EDMONTON, Canada — The Philadelphia Flyers did a near perfect job of stopping Wayne Gretzky in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final, limiting him to just one goal.
But that all changed Saturday night as Gretzky scored three goals in the first period to lead the Oilers to a 4-3 win before a sellout crowd of 17,498 fans at the Northlands Coliseum.
"It's certainly the best I've seen him play in the playoffs," Edmonton Coach Glen Sather said. "I'm probably a little blase about him since I've seen him so much, but this was one of the better games I've seen him play. I guess that's why they call him the Great Gretzky, and tonight he was."
The win gave the Oilers a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. The fourth game will be played here Tuesday night. The Oilers have won 14 straight playoff games at home.
Gretzky's first two goals came in a 15-second span of the first period. He took a pass from right wing Jari Kurri in the slot and scored just 1 minute 10 seconds into the game. At 1:25, he got his second goal, this off a pass from defenseman Paul Coffey.
Flyer left wing Derrick Smith scored just 16 seconds after that. But with 13:32 gone in the period, Gretzky scored off a pretty, backhand pass between two defensemen by Mark Messier.
It was Gretzky's sixth career playoff hat trick, just one shy of the National Hockey League record held by Hall of Famer Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens. Gretzky finished the game with four points, assisting on a second-period power-play goal by Mike Krushelnyski.
"I was pretty high at the start of the game," Gretzky said. "I pounced on a couple of open pucks and put them in the net."
The Oilers' star center also surpassed two of his own NHL playoff records. He has scored 41 points (14 goals and 27 assists) in 16 playoff games this season, breaking his single-season playoff record of 38 points set in 1983. He has also bettered his own single-season playoff assist record of 26, set in the 1983 playoffs.
Coffey also had a big game, collecting four assists and breaking Bobby Orr's record for most assists by a defenseman in one playoff year. Orr had 19 assists in 1972 with Boston, and Coffey now has 23 assists.
After playing two tight, hard-checking games against the Flyers at Philadelphia, the Oilers looked as if they were headed to an easy win at home with a 4-1 lead after the first two periods. But the Flyers almost stole the victory, scoring twice in the third period on goals by defenseman Mark Howe and left wing Brian Propp.
Edmonton had 20 shots in the first period, but the Oilers could manage only four shots in the second and two in the third.
"I'm disappointed," Coffey said. "I think we gave up in the end. It shows that Philadelphia is a great hockey club and we better damn well be ready to play Tuesday. "We got up, 4-1, and didn't bear down. It cost us, and we were very, very lucky to win that hockey game. I think we've learned our lesson."
Flyer goalie Pelle Lindbergh, who had been sensational in the playoffs, allowed three goals on the 16 shots he faced in the first period. The Oilers had a two-man advantage when Lindbergh was removed from the game with 2:05 left in the first period. But backup goalie Bob Froese came in and held off the Oilers on the power play.
Flyer Coach Mike Keenan reinserted Lindbergh at the start of the second period, but he pulled Lindbergh for good with 13:02 left in the period after Krushelnyski took a pass from Gretzky in the slot and scored on a shot off Lindbergh's pads. The crowd chanted "We Want Pelle" when Froese returned to the game.
"I made that move just to try and break up some of the momentum the Oilers had at the time," Keenan said of the switch. "Froese played extremely well for us, especially in the five-on-three situation they had."
With the Oilers leading, 4-1, in the third period, Howe put in a rebound shot past Oiler goalie Grant Fuhr with 10:52 left in the game to close the score to 4-2.
Propp got a fluke goal on a bad-angle backhander with 5:34 left when he slipped the puck between the post and Fuhr's leg.
"I left my leg off the post and it just sort of slipped through," Fuhr said. "It was a case of me getting a little bit lax."
The Flyers pulled Froese for an extra skater in the final minute of the game but couldn't cash in on their scoring opportunities.
But what hurt the Flyers almost as much as Gretzky was their poor power play. Philadelphia failed to score on eight power plays in the game.
"We had hoped to start better and play the way we did in the last two periods," Propp said. "We had a few power play chances and in the third period we had some chances, but they blocked some key shots. We showed we can come back and play. We just have to get a better start on Tuesday."