When Philadelphia Coach Mike Keenan succeeded Edmonton center Wayne Gretzky in the interview area at Northlands Coliseum Saturday night, he wryly commented, "At least he sweats. Thanks for hanging around for me. He's a tough act to follow."
It was Keenan's way of noting that Gretzky is human, even if his achievements on the ice sometimes create some doubt about it.
Certainly, Gretzky was a step above his mortal compatriots in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final. He scored three goals in the first period, the first two 15 seconds apart, to lead the Oilers to a 4-3 victory that gave them a 2-1 margin in the best-of-seven series.
Asked about Gretzky's performance, Edmonton Coach Glen Sather said, straight-faced, "It was the best game for him in this series." Then, getting serious, Sather added, "I guess I'm a little blase' about Wayne. I've seen him play so many great games. But this was the best I've ever seen him play in the Stanley Cup final. He really was the Great Gretzky in this one."
Gretzky himself was as proud of winning a key faceoff in the Edmonton end with 14 seconds left as he was of his hat trick.
"I could rate my night on goals and assists," Gretzky said. "I know that's what I did Tuesday, when I was blanked and I said I wasn't even there.
"Tonight I had extra zip and some jump. I helped kill a lot of penalties, which was gratifying. I'd say I had a pretty strong hockey game. I don't normally take key faceoffs like the one at the end (Mark Messier had been chased from the circle) and I was a little nervous about it. I didn't want to lose the draw and have them get the tying goal. I made sure I didn't lose it.
"When you have a reputation for scoring goals, people tend to think you're weak defensively. But in seven years I've played some good defense. It's satisfying to be in on a good defensive play, too."
Still, Gretzky is judged on goals and assists, and if he never did a thing defensively those figures would put him in a class by himself.
In only 68 playoff games, Gretzky has rolled up 150 points, which put him in a sixth-place tie on the all-time list with Stan Mikita. The leader, Jean Beliveau, collected 176 points in 162 games and Gretzky figures to pass him next year. Gretzky shares third place in assists with 97 and could be top man before this series ends. Denis Potvin, the leader, has 101 in 167 games.
Gretzky shares 14th place in goals with 53. Mike Bossy and Maurice Richard are coleaders with 82, Bossy in 110 games and Richard in 133.
Gretzky's four points Saturday set a one-year record of 41, topping his own 1983 mark of 38. His lone assist boosted him to 27, bettering his own 1983 record of 26. He could have had several more assists but his teammates, notably Jari Kurri, failed to convert excellent setups.
"We had good opportunities to make it 5-1 and we weren't able to put it away," Gretzky said. "They're a good hockey club and being ahead of them 4-1 with 15 minutes left isn't a secure lead.
"But I think it's only natural to let up a little bit offensively when you get a lead and want to protect it. And you can say we passed too much -- we probably did -- but we're very unselfish and if that cost us a goal or two, in the long run it can only make us a better hockey team."
Edmonton's challengers would prefer that the Oilers not improve. They are tough enough, having won their last 14 playoff games on home ice and established offensive records that only they are likely to threaten for a long time to come.
"We do have momentum at home," Gretzky said. "We enjoy playing in this building. But the biggest thing right now is that we're just two wins from the Stanley Cup. We can smell the Cup and we'll be working harder Tuesday."
Besides scoring three goals and feeding his teammates with more skill than a zoo keeper in the lion's cage, Gretzky put on a dazzling display of keepaway in the first period. He controlled the puck, spinning in various directions, for about 15 seconds in center ice, but no teammates came open and Ron Sutter finally was able to knock him off the puck. When Gretzky limped to the bench, there was immediate concern, but he did not miss a shift.
"Ron Sutter took my body as I was spinning and caught my leg going the wrong way," Gretzky said. "It was a little tight at the top of the thigh, but I'm sure I'll be all right Tuesday."
Gretzky was the subject of considerable scorn following the opening game in Philadelphia, when he was held without a shot and the Flyers earned a 4-1 victory. He felt some of the criticism was unreasonable and said so.
"We didn't play very well, but somebody wrote after that game that we were not a good hockey team but a fraud," Gretzky said. "I don't mind constructive criticism but when a guys says we have no heart and no soul, it really bothers me."
Asked whether the written low blow had spurred Gretzky to Saturday's super performance, Sather said, "Wayne plays from the inside. He's self-motivated. That's what makes him so great. Something written in a newspaper won't affect a player of Wayne Gretzky's stature."