At best in clutch, Gretzky's goals catch Sharks... and Howe!

March 21, 1994|By Lisa Dillman | Lisa Dillman,Los Angeles Times

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It has always been Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky.

Now, at least for a few days before they trade places, the two hockey legends are on equal footing at the top of the NHL's all-time goal list. Gretzky and his boyhood idol, Howe, now share one of the sport's most hallowed records.

Gretzky scored twice here yesterday afternoon to tie Howe's record of 801. He scored his 801st goal with 49 seconds remaining in regulation to lift the Los Angeles Kings to a 6-6 tie against the San Jose Sharks.

The sellout crowd of 17,190 at San Jose Arena reacted with stunned silence and then offered Gretzky a warm ovation. History had temporarily stalled the Sharks' bid for their first-ever playoff spot.

"I'm pretty excited, to say the least," said Gretzky, who jumped high in the air in celebration after scoring 801. "Whenever you break a record, it's always real special when it's an important goal. That goal was a big goal for us. Maybe it's going to be the key to our whole season."

Gretzky's chase of Howe has coincided with the Kings' pursuit of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Sharks for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Kings are tied with the Ducks for ninth place and still trail the eighth-place Sharks by five points.

It would have been back to seven points behind if not for Gretzky and his timing. When he passed Howe's all-time NHL point record of 1,850 on Oct. 15, 1989, in Edmonton, he did it with a goal in the final minute. Then he won the game in overtime.

Yesterday, Gretzky would have stayed at 800 if Sharks forward Todd Elik had not shot the puck at an empty net in the final minute and missed. His icing of the puck resulted in the faceoff back in the Sharks' zone.

Jari Kurri won the draw from Elik and got the puck to Gretzky. Gretzky passed the puck to Kings defenseman Alexei Zhitnik and headed for the net. But it turned out to be a broken play, the puck dribbling off of Zhitnik's stick. Zhitnik pursued the puck deep into the left corner.

He was at such a sharp angle that a good scoring chance was all but impossible. Zhitnik passed the puck across the crease and Gretzky was stationed at the right post. Goaltender Arturs Irbe slid across and stopped Gretzky's first attempt, but could not prevent him from tying the record on the second swipe.

"The original shot I made, he made the save," Gretzky said. "I stopped, took my time and I made a good play. He just made a tremendous save. The puck was sitting there and I just poked it in, basically through the empty net."

A disappointed Irbe declined to speak to the media afterward and issued a statement through the Sharks' public relations department, saying: "He's always in position to get his chances because he is the best. Tonight, it just happened to be me he scored against."

Zhitnik and Kurri were thrilled to be part of Gretzky's moment.

Said Zhitnik: "I didn't think about being part of NHL history. I just saw him open. I just missed the puck. I was in the corner and I can't shoot from the corner. I saw him at the far post."

Kurri has helped set up more of Gretzky's goals than any other player. "I wasn't sure if they were going to give me an assist," he said, smiling. "I was waiting to hear my name. It was great."

Then Gretzky nearly followed the Edmonton script and won it in overtime when he had a two-on-one with Tony Granato. But Gretzky had given Granato and his other Kings teammates special instructions for overtime.

"Gretz told us on the bench, 'If you get a two-on-one with me, shoot the puck,' " Granato said. "I didn't think that you could think so much in one split second.

"I wanted to pass it so bad. I'm sure the defense thought the same thing. . . I had 30 days off during my suspension and I dreamed of that play. I thought about it all the time. Seriously, I wanted to get back in the lineup and help the team. I kept thinking, 'I'm going to get back and get the darn assist.'

Said Gretzky: "I had a couple of chances in overtime. I thought maybe I was going to get a lucky break or a lucky bounce. But I'm pretty pleased to get 801."

It took the 33-year-old Gretzky 15 seasons to equal what Howe did in 26 years.

"This one's pretty special," said Gretzky, who went four games without a goal after reaching 798. He scored once last Wednesday. "This is a tough record for anybody to beat, but more importantly, the goal came at a crucial time and at a time when we desperately needed a goal."

His 800th goal came at 6:16 of the first period when he swiped the puck from the Sharks' Sandis Ozolinsh's stick and shocked a stunned Irbe as he jammed the puck in between his pads with a back-hander.

The Sharks had mixed feelings about being part of history. Even forward Ray Whitney, who used to work on Gretzky's sticks when he was a teen-ager in Edmonton, was pleased Gretzky tied Howe. Sort of.

"If we were up 7-5, I would have been more excited," Whitney said. "I'm glad I was part of his tying goal, but I wish it hadn't come at that time. It was good to see. But I could have watched it on TV instead."

GRETZKY vs. NHL

How many goals Wayne Gretzky has scored against each opponent:

Team .. .. .. .. .. .G

Anaheim .. .. .. .. .2

Boston .. .. .. .. .21

Buffalo .. .. .. .. 22

Atlanta-Calgary .. 67

Chicago .. .. .. .. 25

Minnesota-Dallas .. 39

Detroit .. .. .. .. 34

Edmonton .. .. .. . 20

Florida .. .. .. ... 0

Hartford .. .. .. . 31

Los Angeles .. .. . 58

Montreal .. .. .. .. 20

Colorado-New Jersey. 27

N.Y. Islanders .. .. 29

N.Y. Rangers .. .. . 32

Ottawa .. .. .. .. .. 2

Philadelphia .. .. . 32

Pittsburgh .. .. ... 42

Quebec .. .. .. .. . 36

St. Louis .. .. .. . 36

San Jose .. .. .. ... 8

Tampa Bay .. .. .. .. 2

Toronto .. .. .. ... 48

Vancouver .. .. .. . 66

Washington .. .. ... 26

Winnipeg .. .. .. .. 76

Total .. .. .. .. . 801

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