Best of the Books: Biggest upset

In our Best of the Books feature, Ken Campbell looks back at the biggest upset in NHL history, when the L.A. Kings toppled the mighty Edmonton Oilers just before they began their dynasty.

History has told us time and again that the Edmonton Oilers truly became a championship team after being swept by the New York Islanders in the 1983 Stanley Cup final. As they walked past the Islanders’ dressing room, they saw more players tending to battle wounds than celebrating their fourth straight championship.

Now, Daryl Evans has never studied history, but he figures a lot of the credit for the molding of the Oilers’ 1980s dynasty should go to the Los Angeles Kings from the season prior. That’s because the Kings of 1982 taught the Oilers a potent lesson in underestimating an opponent. Which is why Los Angeles’ triumph over Edmonton that spring is considered the most unlikely upset in NHL history.

To be sure, the best-of-five Smythe Division semifinal between the Kings and Oilers couldn’t have been more of a mismatch on paper if it were the Washington Generals taking on the Harlem Globetrotters. The young, run-and-gun Oilers were cutting a swath through the NHL, scoring goals by the bushel and serving notice that they were a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. In their eight games against Los Angeles that season, Edmonton won five games (two by a touchdown), lost only once and tied the other two, outscoring the Kings 51-27. Led by 200-point man Wayne Gretzky, the Oilers scored 417 goals, becoming the first team in NHL history to score 400 goals in a season.

“I don’t think we scored 400 that season,” said Evans, now a radio analyst with Los Angeles, “even if you counted all the goals we scored in practice.”

Not only had the Kings finished a whopping 48 points behind the Oilers in the Smythe Division, they were a team in disarray. Their 63 points were the worst among the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs and they won just one of their final eight games. The only reason they made the playoffs was that they were in the same division as the woeful Colorado Rockies, who moved to New Jersey after the season. Los Angeles coach Parker MacDonald was fired after getting off to a 13-24-5 start, but things weren’t much better under Don Perry, who went 11-17-10.

And the Kings weren’t exactly a playoff juggernaut. Prior to that season, they had won three playoff series in their 14-year existence and had been ousted in the preliminary round of the playoffs in each of the previous four seasons. Los Angeles was full marks for its reputation as a playoff failure, but the team had also been invigorated by some good young talent to support their superstar Marcel Dionne. Future Hall of Famer Larry Murphy was one season removed from establishing an NHL record for points by a rookie defenseman. Bernie Nicholls had come up from the minors and scored 32 points in 22 games and Evans gave the Kings some much-needed youthful energy.

“We really had no business being there and we had nothing to lose,” Evans said. “It was just ‘Go out and play and have fun,’ and that’s what we did. And I really think it was us young guys – like Steve Bozek and myself and Bernie Nicholls and Doug Smith – who energized the old guys. Because we had all just finished playing junior hockey and we were used to crazy games where you’re scoring goals all the time.”

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When faced with a mismatch of those proportions, most coaches of the underdog would likely implement a game plan that would see their team check the daylights out of the opponents and hope for a break or two on offense. Perry, however, took the opposite approach. He figured the only way the Kings were going to beat the Oilers was to match them goal for goal and he was right. Starting with the opening game of the series, in which Los Angeles was down 4-1 to Edmonton in the first period and came back to win 10-8, the Kings won all the high-scoring games in the series. Their other two wins were by 6-5 in overtime in the game famously dubbed the ‘Miracle on Manchester’ and 7-4 in the deciding game. Edmonton’s two wins, one of which came in overtime, were both by a score of 3-2.

The thing that makes the 1982 Kings-Oilers series so unbelievable is it provided an upset within an upset. After Los Angeles had split the first two games of the series, the team came home to the Forum and looked awful in the first two periods, falling behind 5-0. Owner Jerry Buss left the game after the second to beat the traffic on the way home and Gretzky and the Oilers were laughing at the Kings. Los Angeles retreated to the dressing room hoping to win the third period and get a good feeling going heading into Game 4.

“Even at that point if someone had said, ‘After three games, you’re only going to be trailing 2-1 and not out of the series,’ we probably would have said, ‘OK, sign us up. We’ll take that,’ ” Evans said.

Starting with a tally by Jay Wells 2:46 into the third, the goals kept coming. With six minutes left in the game, it was still 5-2 for the Oilers, but the Kings poured it on, scoring three more times, including the game-tying goal with their goalie pulled with five seconds left in the period. And when Evans scored at 2:35 of overtime to cap the comeback, the home crowd erupted. It’s still remembered as one of the greatest moments in the history of sports in Los Angeles.

The Kings lost Game 4 and then went on to win the series in Game 5 in Edmonton, capping the greatest upset ever. They didn’t do much more after that, however, losing to the Vancouver Canucks in five games in the next round and then missing the playoffs in three of the next four seasons. But nothing will overshadow the win over the Oilers in 1982, the Miracle on Manchester and the team that took the swagger away from the Oilers, at least for a little while.

“I probably appreciate it more now than I actually did at the time,” Evans said. “This league has been around about 100 years and nobody has ever seen anything like that.”

This is an excerpt from THN’s book, Biggest of Everything in Hockey.