There were two races that fans were keeping an eye on in the final weeks of the 1983-84 regular season. First and foremost, the chase for playoff positioning kept everyone on edge; but fans in Pittsburgh and New Jersey were focused on a different competition.
During that season, the Penguins and Devils were the worst two teams in the League. The team that finished last would get the first pick and the right to select much-hyped junior star Mario Lemieux. (At that time, the League had yet to institute the draft lottery.)
The Devils finished the season with an eight-game losing streak, but that run of futility wasn't enough to sink below the Patrick Division rival Penguins in the standings. In the end, the Pens finished with just 38 points -- three fewer than the Devils. A few short months later, they changed the course of their franchise dramatically by selecting Lemieux.
At the other end of the League, the Oilers racked up 119 points during the regular season and they were primed to begin a Stanley Cup run that would keep them at or near the top of the hockey world for the rest of the decade.
In our fifth installment on the NHL in the 1980s, I'll look at the powerful Oilers as well as the many stories that kept fans attention during the '83-84 season.
1. CHANGING OF THE GUARD
After knocking at the championship door just 12 months earlier, Wayne Gretzky's Oilers kicked it down with a five-game Final series victory against the four-time defending champion Islanders, raising the Stanley Cup in front of a wild, sellout crowd at Northlands Coliseum.
The final series -- which was contested in 2-3-2 home ice format; rather than the 2-2-1-1-1 of previous years -- turned in the opening game, when Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr stopped 38 shots en route to a 1-0 shutout win on Long Island.
The Isles rallied for an easy 6-1 win in Game 2; but they were overwhelmed when the series moved to Alberta for Games 3, 4 and 5. The Oilers won all three games, outscoring the Islanders by a combined score of 19-6. Mark Messier, who compiled 26 points in 19 playoff games, earned Conn Smythe Trophy honors.
For the Isles, the loss ended a 19 playoff series winning streak. That impressive run of postseason success remains a record.
2. 'GREAT' START
Speaking of ultra-impressive numbers, Gretzky opened the season with a record 51-game point-scoring streak during which he compiled 61 goals and 92 assists for 153 points. My quick math tells me that's an average of exactly three points per game. Think about that; over a 51-game span, Gretzky averaged three points per game! That's simply unreal.
The streak finally came to an end during a 4-2 loss to the visiting Kings on Jan. 28, 1984. Gretzky finished the regular season with a League-best 87 goals, 118 assists and 205 points despite missing six games.
3. FEBRUARY SLIDE
Not long after Gretzky's scoring streak came to an end, the Great One was forced to the sideline because of an injury. Gretzky's goal-scoring wing-man, Jari Kurri, also went down with a physical ailment.
Without two-thirds of their top line, the Oilers went into mid-season tailspin that saw them lose in each stop on a five-game Eastern road swing. The ill-fated trip started with an ugly 9-2 loss in Washington. It continued with losses to the Islanders, Flyers and Bruins before culminating with a shocking 11-0 blowout loss in Hartford.
In total, the Oilers were outscored, 33-9, in the five defeats.
Fortunately, Gretzky and Kurri returned to the lineup when the club got back to Edmonton. They re-ignited the Oilers' formidable engine and the team reeled off eight straight wins, righting their ship and getting ready for what would prove to be a very eventful spring.
4. 'ED' LIGHT DISTRICT
By the end of regularly scheduled campaign, the Oilers had amassed a whopping 446 goals, establishing the League single-season mark for the third straight year.
While Gretzky and Kurri were leading Edmonton's goal rush, defenseman Paul Coffey was pushing the pace from the blue line with his sheer speed and skill.
By season's end, Coffey became just the third defenseman in league history to crack the 100-point mark (Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin had done it previously). Coffey finished the year with 40 goals and 126 points. That point total left him a distant second (to Gretzky) in the Art Ross Trophy race.
5. EXTRA TIME
In an effort to settle more regular season tie games, the League instituted a five-minute sudden-death overtime period.
The move did help. The number of tie games dropped from 122 in '82-83 to 86 during the '83-84 season.
In the early years of the NHL, the League did have rules for regular season overtime. Then, on Nov. 21, 1942, those rules were discontinued to due wartime restrictions on train scheduling.
Simply, teams had to make their trains.
Even with the updated regular-season OT rules, the Flames still found themselves in a League-high 14 tie games. At the other end of the spectrum, the defending champion Islanders were part of just four ties.
6. DRAFT DAY BLUES
Well before the '83-84 season got under way, the Blues had a big problem. They did not participate in the '83 draft.
That strange occurrence was the result of an on-going fight between the team's ownership group, the Ralston-Purina Company, and the League over a proposed sale and relocation of the franchise to Saskatoon.
As a protest to the League's decision to block the sale and the subsequent collapse of the deal with the Saskatoon group, Ralston-Purina management decided to send no one to represent the team at the draft. Thus, they didn't select a single player at that draft.
Eventually, the League arranged a sale of the team to businessman Harry Ornest, who kept the team in St. Louis. Still, the franchise was significantly damaged by not participating in the draft.
7. BORN IN THE USA
While the Blues didn't come to the draft party, the League's other 20 teams made their way to Montreal to select from the amateur class.
With the top choice, the North Stars made NHL history by making Rhode Island high school skater Brian Lawton the first American-born player to be selected with the first pick.
8. FAB FRESHMAN
The Sabres, selecting fifth, got the most immediate impact out of their first-round pick, Massachusetts high school goaltender Tom Barrasso.
Just 18, the lanky lefty made a surprisingly smooth transition to an NHL crease. In 42 games, Barrasso piled up an impressive 26-12-3 record to with a 2.84 goals-against average.
For his stellar play, Barrasso became just the third goalie in League history to win both the Calder and Vezina trophies in the same season (Frank Brimsek, 1939, and Tony Esposito, 1970, had turned the trick previously). Barrasso also was voted a first-team All-Star.
9. START OF SOMETHING BIG
After playing with a very young American Olympic hockey team at the 1984 Games in Yugoslavia, defenseman Chris Chelios made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, who'd selected the Illnois native with the 40th pick in the '81 draft.
The former University of Wisconsin star played in 12 regular-season and 16 playoff games for the Habs. While he performed admirably for a rookie defender, Chelios didn't have anyone thinking he'd still be playing in the League some 26 years later.
In all, Chelios would skate in 1,651 regular-season and 266 playoff games before finally retiring after the 2009-10 season.
10. LAST HURRAHS
The captain of the Flyers during the franchise's legendary "Broad Street Bullies" era, Clarke led Philadelphia to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and '75.
Lapointe, meanwhile, made his mark as part of rock solid defensive core in Montreal, working alongside fellow defenders like Serge Savard and Larry Robinson. The clever Lapointe was part of six Cup champions during his time with the Canadiens.
The Habs originally had Tony Esposito in their large stable of netminders before losing his rights to the Blackhawks via waivers. Given full-time opportunity in Chicago during the 1969-70 season, Esposito responded with a magnificent campaign, establishing a still-standing modern era record with 15 shutouts.
The three players did have one thing in common. They were teammates for Team Canada during the historic "Summit Series" against the Soviet National team in September of 1972.
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