Kings at Maple Leafs – notes on Melrose, Mitchell, mistakes

Tonight will be the end of an era on at least two fronts.

First, interim coach John Stevens will be coaching his last game for the Kings – as Darryl Sutter is expected to be officially announced as the team’s new bench boss tomorrow and resume game duties Thursday vs the Ducks.

Second, beginning next season, gone will be the days of the Kings and Maple Leafs only playing on rare occasion – as the NHL will feature a new balanced schedule, where each team will play a home and road game against the other 29 clubs.

For now though, Kings v Leafs is still something special. Not only is Toronto the undeniable hockey capital, but these two teams put on one of the greatest seven-game series in playoff history back in 1993. More on that in a minute though. First up, some notes on tonight…

- Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez will sit out, while Willie Mitchell is expected to return to the line-up. Yesterday, he proclaimed there were no further setbacks in his recovery from a sore groin and he’s looking to be on the Kings blueline come game time.

- The same can’t be said for Mike Richards. Although he’s been traveling with the team since Friday, he’s still not ready for contact. A better status of his situation should come later this week when the team is back in LA and he has a chance to see the doctor again.

- Don’t look now, but Dustin Penner quietly had his first multi-point game of the season on Saturday. Of course, it went largely unnoticed due to the team losing 8-2. However, it’s yet another positive sign of his recent play.

- “Flat-out mistakes that cost us goals,” that’s what Rob Scuderi had to say about the debacle in Detroit over the weekend.

- Look for Drew Doughty to have his best game of the season tonight. He’ll be playing in front of friends and family and the young defenseman tends to raise his level of play in ‘big games.’ For him personally, this is a big one.

Now, here’s a look back at a pivotal point in time for each franchise…


1993 seems like so long ago – the NHL played an 84 game regular season schedule, the Ducks were still a movie not a hockey team, Eric Lindros and Teemu Selanne were promising rookies, wearing a helmet was optional for players, Ron Hextall was wearing a Quebec Nordiques jersey (seriously!), Gary Bettman was just named the NHL’s first Commissioner, Bruce McNall still owned the Kings and yes, mullets were cool.

Five years prior the Kings had made ‘the trade’ with Edmonton to bring Wayne Gretzky to LA, turning Hollywood to Hockeywood. The Kings had their best year ever in 1990-91, posting 102 points and winning the Smythe Division. After losing to Edmonton that postseason and the year after, coach Tom Webster was fired.

Then, prior to the 1992-93 season the Kings hired Barry Melrose, a Tony Robbins following – mullet wearing coach who had never been behind the bench for an NHL game. His star player, #99, missed the first 36 games of the season with a back injury. Luc Robitaille captained the team while he was out, in route to the best season of his career with 63 goals and 125 points. The team finished in 3rd place in their division with a record of 39-35-10, just 11th best in the 24 team league.

Fan favorite and starting goaltender, Kelly Hrudey, had gone through a horrible slump earlier in the year and still wasn’t right as the playoffs began. Down 2-1 in the series, Melrose replaced him with Robb Stauber. Hrudey says “Robb played in game four and we won 2-1 to even the series. Barry stuck with him in games five and six…He won the series.”

Melrose kept Stauber between the pipes to open the second round against Vancouver. After the Kings lost the first game Hrudey recalls “Immediately following the game Barry called me into his office and told me I was going to start game two.” The Kings went on to win the series 4-2, setting the stage for what came next…

THE SERIES

The Campbell Conference Finals in 1993 would determine who would play the Montreal Canadians for the Stanley Cup. Hockey know-it-alls would tell you the Toronto Maple Leafs were going to send Melrose, Gretzky and the rest of the LA Kings packing.

Even though the Leafs had gone 2-1-1 against the Kings during the regular season, team leader Doug Gilmour didn’t take the Kings lightly, saying “We don’t want to get into a scoring match up with the Kings. We want to play them strong defensively and go from there.” Rookie goalie Felix Potvin agreed, adding “It’s going to be a tough series…they’ve got a wide-open offense…and we’re going to try to have to shut them out. We don’t want to get into a shootout with the Kings.”

There were also plenty of odd associations on both sides as well. Leafs winger Mike Krushelnyski had played two seasons for the Kings before being traded to Toronto a few years earlier. Glenn Anderson of the Leafs had played with Gretzky and Kurri back in Edmonton and felt the Kings were “very determined not only to get by this series against us but to win the Stanley Cup.”

Toronto’s captain, Wendel Clark, just so happened to be the first cousin of Melrose. Clark, who played a key role in most of the games, has since said “That series was probably the most excitement I saw around here,” referring to Maple Leaf Gardens.

Melrose didn’t let family ties stand in the way of what he says “was one of the best series the NHL has had in the last 30 years,” adding “both buildings were electric, and both cities were unbelievable.”

Game 1 – while the Maple Leafs defeated the Kings 4-1 to take the early series lead, the real story of the game centered on a hit LA defenseman Marty McSorley put on Gilmour. Clark took exception to the hit and went after McSorley, in what became a series long theme (click here for video of the whole incident). The hit also enraged Burns, who tried going after Melrose on the bench, convinced he ordered the hit on Gilmour.

McSorley’s bruised face was on the cover of the Toronto sports page with a quote from Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher “All I’m saying is (McSorley) may try (going after Gilmour), but it won’t happen again”.

The coaches were beginning their own war too. Burns began to take aim at Melrose through the media – feeling the Kings coach didn’t respect him or his team. After Melrose made a comment about the Leafs being good at protecting a lead because they have “10 guys 30 years old. They plug up the middle pretty well.” Burns retorted with “We had 99 points this year, his team had 88. I guess our 30-year-olds did a pretty good job clogging up the middle. We beat Detroit and St. Louis, and I firmly believe we’ll beat the Los Angeles Kings, too.” The war of words later escalated to Melrose commenting on Burns’ weight – even telling him to have another donut – while Burns would call him Billy Ray Cyrus.

Looking back now Melrose says “Pat and I are both competitive guys. We’re both outgoing guys,” Melrose said. “We both talk a lot, and when you get both of those things combined…a lot of stuff is going to happen.”

Game 2 – the Kings tie the series with a 3-2 win in Toronto

Game 3 – with the series now in LA for games three and four, the Kings win 4-2, taking the series lead

Game 4 – the Leafs tie the series with a 4-2 victory at the Forum

Game 5 – in the first of back to back overtime games, the Leafs win 3-2 when Anderson whacks a puck out of the air with 40 seconds left in the extra period…the Leafs now lead the series 3-2 and the series heads back to LA.

Game 6 – prior to the game Toronto columnist Bob McKenzie noted that Gretzky was playing like he had a piano on his back throughout the series..the Great One then went out and proved you don’t call out a legend like that…

Urban myth has it that Wayne addressed the team before the game and asked them to give it their all to tie the series and send things back to Toronto, where he promised he would take care of things in game seven.

It almost never came to be. The Kings dominated the first two periods and were up 4-1 early in the third. However, Clark scored three goals for the Leafs to even the game 4-4 and send things to overtime. Early in the fourth period Gretzky high-sticked Gilmour for what Leaf fans will forever claim should have been a penalty. Referee Kerry Fraser disagreed and play continued.

From behind the net Robitaille set up Gretzky to win the game. Kings 5, Leafs 4. Board the plane. We’re going back to Toronto for game seven and a possible trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Game 7 – in what will forever be known as ‘the series’ among Kings fans and players, this is ‘the game’

Gretzky opened the scoring on a shorthanded give-and-go with McSorley to provide the Kings an early 1-0 lead. He then set up Tomas Sandstrom for a goal to put the Kings up 2-0 at the end of the first period.

Toronto tied things up early in the second on goals from Clark and then Anderson. Melrose called a time out to settle things down. At the half way point of the second period Gretzky was alone in the slot and put a slap shot past Potvin to give the Kings the lead again at 3-2. Like the intermission before, the Kings were leading at the break.

Clark scored his second goal of the game just minutes into the third period to tie things up once again. Both teams rushed up and down the ice repeatedly for over 10 minutes, neither scoring. With just under four minutes remaining in the third, Kings forward Mike Donnelly scored on a rebound of a shot originally taken by Alex Zhitnik – giving the Kings a precious one goal lead.

Just seconds later Gretzky ended up with the puck, circled behind the net and backhanded it off the skate of Leafs defenseman Dave Ellet. It went by Potvin and the Kings now had a two goal lead on #99s hat trick.

The next few minutes probably seemed like an eternity to Kings fans everywhere. Then, with about a minute to go, Ellet got a small sense of redemption, scoring to pull the the Leafs close, now trailing by just a goal.

Tick, tock…pass, shot, save…rinse, repeat…ten seconds left…three seconds left…game over. Kings win the game 5-4 and the series 4 games to 3.

Gretzky has been quoted as saying that his performance in game 7 was the best NHL game of his career. For Kings fans it will certainly was.

With a roster full of guys like Corey Millen, Gary Shuchuk and Pat Conacher the Kings beat an original six team in the playoffs for the first time since entering the league in 1967. Oh yeah, they also had guys named Granato, Carson and Blake.

In two of the iconic moments in franchise history, Gretzky skated over to the bench after the game to give Melrose a huge hug (pictured at right)…later in the locker room, Luc Robitaille kissed Dave Taylor as they celebrated around the Campbell Conference trophy (picture above).

It truly was probably the greatest seven game series ever played and the mere mention of Kings-Maple Leafs will always bring back memories of that epic playoff battle.

Ah, 1993…when mullets were cool and the Kings owned LA.

[special note - be sure to check out some of the related articles linked below for more Kings vs Maple Leafs discussion]

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www.facebook.com/MayorsManor

RELATED ARTICLES:

MayorsManor Podcast with NHL referee Kerry Fraser – includes talk of the non-call against Gretzky

Word Association with Tony Granato - includes players from ’93 series and his first encounter w/ #99

20 Questions with #20 – Interview with Luc Robitaille

High / Low with Rob Blake - part of a multi-session interview with the former Kings captain

Interview with Kelly Hrudey - a revealing conversation about his struggles in net

Interview with Robb Stauber - talks first few rounds of the playoffs

Interview with Gary Shuchuk - Kings playoff hero

Ranking the NHL cities and arenas – where does Toronto stand compared to other major markets?

note: The main portion of the above article originally appeared on MayorsManor in January 2010.  Numerous highlights of the series are available on YouTube including this one: click here.

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