25 games. But without the support of the coaching staff and my wife, I might have done something drastic in February."
More troubling than Gretzky's lack of point production was that his return seemed to hurt the team. Led by Gretzky's onetime Edmonton Oiler line-mate Jari Kurri, L.A. went 20-14-5 in the games Gretzky missed. But when the Average One came back, the Kings played sub-.500 hockey (19-21-5) for the remainder of the regular season. Kurri, who had accumulated 58 points pre-Gretzky, had his ice time slashed and totaled exactly half as many points in the final 45 games.
Melrose, who's in his first year as coach, attributed the Kings' slump to injuries—forwards Dave Taylor, Tomas Sandstrom and Corey Millen missed a total of 121 games this season—but the nagging suspicion around the league was that the greatest scorer the sport has known had finally been neutralized by a relentless checker called Age. Gretzky no longer could lift his teammates to a higher level.
Which is why very few people gave Los Angeles, which finished third in the Smythe Division, much chance of getting past the second-place Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs. In the lour seasons since Gretzky was traded to L.A. from Edmonton, the Kings have never advanced beyond the division finals, and this season the prevailing wisdom has been that their style under Melrose is all wrong for postseason play. The Kings, led by Luc Robitaille's 63 goals, boasted the NHL's fifth-best offense, with 338 goals, but they were saddled with the fourth-worst defense, having allowed 340. The 114 power-play goals scored against Los Angeles was the most in team history.
"So what?" said Melrose last week. "The Blackhawks had the best goals-against average in the league, and where are they now? [Chicago was swept in the first round by the St. Louis Blues.] People make too big a deal over the regular season. You don't win Stanley Cups in the regular season."
"A lot of people had written us off," says defenseman Charlie Huddy, a member of five Stanley Cup champions in Edmonton before Los Angeles acquired him before the start of last season. "We just decided, let's go prove everyone wrong. It gives you a little extra incentive when people are putting you down."
The Kings surprised the Flames in a wide-open first-round meeting, winning four games to two in a series that left hockey fans scratching their heads, wondering how the Australian Rules Football scores kept creeping into their morning newspapers. The Kings dropped the second game 9-4 but squeezed out victories in Games 5 and 6 by margins of 9-4 and 9-6, respectively. "Where is it written you have to win with defense?" says Melrose, a trifle, er, defensively. "We have a lot of weapons, and we're a much better team when we play an up-tempo game."
Gretzky missed most of the first game of the playoffs with sore ribs after being cross-checked by Calgary's Joel Otto. He played the second and third wearing a flak jacket, but when his ribs started feeling better—they were reported to be cracked, although they still haven't been X-rayed—Gretzky left the flak jacket off and had a painkiller injected after pregame warmups.
He played as if he had been taken off a leash. Buzzing all over the ice in his familiar bent-over skating style, Gretzky had seven points in the final two games against Calgary, playing, by his own estimation, his best hockey since the 1991 Canada Cup. "Wayne's finally got his conditioning where it should be," says Melrose. "The way he's playing right now. I can put him with anyone, and I've been double-shifting him a lot. It's hard to keep him off the ice."
In the Kings' opening game against the Canucks, one of the biggest teams in the NHL and one that had defeated Los Angeles seven times in nine tries during the regular season, the speedy L.A. forwards were manhandled, and Vancouver won 5-2. But, led by Gretzky's goal and two assists, the Kings squared the series in Game 2 with a 6-3 victory. Gretzky was everywhere, deep in his own zone breaking up Canuck scoring chances, camped behind the Vancouver net, a spot Gretzky refers to as his "office." He sprung Kurri for a shorthanded goal, played on the power play, drew penalties and was the first guy Melrose turned to in four-on-four situations. Once, Gretzky even retrieved goaltender Kelly Hrudey's stick when Hrudey dropped it during a flurry.
"The older you get, the better you understand how important it is to be defensive in your own zone," says Gretzky, who'll never be a candidate for the Selke Trophy as the top defensive forward in the league. "I don't gamble as much as I used to. But I'll tell you what, it's a lot easier to be a defensive player than an offensive one. Anyone who says otherwise is full of it."
"That second game in Vancouver is as good as I've ever seen him play," says Huddy, who saw Gretzky play plenty in their eight years together with the Oilers. "The fire was in his eyes. When he stops, cuts back and accelerates into the holes, he still has that jump in his legs. That part of his game is as quick as it ever was."
Gretzky thinks so, too, though from above ice level he appears to have lost a step from his prime. "You age, but I was never a quick skater," Gretzky says. "The game's faster now. The big defensemen can all skate. I don't think I've gotten slower."
He still operates from the edges of the action—behind the net, along the boards, weaving at center ice—where it is easier to get the puck to him. He then creates his havoc from those spots. However, in a concession to his years, he seldom drives to the net with abandon, which has led to a drop-off in his goal production.
In Game 3 against the Canucks, however, Gretzky scored his 100th and 101st playoff goals—extending his own record—in a 7-4 King win. That victory came in suddenly hockey-mad Los Angeles, where the town's sycophantic celebs were now scrambling to press flesh inside the Kings' dressing room. Gretzky scored once on a two-on-one and once into an open net.
The game's No. 1 star, though, was the 32-year-old Kurri, who scored his fourth goal of the postseason (and 97th of his playoff career) by blowing past Vancouver defenseman Gerald Diduck and roofing the puck over goalie Kirk McLean. Kurri looked as if he were 22 again. "Jari's like a goalie who never makes the tough saves look difficult," said Gretzky. "He's got to be up there with [Toronto center] Doug Gilmour as the best two-way player in the game."
Gretzky, for his part, has come around to thinking that the 39 games he missed may have been a blessing in disguise. "Mentally, it may have been the best thing that could have happened to me," he says. "I'd played so much hockey in my career that it gave me a chance to recharge my batteries. I found that I missed the game. Not just the hockey—everything. The traveling, the dressing room, the people, the peaks and valleys. And it was good for my teammates, too. They got to gain their own identity, gain confidence in each other and themselves. I learned a long time ago that one person can't win a championship in sports. But you can feed off each other."
When Gretzky joined the Kings, he said he had two goals: to help sell hockey in Southern California and to bring the area its first Stanley Cup. He has achieved the first goal, and while he still has a long way to go to reach the second, he's closer now than he has ever been before. Close enough, at least, to dream about the possibility of facing Lemieux in the Stanley Cup finals. "I'd love to go head-to-head against him," Gretzky says. "Like I loved to watch Bird and Magic in the NBA playoffs. That's what sports are about. He'll be ready. I'll be ready. Because, you know"—the Great One gets that glint in his eye as he says this—"I can still play this game."