When the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs come to mind, some may think of the Red Wings sweep of the “Legion of Doom” Flyers. Others may remember the Western Conference Finals between newly bitter rivals in Detroit and Colorado. But the thing that sticks out to me was Wayne Gretzky’s last-ever playoff appearance. The Great One went to the postseason 16 times in his 20 NHL seasons. While most of those were with the Oilers and Kings (and one playoff run with the Blues), his last spring-time hockey appearance came with the New York Rangers.
The Blueshirts were 3 years removed from winning the Stanley Cup. After two straight seasons of being eliminated in the 2nd round, their 1st round match-up for the ’97 playoffs were the defending Eastern Conference Champion Florida Panthers. The Panthers Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup was cut short by Uwe Krupp the previous spring (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk6iTIo98aA). Florida took Game 1, but New York won the next two games. The Rangers were hoping to go back to South Florida with a 3-1 lead, and #99 took care of that with a natural hat trick in the 2nd period.
With Florida leading 1-0, defenseman Brian Leetch made a great play to keep the puck in the Panthers zone and fed Gretzky by the circle for his first tally. The 2nd goal came just over 3 minutes later in a 2-on-1 with former King teammate Luc Robitaille. But the 3rd goal still makes me shake my head over 15 years later. On a head-man feed from Niklas Sundstrom, 99 skated deep in to the Panthers zone and faked a shot. In the process of faking the shot, he hit the breaks, circled back, recoiled, and blasted a slap shot by John Vanbiesbrouck off the post. It would be Gretzky’s 9th career playoff hat trick, and it would account for all of the Rangers offense in a 3-2 victory.
(You can fast forward to about 6:25 and see the hat trick for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsMs3DP05qw)
After the Rangers eliminated the Panthers in the 1st round, they disposed of their cross-river-rival Devils in 5 games. This set up a showdown with another hated rival in Philadelphia for the right to go to the Stanley Cup. After the Flyers took Game 1, the Rangers took Game 2 by a score of 5-4 thanks to Gretzky’s 10th career playoff hat trick. A hard backhand shot after a funky bounce off the glass, a pass attempt that ricocheted in off of Flyers Goalie Garth Snow, and a hard slap shot (again) were the culprits this time (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4TvfLaQEio).
The Rangers playoff run would end in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997. The Great One played two more seasons with the Rangers before retiring, but never played past 82 game barrier. Gretzky finished with 122 goals and 260 assists in 208 career playoff games.