The Los Angeles Kings reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history with a 5-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the Campbell Conference Finals at the Maple Leaf Gardens. Coming off a dramatic overtime goal in Game 6, Wayne Gretzky nets a hat trick and adds an assist as he takes Los Angeles to hockey’s ultimate stage.
August 8, 1988, was a day the NHL was changed forever, as the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings became one of the top teams in the league right away but could not make a deep run in the playoffs as they were knocked off by the eventual champion Calgary Flames in 1989 and lost to the Oilers in each of the next three seasons.
Things did not look too promising in Wayne Gretzky’s fifth season in Los Angeles, as he missed nearly half the season with a back injury scoring just 16 goals with 49 assists in 45 games as the Kings finished third in the Smythe Division with a record of 39-35-10. Things did not start well in the playoffs as they fell behind 2-1 in their first-round series, allowing 17 goals in their first three games, which led Coach Barry Melrose to bench Goalie Kelly Hrudey. Los Angeles would rally to win the next three games and took the series in six games with Robb Stauber in net, though it was the offense that led the way as the Kings lit the lamp with nine goals in each of the final two games. Hrudey got back his job after the Kings lost Game 1 of the Smyth Division Finals to the Vancouver Canucks 5-2. However, the Kings continued to light up the scoreboard, winning 6-3 in Game 2 and 7-4 in Game 3. After Vancouver won 7-2 in Game 4, the Kings won Game 5 in double overtime 4-3 on a goal by Gary Shuchuk. The Kings would close out the series with a 5-3 win in Game 6 to reach the Campbell Conference Finals for the first time in team history.
The Kings' foes in the Campbell Conference Finals were the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were experiencing a rejuvenation as they sought to make the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in the expansion era. The Leafs, coached by Pat Burns, finished the season with a record of 44-29-11 to finish third in the Norris Division. In the first round, the Maple Leafs won a seven-game battle with the Detroit Red Wings on an overtime goal by Nikolai Borschevsky. Toronto also needed seven games to defeat the St. Louis Blues in the Norris Division Finals, winning the finale 6-0.
Game 1 went to the Maple Leafs 4-1 in Toronto, as things got ugly when Leafs' coach Pat Burns tried to confront Kings bench boss Barry Melrose after enforcer Mart McSorley delivered a big hit to Leaf star Doug Gilmour. The Kings would even the series with a 3-2 win in the Maple Leaf Gardens, as Tomas Sandstrom provided the game-winner in the third period. The two teams split 4-2 wins in the next two games at the Great Western Forum and went back to Toronto tied two games apiece. With Glenn Anderson scoring an overtime game-winner in Game 5, the Maple Leafs moved to within one game of the final with a 3-2 win in Game 5. Back in Los Angeles for Game 6, the Kings appeared to be heading for a seventh game leading 4-2 at the end of two periods, but Toronto forced overtime on a pair of goals by Wendel Clark in the third period. In overtime, it was the Great One who answered, scoring a power-play goal at 1:41 of sudden death.
In Game 7, Wayne Gretzky struck early for the Kings scoring a short-handed goal to give LA a 1-0 lead on the way to building a 2-0 lead. After the Leafs rallied to tie the game in the second period, Gretzky scored his second goal of the game to give the Kings a 3-2 lead heading into the final 20 minutes. Wendel Clark struck early in the third period to tie the game 3-3. With just under four minutes left, the Kings regained the lead on a goal by Mike Donnelly. Just 37 seconds later, Wayne Gretzky completed the hat trick to give the Kings a 4-2 lead. A goal that turned out to be key as Dave Ellett scored with 67 seconds left to make it 4-3. However, Kelly Hrudey did the rest as the Kings held on to win. Wayne Gretzky, who also had an assist, called Game 7 of the Conference Finals one of the best games of his career.