| As the Rangers prepare to honor Mark Messier by retiring his No. 11 jersey before the Jan. 12 game against Edmonton at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers and MSG Network will spend the next 11 days looking back at the career of one of hockey's true legends. To make these "11 Days of Messier " even more special, we asked The Captain for a list of his 11 greatest NHL moments. Each day between now and the Jan. 12 event, newyorkrangers.com will spotlight one of these great memories.
Today, we look at the first of Messier's memories -- the 1984 Stanley Cup Finals, when No. 11 and his Edmonton Oilers teammates dethroned the New York Islanders to claim the first of their five Stanley Cups.
LEGENDARY LEADERSHIP ROOTED IN FIRST CUP TITLE
It is somehow fitting that one of the defining moments in Mark Messier's early, pre-Rangers career came at the expense of Rangers' greatest rival -- the New York Islanders.
The year was 1984, and the Islanders, who had won four straight Stanley Cup championships and an NHL-record 19 consecutive playoff series, met the young Edmonton Oilers in Stanley Cup Finals. For the Isles, this was to be the crowning moment in what they called "The Drive for Five."
History was in the Islanders' favor. One year earlier, they had swept the Oilers out of the Finals to establish thenmselves as one of the great dynasties in hockey history. A fifth straight title would tie them with the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1950s for the most championships in a row, and all that stood in their way was a high-flying Edmonton team that dominated the NHL regular season but had yet to prove itself at crunch time.
It was certainly not fun for Rangers fans to sit back and watch these Islanders rule the NHL during the early 1980s. On their way to the 1984 finals, the Isles had narrowly escaped the Blueshirts in a best-of-five opening-round series, when defenseman Ken Morrow scored at 8:56 of overtime in Game 5. After edging the Rangers, the Islanders powered through Washington and Montreal, and appeared on the verge of another championship.
The young Oilers had other ideas. They had shown tremendous character in the second round of the playoffs, beating Calgary in Game 7 after blowing a 3-1 series lead, and they were not going down without a fight.
The highly-anticipated Stanley Cup Finals opened on May 10, 1984, at the Nassau Coliseum. In Game 1, Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr shut down the Islanders attack in one of the greatest performances in Finals history, enabling Kevin McClelland's lone goal to stand up for a 1-0 win.
That stunning loss didn't faze the Islanders, who came out in the second game two nights later to bury the Oilers 6-1. As the series shifted back to Edmonton tied 1-1, the mighty Isles seemed to have all the momentum.
In those first two games at the Coliseum, 23-year-old Mark Messier, who had scored the Oilers' last goal in the 1983 Cup Finals debacle, had been held off the scoresheet. It was a major coup for the Islanders to stop Messier after No. 11 had picked up at least one point in 12 of the Oilers' previous 14 playoff games.
Edmonton's No. 2 center knew he had to step up his game if the Oilers were to avoid another Stanley Cup Finals embarrassment, and he reportedly promised Oilers teammates that he would score in Game 3 at home.
As Game 3 reached its midpoint, however, it appeared the Islanders were in full control. Leding 2-1, they were just over 30 minutes from taking a 2-1 lead in the series.
And then Messier stepped it up.
Pulling in a pass from teammate Lee Fogolin, he flew into the Islanders zone like a man possessed and rifled a hard wrist shot past Islanders goalie Billy Smith to tie the game at 2-2. All of a sudden, this young player who had previously been seen as just one of many talented satellites surrounding Oilers superstar Wayne Gretzky, had lifted his game to a higher level and lifted the spirits of the whole Edmonton team. The Oilers quickly took the lead and went on to score seven unanswered goals for a 7-2 win.
Messier had clearly shaken the Oilers back to their senses. He added a second goal early in the third period to make it 5-2. After Game 3, the Oilers never looked back, outscoring the Islanders 12-4 over the final two games in Edmonton to claim their first Stanley Cup.
For his efforts, Messier was honored with the Conn Smythe Trophy, even though Gretzky had led all playoff scorers with 35 points. But anyone who watched the series knew Messier had been the difference between another loss to the Islanders and the start of an Oilers dynasty.
Messier had chosen an opportune time to find the spotlight, because right up until his burst of adrenaline helped turn the 1984 Oilers into champions, most hockey fans thought only of Gretzky when they thought of the Edmonton teams. Led by Gretzky, the regular-season Oilers of the 1980s were literally a scoring machine. Only five teams have ever recorded 400 goals in a single NHL season, and all five were Edmonton squads between 1981-82 and 1985-86.
The playoffs, however, were another story. Prior to 1984, Oilers teams had a combined 18-15 record in postseason games, with 11 of those wins coming in 1983.
So while the pre-1984 Isles were seen as champions, the pre-1984 Oilers were seen as chokers. The low point for Edmonton was the 1982 playoffs, when Los Angeles came back from a 5-0 deficit in Game 3 to win in overtime and went on to bounce the heavily favored Oilers from the playoffs in five games. Then, in 1983, after winning 11 of 12 games en route to the Cup Finals, the Oilers outscored 17-6 in the Islanders' four-game sweep.
Messier was the perfect man to usher in the collapse of the Isles dynasty. He had always played well against them in the regular season, dating back to his second year in the NHL, when a memorable game at the Coliseum offered a glimpse of what lay ahead.
On March 3, 1981, Messier was a 20-year-old kid still looking to prove himself at hockey's highest level. After a low-scoring but promising rookie season, Messier had been frustrated for much of the 1980-81 campaign, scoring only nine goals and 27 points through the season's first 50 games.
Again, in true Messier fashion, the young left wing promised himself that he would play better over the season's remaining games.
"I took a hard look at myself in the mirror and said 'I better do a job or get into something else," Messier told a reporter at the time. "It was a matter of getting out there and producing, because after all, life in the NHL isn't that bad. There's a million guys out there frothing at the mouth to take my job."
He made good on the promise to improve, and by the time he got to Uniondale in early March, he had seven points over the previous six games.
Against the Isles, Messier really took off – scoring two goals and two assists for the first four-point game of his NHL career. The following evening at Madison Square Garden, he scored another two goals against the Rangers – the first two goals he ever scored at MSG. Building on his success in New York, over the last 17 games of the season, Messier had 10 goals and 16 assists. He used that strong 1980-81 finish as a springboard to a 50-goal season in 1981-82 and the first of his 16 NHL All-Star selections.
Three years later, the renaissance that had begun against the Islanders in March 1981 came full circle as Messier took the Oilers on his back on the way to earning the first of his six Stanley Cup rings.