What child was this, hoisting the black-and-silver-clad Los Angeles Kings onto his scrawny shoulders? It must have been an apparition. Wayne Gretzky, skating like the Great One of young? And was this hockey in May? In the City of Angels, where thoughts this time of year usually turn to basketball? The divine number 99, the king of Kings, back atop the list of the NHL's playoff scoring leaders, sporting a follow-me glint in his eye? Could any of this possibly be?
Believe it. Better yet, ask the Calgary Flames or the Vancouver Canucks if it was Gretzky or Memorex who burned them for six goals and 13 assists in the Kings' first 10 postseason games. After suffering through the longest and worst season of his career, the 32-year-old Gretzky, the league's alltime leading scorer, was recharged, rejuvenated and playing like a man whose legs have been born again. Good thing, too, for the run-and-gun Kings are going to need a miracle worker to lead them if they are to continue their improbable march toward Lord Stanley's Cup.
You've heard of playoff hockey? Tight-checking, disciplined, close to the vest? The Kings prefer playground hockey. This team never met a two-on-one it didn't like. Bucking traditionalist thinking, 36-year-old coach Barry Melrose has had his Kings keep the showtime machine on full throttle in the postseason, the result being a declaration of war on goals-against averages. Through those first 10 playoff games the Kings had scored 50 times—but they had allowed 47 goals.
Says Gretzky, who has had points in nine of the 10 games, "The teams that do the best in the playoffs are the ones that change the least. We can't play like [Toronto Maple Leaf coach] Pat Burns's teams. We have to play like our team. Our attitude is to attack, to be aggressive, to apply pressure."
Unfortunately for long-suffering Los Angeles fans, those who live by the attack, die by the counterattack. On Sunday, with an opportunity to build a three-games-to-one lead over the favored Canucks, the Kings were drubbed 7-2 at the Great Western Forum. The loss returned the home-ice advantage to the Canucks, and the teams went back to Vancouver, where Los Angeles had already won once in the series. "It would have made life simpler if we'd won," said Gretzky, who missed on a breakaway but assisted on both of L.A.'s goals in Sunday's defeat. "But we're in the same position now that we were in against Calgary. We've shown that we can win on the road."
The entire hockey world—O.K., except Flame and Canuck fans—has been thrilled by Gretzky's resurgence. Overshadowed in recent years by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux, Gretzky has become the marquee name that hockey forgot. A career-threatening herniated thoracic disc sidelined him for the first 39 games of the season, and after Gretzky rushed himself back into the lineup in January, he was no longer hockey's Superman. Instead, he skated like someone was standing on his cape.
In his first 18 games back Gretzky got only 19 points, less than half the 2.265 points-per-game average he had maintained in his 13-year NHL career. He finished the regular season with 65 points in 45 games, the first time that Gretzky had ever failed to accumulate at least 100 points in a season. In one dismal stretch he went 16 games without scoring a goal, seven games more than in any of his previous droughts. This from a man who had averaged more than 50 goals a season for his career.
"Maybe I came back a month earlier than I should have," says Gretzky, "but the whole reason for returning as quickly as I did was so that I could be the best that I could be in April. And I played pretty well in the last 25 games. But without the support of the coaching staff and my wife, I might have done something drastic in February."
More troubling than Gretzky's lack of point production was that his return seemed to hurt the team. Led by Gretzky's onetime Edmonton Oiler line-mate Jari Kurri, L.A. went 20-14-5 in the games Gretzky missed. But when the Average One came back, the Kings played sub-.500 hockey (19-21-5) for the remainder of the regular season. Kurri, who had accumulated 58 points pre-Gretzky, had his ice time slashed and totaled exactly half as many points in the final 45 games.
Melrose, who's in his first year as coach, attributed the Kings' slump to injuries—forwards Dave Taylor, Tomas Sandstrom and Corey Millen missed a total of 121 games this season—but the nagging suspicion around the league was that the greatest scorer the sport has known had finally been neutralized by a relentless checker called Age. Gretzky no longer could lift his teammates to a higher level.