By Dan Steinberg
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; D02
The first time his team made the Stanley Cup playoffs, Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers lost in the first round, to the Flyers. The second time, they advanced to the second round before being ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
But the third time, in the spring of 1982, was going to be different. The Oilers led the NHL in goals, and by an impossibly wide margin. Edmonton had the most points in its conference (with 17 more than the runner-up), and the Oilers set a franchise record for wins. It was time to take the next step.
"Our team has Stanley Cup on its mind and they are fired up for the playoffs," Coach Glen Sather said, according to UPI.
"I'm happy with my individual performance, but the most important goal lies ahead: winning the Stanley Cup. That's all that counts now," Gretzky said. "The playoffs are really a new season, and all the records and statistics in the regular schedule don't mean a thing now. We have to go out and prove ourselves all over again. I'm confident we can do it."
Time for the inevitable comparison. The first time Alex Ovechkin's team made the playoffs, the Caps lost in the first round, to the Flyers. The second time, they advanced to the second round before being ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup champs. The third time, his club led the NHL in goals by an impossibly wide margin, finished with the most points in its conference (with 18 more than the runner-up) and was fixated on taking the next step.
"I'm not angry about personal stats, personal awards," Ovechkin said on the eve of his third playoff run. "I want team awards."
You already know what happened to these Caps, but what of those Oilers? Well, they were heavily favored in a first-round series with the drab Kings, who finished 17th in the overall league standings. The Globe and Mail outlined the Oilers' strengths and weaknesses before the 1982 playoffs began, calling them "the most awesome scoring machine in NHL history," but warning that "no team this young has won a Stanley Cup in living memory," and that "rivals still question the Oilers' ability to cope with a close-checking opponent and wonder whether they sacrifice too much on defense to score all those goals."
Edmonton lost the opener at home, before tying the series at one. Eventually, there was a deciding winner-take-all game, held on the Oilers' home ice. But they fell behind, 2-0, and wound up losing in a shocking upset.
"At no time in last night's embarrassment did the Oilers give any indication that they realized the gravity of the situation," the Globe and Mail wrote after the deciding game. Edmonton papers called the team "chokers and quitters," according to UPI.
Gretzky left for the world championships in Europe amid questions about the future of his team.
"All those goals and points Gretzky got during the season, they don't mean much now," Rangers assistant Walt Tkaczuk told the New York Times.
But Gretzky wasn't cowed.
"It takes a big man to face his mistakes," he said. "It takes a bigger man to correct his mistakes. We'll do that next year."
And they did. That next year, the Oilers lost in the Stanley Cup finals. Two years later, they won it all for the first of four times with Gretzky.
What's my point? Michael Wilbon recently described Ovechkin as "a transcendent talent who collects all kinds of individual hardware but cannot win a championship."
Just to be safe, I'd suggest he give it a few more years.