Similar to other sports leagues, the NHL has been lucky to have some of its greatest players and biggest names play in the same era. The 1950s had Gordie Howe and Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard. Bobby Hull, Frank Mahovlich, and Stan Mikita headlined the 1960s while Guy Lafleur and Phil Esposito dominated the 1970s. Even in the 21st century, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have dominated the league since debuting in 2005.
For as good as those decades were and have been, the 1980s and 1990s may top them all. In those decades, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, two of the top-10 players to ever play, led the sport. And, for as good as they were in all matchups, on 25 occasions the two faced each other, establishing the pinnacle of elite competition.
Injuries Hampered the Matchup
From the 1984-85 season through 1998-99, Lemieux’s first and Gretzky’s last, Gretzky’s teams and the Pittsburgh Penguins played each other 44 times. However, at least one of them was absent for 43 percent of the games and they faced each other just 25 times, all in the regular season.
Injury absences included two games when neither were in the lineup. Once on Dec. 3, 1992, when Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings beat the Penguins 5-3 and on March 21, 1999, when the New York Rangers and Penguins played to a 2-2 tie.
Additionally, on 17 occasions either Lemieux or Gretzky missed the game while the other played. Generally, it was Lemieux who was absent, missing time with back problems, hip injuries, and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Lemieux Carried Pittsburgh to Success
Lemieux appeared in 27 of the possible 44 games and missed the final nine meetings before Gretzky retired as Lemieux had retired following the 1997 playoffs. In the 44 games between the Penguins and Gretzky’s teams, the Penguins won just 12 times and only eight of the 27 Lemieux appeared in.
These wins included only one of the six matchups during Pittsburgh’s back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. With only four wins without Lemieux, the Penguins also only won one of the two games Gretzky missed when Lemieux played.
Of the eight games Pittsburgh won with Lemieux in the lineup, one occurred with Lemieux going pointless and one when he registered a single point. Meanwhile, they won six games when he had two or more points and all four when he had at least four points including a five-goal, seven-point effort on March 26, 1996.
Conversely, they had two wins when Gretzky went pointless and three when he had exactly one point. They also managed four wins when Gretzky scored at least two points including a three-assist night on Jan. 12, 1985.
In the 27 games in which Lemieux appeared against Gretzky’s teams, he had 13 goals and 43 points for scoring averages of .48 goals-per-game (G/G) and 1.59 points-per-game (P/G). Those rates are slightly lower than his career .75 G/G and 1.88 P/G averages.
Lemieux had a stretch of eight games between March 7, 1986, and Feb. 19, 1988, in which he registered at least one point. The Penguins went 1-7 in those games. He also went pointless in three of the final four meetings he played in, perhaps an indicator of the pain he played through.
Gretzky Truly Was the Great One
The more durable of the two, Gretzky played in 40 of the 44 matchups. His teams won 27 of the 44 games including 25 of the 40 Gretzky laced-up for. By team, the wins breakdown is: 13 by the Kings, 8 by the Edmonton Oilers, and 6 by the Rangers. The Kings also won one of the two games that neither played in and one of the two when only Lemieux played.
Gretzky’s teams won four of the five games in which Lemieux was pointless and four of the six when the former was kept off the scoresheet. In the 12 games that Lemieux registered exactly one point, Gretzky’s teams won 10 of them but only four of the 12 when Gretzky had one point.
Meanwhile, when Gretzky had at least two points, his teams won 18 of 22 and 4 of the 10 in which Lemieux had multiple points. Gretzky also had at least four points five times and his teams won all of them.
In Gretzky’s 40 games against Lemieux’s Penguins he had 20 goals and 74 points for averages of .50 G/G and 2.74 P/G. Compared to career averages of .60 G/G and 1.92 P/G, he had a lower goal rate but a higher total scoring rate.
Between Jan. 12, 1985, and Jan. 24, 1987, Gretzky had at least two points in seven straight games and the Oilers won five of them. His longest pointless streak was three games between Oct. 14, 1997, and Nov. 22, 1997, when the Rangers’ record was 2-1.
Although Gretzky had six scoreless games and Lemieux had five, neither of them went pointless in the same game. At the opposite end, there were seven games when each player registered at least two points.
On two occasions they combined for eight points, once when Lemieux had his seven-point game (listed above) and Gretzky had one point and a second time on Oct. 31, 1989, when Gretzky had a hat trick along with three assists and Lemieux registered two points.
Two Players At the Top
Gretzky is widely regarded as the greatest player in NHL history and holds nearly every possible offensive record. Lemieux has the second highest points-per-game rate in history and appeared in less than 1,000 games but remains one of the best to ever play. It’s not surprising that both played at a high level against each other when their teams were generally competitive.
In general, how each played against the other doesn’t compare to how well they did against other franchises or to how well Gretzky performed against the Penguins before Lemieux arrived in 1984. For example, Gretzky’s 239 points in 179 games against the Vancouver Canucks are his highest against one team and the highest by any player against the Canucks.
Lemieux scored the most points against the New Jersey Devils with 135 points in 74 games, the most scored against the Devils franchise. Against the Penguins for his career, Gretzky totaled 124 points in 57 regular season games, the most by any player against Pittsburgh. That is equal to 2.17 P/G, lower than when playing against Lemieux’s Penguins.
From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, Lemieux and Gretzky were at their peaks facing off as the best players in the league at the time and they didn’t disappoint. The only was the matchups could have been better was if they played each other more often, their games hadn’t occurred near the end of Gretzky’s career, and if Lemieux had been healthy for more of the meetings.
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*All stats came from Hockey-Reference