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The Los Angeles Kings’ impossible comeback against Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers deserves a deep rewind

Down 5-0 coming into the third period, the underdog Kings pulled off the “Miracle on Manchester”

We’re in Los Angeles, California. It’s April 10, 1982. Game three of the Smythe divisional semifinals between the Kings and the Oilers. The teams are tied, 5-5, and we’re in overtime with a face off in the Oilers’ zone. They’ve battled for over three periods, and just 20 minutes earlier wouldn’t have believed they’d need overtime to decide this. For everything that got us to this moment, and made tonight a once in a lifetime game, let’s rewind.

Tonight marked the 11th time in 83 games this season that the Oilers and Kings faced one another. That’s over an eighth of their games against the same opponent, and prior to the ‘81-82 season, they had only met eight times total. This was partly due to Edmonton joining the NHL just three years earlier, but it was also thanks to some big changes implemented by the league for this season.

Looking to promote rivalries within divisions, the NHL made the bulk of each team’s schedule interdivisional games. In an effort to save money on travel expenses, the NHL also shook up the divisions so they were more geographically defined. Instead of being grouped with Detroit, Pittsburgh, Hartford, and Montreal, the Kings shifted to the Smythe, with Calgary, Vancouver, Colorado, and Edmonton. For LA, having to face the Oilers with more regularity could’ve come at a better time.

Edmonton began their life in the NHL with 28- and 29-win seasons before becoming a force in Year 3. In the ‘81-82 season, they finished second in the league standings behind the two-time defending champion Islanders. Edmonton won the Smythe by 34 points, and the biggest reason for their success was this guy.

Wayne Gretzky celebrates one of his 92 goals from the ‘81-82 NHL season.
Getty Images

Wayne Gretzky had a season that those following the sport had never seen before.

He became the fastest player ever to score 50 goals in a season, breaking Rocket Richard and Mike Bossy’s record by 11 games. He went on to score a new NHL record 92 goals and also broke his own records for assists and total points. Gretzky wasn’t the only one breaking records, though. The Oilers became the first team ever to score 400 goals in a season, finishing with 417, which was 71 more than the next highest scorer in the conference. They were built on speed, and had the youth to keep it up for an entire year. Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri — all of these guys were still under 21 by the end of the season.

And back in the first period of Game 3, everything had gone right for the Oilers. The game opened up as a race between the teams, which played perfectly into the hand of Edmonton. The Oilers scored first on a quick counter, when Glenn Anderson found Messier cross ice, and the centre put it in from 40 feet out. This is what they had done all season using their speed and the open ice to let passing dictate the offense. Most defenses at the time mainly paid attention to just the guy with the puck — you stop him, and you stop the offense.

The Oilers, though, played with an emphasis on passing and off-puck skating, a style that was more common in Europe than North America. And while their speed and stretch passes also led to turnovers, when the offense averaged more than five goals per game, they could deal with some slip-ups.

Later in the first period, Gretzky added to the lead by doing, well, what he does. His shorthanded goal put the Oilers up 2-0 at the first intermission, and then 43 seconds into the second, Edmonton netted another goal during that same penalty kill.

From there, tempers started to flare. Nineteen penalties were called in the second period, which included six coincidental minors — another area that the Oilers had been capitalizing on all season. With players sitting from both sides, their style of offense put them at an advantage since fewer bodies on the ice meant more space to go to work.

This was on display just over five minutes into the second when Gretzky stole the puck behind the Kings’ net during a 3-on-3. The defense turned his way, giving Risto Siltanen room to bury a one-timer that actually went through the net, causing play to continue until refs signaled goal: Edmonton’s fourth. A few minutes later, Gretzky nabbed his second of the night, and the teams headed into the third separated by 5 goals.

Not a great start for LA, but honestly, this is what people expected from the series.

A year after a 43-win season when they made the playoffs as the No. 4 seed, the Kings disappointed in ‘81-82. They won just 24 games, and only reached the postseason thanks to the NHL’s new penchant for divisional match ups, which the league also built the playoffs around. With a roster nearly identical to the year before, the big change for the Kings came in the coaching department.

Bob Berry, who had coached LA since ‘78, left for Montreal and the club promoted assistant coach Parker MacDonald to take his spot. MacDonald had a checkered coaching past. He won AHL coach of the year with LA’s affiliated team in New Haven, but was yet to coach a full season in the pros. That wouldn’t change this year, as he led the Kings to a record of 13-24-5.

After that, the organization changed his title to assistant general manager, and brought in Don Perry as his successor, another coach from the New Haven Nighthawks. In Perry’s first month on the job, he’d receive a six-game suspension for ordering Paul Mulvey to leave the bench to join a brawl. Despite the turmoil surrounding the team, the Kings would slightly improve their winning percentage under Perry. But if their regular season series with the Oilers was any indication, their time in the playoffs would be short.

That season, LA won one of eight games against Edmonton, and forced two ties while being outscored 51-to-27. This included back-to-back losses to the Oilers at the end of the season, which added to a five-game skid going into the postseason for the Kings while Edmonton was unbeaten in their last nine.

But streaks can come to an end, and the Kings quickly proved they weren’t going to bend over to Gretzky and company through the first two games. After being down 4-1 just nine minutes into the series, the Kings rallied back to win 10-8, breaking the record for most goals in an NHL playoff game. LA pulled off the upset in Edmonton after winning just five games on the road all season.

The Kings’ unexpected Game 1 points leader, rookie Daryl Evans, scored twice in the second and added a pair of assists.

Daryl Evans, a name you didn’t know before tonight.
Getty Images

Playing in just his 14th professional game, Evans’ two second period goals matched his season total and he carried the momentum into Game 2 when he netted his third of the playoffs. The Kings took the Oilers to overtime, and despite Gretzky giving Edmonton a 3-2 win, LA had already done more than was expected of them. They headed to the Forum for Games 3 and 4 where no one would’ve guessed they’d have a chance to take the best-of-five series in front of their home crowd.

But that would require winning tonight, and winning tonight would require a miraculous effort by LA.

Back to the start of the third period and the Kings still faced that 5-0 hole. A hard check by Dave Lumley in the corner got everyone fired up, and following a minor scrum, each team was again down to four skaters. This time though, LA would be the team to capitalize on the extra ice, with Jay Wells sending in the Kings’ first goal of the night. Less than four minutes later, LA found themselves with their ninth power play of the game, and they finally ended one early thanks to Doug Smith putting in a rebound just under the crossbar.

With their lead trimmed to three, the Oilers offense tried to heat back up, but when their chances weren’t snuffed out by the Kings, the goalpost made stops. Gretzky would take a stick to the face, skaters paired up, and it looked like momentum was done swinging in LA’s favor as the Kings gifted the Oilers a 5-on-3 advantage. But the Oilers offense was stymied just long enough, and with under five-and-a-half minutes remaining, the Kings made their final push.

It started with a steal in the Oilers’ end, which led to Charlie Simmer sneaking one in from behind the net. Less than a minute later, the Kings broke out off a Gretzky turnover and Steve Bozek hit a wrister for LA’s second 4-on-4 goal of the game. With under a minute to play — now down one — an Oilers penalty plus an empty net gave the Kings a two-man advantage. The final 15 seconds had both teams scrambling in the Oilers’ end, before the puck reached Mark Hardy at the point who fired it on goal, and with five seconds left Bozek put in the rebound. After one last regulation face off, the teams headed to overtime.

In extra time though, it once again looked like the Kings’ magic had run out. Twenty seconds in, and Mario Lessard’s attempt to corral a shot sent him sprawling. The puck found Messier who got a chance at an untended net, but he sailed the puck wide. After some back-and-forth play, the Kings were able to establish possession, and Doug Smith threw in a shot that Grant Fuhr grabbed and hung onto.

Which brings us to a faceoff in the Oilers’ zone. Despite all the scoring that’s happened tonight, one of the Kings on the ice was still looking to make his mark.

In the 1980 NHL entry draft, the Kings took Evans in the second-to-last round at 178 overall. Evans spent most of ‘81-82 with the Kings’ AHL affiliate in New Haven before getting called up for the final month of the regular season, and his first games in the majors. He made just over a dozen appearances, but went mostly unnoticed before this series began. And despite having five points in the first two games, he was yet to show up in the score summary tonight.

As the Forum waits for the faceoff, no one knows what’ll come next in this already miraculous comeback. The Kings have battled back just to get here, while the Oilers had to scramble to regain their composure and now hope to put an end to this improbable night.

All the names you’d expect have been involved, and have given brilliant performances while an unheralded rookie waits in the wings, looking to cement his spot in the pros. Unknown to them, it would all come down to this final drop of the puck.

Welcome to a moment in history.