It was on this date some 18 years ago that Wayne Gretzky, already the record holder for career post-season assists, hit a plateau that has not and possibly will not ever be matched.
Entering Game 5 of the Los Angeles Kings’ first-round tilt with the Vancouver Canucks, Gretzky was sitting on 197 career playoff assists, and he began the march to the two-century mark in the first frame. With the Kings on the power play, Gretzky picked up the primary helper on Luc Robitaille‘s fourth goal of the series, and ‘The Great One’ didn’t stop there. After the Kings had tied the contest early in the second period, Gretzky went to work: with six and a half minutes left in the frame, he assisted on Brad Jones’ go-ahead goal and picked up secondary assist on Tomas Sandstrom’s insurance marker minutes later.
That helper was Gretzky’s 200th in the post-season, making him the first and only player in NHL history to record 200 assists in the playoffs. And, this being Gretzky, you know he wasn’t done there. He would later cap his night with a fourth assist – one of 11 four-assist post-season games in his career – with a helper on an empty-net goal that sealed a 7-4 victory for Los Angeles.
By the time his legendary career was through, Gretzky added another 59 assists to his total, stretching his lead over Mark Messier, whose 186 post-season assists are a (distant) second on the all-time list. And the difference between Gretzky and Messier and Messier and the rest of the field is such that we might be waiting a long time, or a lifetime, before we see anyone come close to joining No. 99 in the 200-assist club. After Messier, there’s no other player, past or present, with more than 139 helpers in the post-season, and the most among any active player is Sidney Crosby, who has 119 assists in 161 career playoff games.
Speaking of Crosby, though, he is among the few players who have potential to make like Gretzky and reach a meaningful milestone during the 2019 playoffs. What mark is Crosby chasing, and who else could celebrate a major statistical achievement this spring?
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Last post-season, Crosby became the Penguins’ all-time leading post-season scorer, surpassing Mario Lemieux. This time around, Pittsburgh’s captain can move up some all-time lists, beginning with his aforementioned assist total. With two more helpers, he will move into a tie for 10th all-time alongside Al MacInnis and Glenn Anderson, while a third assist this post-season would push Crosby into sole possession of 10th. And after that Crosby could climb the all-time list: four assists this post-season moves him into ninth, five into eighth, eight into seventh, nine into sixth and 10 assists would put him level with Nicklas Lidstrom for fifth all-time.
At the same time, Crosby will be looking to move up the all-time scoring list. Already tied for 10th with Steve Yzerman with 185 points, Crosby will move into a tie for eighth with three points, seventh with five points, sixth with 11 points and 15 points would make him just the sixth player in NHL history to score 200 post-season points while also putting Crosby one back of Jaromir Jagr, who is fifth all-time with 201 playoff points.
Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks
If the Sharks are going to go deep this post-season, they’re going to do so with firepower, and Thornton will act as an integral part of the offense. In doing so, too, Thornton will continue his pursuit of 100 career post-season assists. It’s a feat only 23 players in NHL history have accomplished, and Thornton is already one helper closer – he now has 97 – after Game 1 of this post-season as he picked up an assist in San Jose’s victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.
Patrick Marleau, Toronto Maple Leafs
On a team of young guns, it’s the old guy who can make some headlines and hit some marks. However, doing so will require a deep run from the Maple Leafs, and one that it is incredibly productive if Marleau is going to reach some milestones. The first, and more likely of the pair, for Marleau to hit will be the 200-game plateau, which will require the veteran, now at 185 games, to suit up in 15 post-season games. And along the way, Marleau will have to somehow, someway add seven goals to the 72 he’s already scored in his career. Unlikely as that might be, if he manages to do so he will move into a tie with Jean Beliveau for 10th all-time in playoff goals.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
An admittance: when digging into milestones, the expectation was I would find Alex Ovechkin on the cusp of setting a power play goal record of some sort. Nope! Not the case. Instead, it’s Malkin who is on his way to reaching a meaningful mark for scoring with the man advantage. The Penguins’ Russian sniper has fired home 27 power play goals in the post-season, tied for the eight-most all-time. However, with three more, he can move into a tie for fifth all-time alongside Lidstrom and become the fifth player in NHL history with 30 playoff power play goals. (For those now wondering, Ovechkin has 22 power play goals, tied for 26th all-time.)
Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
Noticing the trend here surrounding Penguins players, past and present? Add Fleury to that list, as the Golden Knights goaltender is set to move into at least fifth all-time in playoff games played by a netminder. At 136 entering Game 2 of the first-round series against San Jose, Fleury needs two games to pass Mike Vernon and a deep run could see ‘Flower’ move ahead of Grant Fuhr (150 GP) for fourth all-time.
Matching or surpassing Fuhr, however, will require wins, which Fleury also needs to move up that all-time list: he needs two to match Vernon (seventh, 77 wins), five to tie Ken Dryden (sixth, 80 wins) and if we’re getting really optimistic, guiding Vegas back to the Stanley Cup final would leave Fleury one win shy of matching Ed Belfour and Billy Smith for fourth all-time (88 wins). If Fleury then wins the final, getting the decision in all 16 wins along the way, he moves into sole possession of fourth on the all-time list and one win away from entering the top three.
Finally, Fleury can move up the all-time shutout list this post-season, which might be a safe bet given his penchant for piling those up this season. Currently seventh all-time with 14 clean sheets in the playoffs, Fleury needs one to match Chris Osgood’s 15, which rank fourth in NHL history. Fleury needs two to match Curtis Joseph, who is third all-time with 16 shutouts. And he can take over sole possession of third on the all-time list by blanking the opposition three times this post-season.