On Wednesday night, May 19, the puck drops on Game 1 of the National Hockey League Scotia North Division semi-final between the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets. More than three decades have passed since Edmonton and Winnipeg last met in the NHL postseason, but there is quite a storied playoff history between these two Prairie rivals. It goes back to the World Hockey Association, where they crossed paths twice in the postseason before the WHA folded and the Jets and Oilers were among its four former clubs that joined the NHL for the 1979-80 season.
Related: The 1979 NHL – WHA Merger
The Jets swept Edmonton 4-0 in the second round of the 1976 WHA playoffs. Then, in the 1979 championship series, Winnipeg beat the Oilers and an 18-year-old rookie named Wayne Gretzky 4-2 in what was the WHA’s swan song – and also the Jets’ last laugh.
The tables turned in the NHL, where the Oilers and Jets squared off six times in the playoffs between 1983 and 1990, with Edmonton winning every series, four times in a sweep. At one point the Oilers had a 16-game playoff win streak against the Jets, and Winnipeg only beat Edmonton four times total in the six series. However, as a trip down memory lane shows, competition between the Oilers and Jets was often a lot tighter than the numbers suggest.
1983 Smythe Division Semi-Final
Oilers win 3-0
The Oilers blew the door off its hinges in Game 1, surging ahead 6-1 by 12:48 of the second period and cruising to a 6-3 victory at Northlands Coliseum. But the Jets responded in the two games that followed, and Edmonton needed (very) late goals to prevail 4-3 on both occasions.
Just 103 seconds remained in Game 2 when Mark Messier potted the winning goal for the Oilers, who had trailed 1-0 and 2-1 in the early going. The series-clinching goal came even later in Game 3, with Edmonton’s Ken Linseman tallying at 18:46 of the third, capping a wild finish that saw the teams score four goals in the final six minutes, as the Oilers turned a one-goal deficit into a one-goal victory at Winnipeg Arena.
1984 Smythe Division Semi-Final
Oilers win 3-0
For a second straight series against the Jets, Edmonton dominated Game 1, recording one of the most lopsided playoff victories in franchise history, 9-2, at Northlands. Winnipeg was on the cusp of winning Game 2, leading 3-1 with less than nine minutes to play, but the Oilers scored twice late to force overtime where Randy Gregg won it for the home team with a goal just 21 seconds into overtime. Edmonton finished off the Jets in Game 3, winning 4-1 at Winnipeg Arena.
1985 Smythe Division Final
Oilers win 4-0
Paul Coffey was the story as Edmonton opened the series with home-ice wins of 4-2 and 5-2, scoring the winning goal both nights, and tying an NHL record for defensemen with five points in Game 2. Game 3 at Winnipeg Arena was a back-and-forth affair, as no more than one goal separated the teams at any point, with Gretzky scoring the only goal of third period to give Edmonton a 5-4 victory. Gretzky followed up with a seven-point performance in Game 4, as both he and Jari Kurri recorded hat tricks and the Oilers won 8-3 to close out the series.
1987 Smythe Division Final
Oilers win 4-0
In a familiar narrative, Game 1 at Northlands saw Winnipeg take leads of 1-0 and 2-1, only to eventually fall in overtime, 3-2, when Glenn Anderson scored after just 36 seconds. The Jets jumped out in front 1-0 again in the second game, but that was the last lead they would hold in the series; Edmonton scored four straight goals and rolled to a 5-2 win in Game 2. The series then shifted to Winnipeg Arena, where the Oilers won 5-2 and 4-2 to complete the sweep.
1988 Smythe Division Final
Oilers win 4-1
After yet again starting the series with consecutive defeats at Northlands, the Jets must have been asking themselves if they could ever beat the Oilers in the NHL postseason. In Game 1, Winnipeg held the lead three times, including 3-2 in the third period before the Oilers erupted for five goals in a span of 10:38 and went on to win 7-4. Then the Jets watched Craig Simpson score the tiebreaker with 65 seconds remaining in Game 2, giving Edmonton a 3-2 win.
But on their 17th try, the Jets finally handed Edmonton a loss, 6-4, before a euphoric crowd at Winnipeg Arena in Game 3. The Jets fans were in a state of rapture as Winnipeg surged to a 3-0 lead early in the second period of Game 4, but that’s when Edmonton put an end to the uprising. The Oilers scored five straight goals for a 5-3 win and a 3-1 series lead, then took care of business back home in Game 5, closing things out with a 6-2 win.
1990 Smythe Division Semi-Final
Oilers win 4-3
During Edmonton’s five playoff runs that ended with a Stanley Cup championship (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990), the Oilers faced elimination just five times. Three of them came in this series.
After years (and years) of postseason struggles against their Edmonton tormentors, the Jets won three of the first four games, and could have swept the series were it not for the Oilers rallying to win Game 2, 3-2 on Mark Lamb’s goal in overtime, after starting the third period down 2-0. Nonetheless, Dale Ha when Dave Ellett electrified Winnipeg Arena by blasting the puck past Oilers goalie Bill Ranford at 1:08 of the second overtime in Game 4 to give the Jets a 4-3 win – Edmonton found itself it on the brink.
Things got even more nerve-wracking for Oilers fans, back at Northlands Coliseum for Game 5, where the home team fell behind 3-1 midway through the game. But Simpson and Lamb scored to even things up before the end of the second period, and Messier’s third-period goal gave Edmonton a 4-3 win and a new lease on life. The Oilers also won 4-3 in Game 6, another wild affair, that saw the Oilers take a 3-0 first-period lead, then give up the next three goals, before Kurri notched the game-winning goal with 6:50 remaining at Winnipeg Arena.
The tide had turned, and the Oilers delivered their most complete performance of the playoffs in Game 7, winning 4-1 at home to complete the first 3-1 series comeback in franchise history. Unfortunately for Winnipeg hockey fans, their beloved team would never get a chance to avenge the greatest of heartbreaks at the hands of the Oilers. The Jets relocated in 1996, becoming the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes in 1996, and NHL hockey would not return to Manitoba until 2011, when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg and took on the Jets moniker.
Now, in a series that’s made possible only because of a one-off divisional realignment necessitated by a global pandemic, the professional ice hockey teams of the cities of Winnipeg and Edmonton will renew acquaintances in the postseason. Fans hope it will be worth the 31 years, one month, and three days wait.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.