INGLEWOOD, CALIF., JAN. 27 -- On his 30th birthday, with a fourth goal and sixth point on his stick and little in the way of obstruction, Wayne Gretzky for a brief and rare moment, proved fallible.

In view was an empty Vancouver net. In reach was a goal easier than the previous three he had scored Saturday night. Then the unthinkable: Gretzky, perhaps holding the puck too long, had it poked away, forcing Los Angeles to endure some worrisome last seconds in a 5-4 victory over the Canucks.

"I think it's evident he's slowing down," Kings owner Bruce McNall said afterward, smiling. "Normally Wayne would have gotten that fourth goal."

McNall, as many do, finds humor in the suggestion that the older Gretzky isn't as good as the old Gretzky. And Gretzky, in typical fashion, really wasn't in the mood to talk about himself, even on the night he left his roaring 20s with a three-goal, two-assist game that drew raves from everyone else.

"I haven't really thought about it except when people have asked me about it," he said, seemingly bothered by the fuss over his birthday. "The truth is, I feel really good."

Other than that, he didn't say much. Others were picking up the slack.

McNall: "He's definitely proving that life begins at 30 in this game. He's every bit of what he's always been -- maybe a little better, a little smarter."

Linemate Tony Granato: "You see him on TV and you think you've seen everything possible. Then you see him every day in different situations and you realize his creativity is even more remarkable than you thought it was."

Vancouver winger Trevor Linden: "Gretzky did it all night. That's why he's the best player in hockey."

Linden's viewpoint was widely held until last season. Then although Gretzky led the league with 142 points, he hardly was considered for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player, an award he has won nine times.

Instead, he heard criticism for the Kings' poor finish, and talk began that he no longer was the force he was in Edmonton, partly because of his back problem, but mostly because he was aging.

Gretzky, though, as Kings defenseman and former Edmonton teammate Marty McSorley loves to remind detractors, "always finds a way to shut the critics up."

As McSorley expected, Gretzky has done a lot of silencing in 1990-91, mainly by achieving two more milestones in a 12-year NHL career filled with them. He began at age 17 with the Indianapolis team in the old World Hockey Association.

On Oct. 26, Gretzky, with an assist in a loss at Winnipeg, scored his 2,000th NHL point. Three weeks ago, on Jan. 3, his hat trick against the Islanders joined him with Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne and Phil Esposito as the NHL's only 700-goal scorers.

Now that he plays on a stable line for the first time since he left the Oilers, he averages nearly two points a game. Just like old times.

The Kings, as a result, are in an unfamiliar position this late in the season -- first place. With 30 games to play, Los Angeles, which has never finished higher than second, holds a six-point lead in the Smythe Division over Calgary.

To protect the Kings' advantage in the standings, Gretzky surely will have to produce more goals like the three he netted against the Canucks for his second hat trick of the season and 48th of his career.

He needed only 12 seconds to score the first, on a quick backhander after the opening faceoff. He took a pass from Granato and slid the puck under Vancouver goaltender Kirk McLean for his 30th goal of the season.

After setting up Steve Duchesne's goal late in the first period, Gretzky scored 68 seconds into the second on a rebound.

Gretzky took a feed from Tomas Sandstrom, faked a shot on a breakaway to draw McLean out, circled behind the goal and then flipped the puck into the empty net.

"He looked like me in practice -- when there's nobody out there," Los Angeles Coach Tom Webster said. "I wouldn't think {he's slowing down}. He's on a mission."