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Greatest NHL Teams

1987-88 Oilers voted No. 4 Greatest NHL Team

Edmonton went 16-2 in playoffs to win fourth Stanley Cup title in five seasons

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

No team ever scored goals like the Stanley Cup-winning Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, but the 1987-88 edition revealed new dimensions. While still filling the net, the Oilers adopted a more rugged attitude and showed, as champions often do, that they could win playing any style.

 

Video: 1987-88 Oilers capture their fourth Cup in five years

 

For the first time since 1980-81, Edmonton failed to finish first in the Smythe Division (coming in second, six points behind the Calgary Flames) to reach 100 points, and to lead the NHL in goals. Part of that was related to an injury that limited Wayne Gretzky to 64 games.

But if that makes these Oilers seem like merely a very good team, but not one of the best ever, consider this: They continued evolving in some very essential ways that season, becoming the second-best defensive team in the Campbell Conference while boasting the second-best offense in the League.

 

[1987-88 Edmonton Oilers roster]

 

"As we matured as players and as a team," Gretzky told NHL.com, "we came to understand that if you're going to win a Cup, you've got to win that 2-1 or 3-0 game."

The Oilers parlayed those changes into a dominant postseason, cruising to their fourth championship in five seasons with a 16-2 record. They swept the Presidents' Trophy-winning Flames in the Smythe Division Final and the Boston Bruins, the third-best defensive team in the NHL, in the Cup Final.

 

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The trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins of record-setting defenseman Paul Coffey, who had refused to report because of a contract dispute, forced the Oilers to change. 

"We couldn't run and gun as much because we didn't have Paul," Gretzky said. "Paul could pass the puck from behind his own net to center ice maybe better than any defenseman who ever played the game. So we had to play a little bit different style. It was a tough transition."

Augmenting the likes of Mark Messier and Kevin McClelland, the Oilers became even more physical by giving larger roles to tough forward Marty McSorley and rugged defensemen Steve Smith and Jeff Beukeboom. In trading Coffey, they acquired another big forward, Craig Simpson.

"Simpson was a perfect fit to play with [Glenn] Anderson and Messier," Gretzky said. "He didn't carry the puck a lot; he just worked in the corners and dug the puck out for those guys and went to the front of the net and battled as hard as anybody."

A second big change came in net, with backup goalie Andy Moog traded to Boston on March 8, 1988. Grant Fuhr produced a Vezina Trophy-winning season, leading the NHL in games and minutes played, victories, shots faced, and saves, and tying for the lead in shutouts. He also had eight assists.

Stats didn't matter to Fuhr though.

"All he wanted to do was win, and he didn't care if we won 1-0 or 6-5," Gretzky said. 

Fuhr also had the right attitude for this high-octane outfit. 

"I never saw him point a glove or point a stick or point a finger at a player for a screen or a tip; he just got the puck and threw it to center ice," Gretzky said. "Never saw him in the locker room, when many a time it was 5-5 after two periods and he could have looked over at someone and said, 'Will someone at least try to play some defense?'"

It all came together in the playoffs. After knocking off the tenacious Winnipeg Jets in five games, the second-round sweep of Calgary avenged the Oilers' loss to their provincial rival in the 1986 playoffs. Fuhr outright stole Game 1, a 3-1 victory, and Edmonton battled back after twice falling behind by two goals to win 5-4 in Game 2. Jari Kurri tied it late in the third period, and Gretzky won it in overtime with a shorthanded breakaway goal. At the time, Gretzky called it "the biggest goal I ever scored."

Back at Northlands Coliseum, Messier set up three goals and Fuhr held the fort for a 4-2 win in Game 3. The Oilers then sprinted to a 4-0 lead before Game 4 was half over and cruised to the sweep with a 6-4 win. Kurri had nine points in the four games.

Edmonton eliminated the Detroit Red Wings in five games in the Campbell Conference Final, with Gretzky piling up 13 points. That set up a Final against the tight-checking Bruins, giving the Oilers a chance to show their newfound stingy ways. They did just that, winning the first two games 2-1 and 4-2

"People said, 'Well, they're good, but are they good enough defensively to beat Boston?'" Gretzky said. "And after the first two games, I don't remember exactly, but I think they only had 14 shots on goal in Game 1 and maybe 18 in Game 2, and people were like, 'Wow, this team really is good defensively.'"

The real numbers were even better: It was 14 shots in Game 1 but 12 in Game 2. 

On the verge of a sweep, the bizarre Game 4 power failure at Boston Garden that resulted in a suspended game couldn't distract the Oilers. They jetted home and eliminated the Bruins in front of their own fans, winning 6-3.

It was Gretzky's finale with the Oilers. He would soon be traded to the Los Angeles Kings, but not before winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after finishing with 43 points, including an NHL playoff-record 31 assists, in 19 games and hoisting the Cup for one of the greatest teams in NHL history.

 

[MORE TO EXPLORE: All-Time Stanley Cup WinnersNHL 100 | READ: Greatest NHL Teams | WATCH: Greatest NHL Teams]

 

The Greatest NHL Teams were voted by fans during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as part of the NHL Centennial Celebration. Stanley Cup championship teams from 1918-2016 were eligible, and the top 10 were announced during the 2017 Final.

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