After 10 years of ineptitude and seeing the bar lowered, fans celebrated last Tuesday when the Edmonton Oilers clinched a playoff spot for the first time since their stunning run to the 2006 Stanley Cup final with a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. After the Decade of Darkness, it was overdue and to be expected.
In the wake of defeat, a carousel of coaches, untold bungling in hockey-ops, some questionable drafting and free agent signings and unquestionable failure on the ice, fans who’ve hung in with egg on their faces for what has felt like forever had every right to fist-pump. The Oilers are back in the dance. Anything can happen. Just get in, baby. Media types and bloggers alike penning “remember when” bits. It’s called enjoying the moment. It’s all good.
Having been part of that wild ride in 2006 as the Oiler beat writer at the Edmonton Sun, I was going to scribble one of those pieces myself, right here today. “My son Sam wasn’t even born when I flew out of Raleigh after Game 7 and he’ll turn 11 this August . . . I was still in my 40s then, today I’m eligible for senior’s discounts on pancakes and eggs at many restaurants . . .” That sort of thing.
For me, that stroll down memory lane went right out the window via the delete key with Thursday’s 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks at Rogers Place. The Oilers are 43-25-9 for 95 points with that victory and play the Anaheim Ducks with the Pacific Division title on the line Saturday. It’s a game the Oilers can win. Hell, it’s a division the Oilers can win.
So, while it’s great that the Oilers, who need five points from their final five games to hit 100 points for the first time since they had 106 and won their third Stanley Cup back in 1987, are back in the playoffs, I can’t help but think there’s more here than just a return to the post-season. I’ve got greater expectations. I’m guessing I’m not alone in that. I know I’m not. For me, that’s the story.
RAISING THE BAR
The Oilers long ago exceeded every expectation I had of them at the start of the season. They’ve exceeded every expectation I had when it finally sunk into my thick skull a couple of months ago that they’d make the playoffs. I watched the win over San Jose and the bar went up again. How about you? If not, why not?
“I expected us to be competitive,” GM Pete Chiarelli told Terry Jones in The Edmonton Sun today. “I think I said 83 or 85 points, but I looked at maybe making the playoffs with 87 points. We’re at 95. Maybe we get to 100. I would hope we get to 100. If you’re in the mix, you never know what can happen at the end of the season.
“I expected a lot of what has happened to happen. We made significant moves. We were getting significant players back. I expected significant growth. I expected our goaltending to come back and continue to trend toward where he is going. But in my experience, when you expect all these things, usually they all don’t happen. A lot of them happened. Not all, but a lot of them.
“I’m happy and pleased with where we are. Are we a little bit ahead? Yes. But I’ll take it because we’ll be even more ahead because we gained this experience of going through these tough games to get into the playoffs and gain experience in the playoffs.”
The Oilers have gone “through these tough games” like a hot knife through butter. They are 8-1 in their last nine games as they brace to take on the Ducks, who come in one point up on them with five games remaining. Maybe I fell down and hit my head last night without knowing it, but I don’t see one first-round match-up I think the Oilers will be outclassed in – not Anaheim, not San Jose, not Calgary. They already swept Calgary. They’ve won the last two with San Jose. I don’t sense, “We’re just happy to be here.”
THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR
The Oilers were huge underdogs when they opened the 2006 playoffs against the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings finished 29 points ahead of Edmonton in the standings. Who had the Oilers winning more than a couple of games in that series? Hands up. Is there one Western Conference team you look at this time around and think the Oilers have no chance against? Chicago? Minnesota? I don’t see one.
Game by game, stretch by stretch, the Oilers keep checking off boxes for me. They beat the Sharks Thursday in a game that could have got away from them in the first 10 minutes – a game that used to get away from them in the first 10 minutes. They put away the Kings in a tight game. They can win big. They can win small. All told, the Oilers are 16-5-3 within the Pacific Division. They’re 29-10-6 against the Western Conference. They’re 23-12-4 at home where, for the first time in a very long time, they haven’t thrown out the welcome mat. There actually is a home-ice advantage.
Twelve paragraphs in and I haven’t even mentioned Connor McDavid. He’s not only going to win the Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring leader – with apologies to those who believe in jinxes – he is running away with it. McDavid, on a nine-game point streak, has 91 points. Patrick Kane in next with 84. Over. Done. McDavid can hit 100 points. He can win the Hart Trophy. I think he should.
Leon Draisaitl, also on a nine-game streak, appears to be bonus-bound. Cam Talbot is the goaltender the Oilers haven’t had since Dwayne Roloson got stupid good when the 2006 playoffs began. The Oilers can play a skill game and, with Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian up front and Adam Larsson and Eric Gryba on the back end, they can play the kind of heavy game that takes teams deep in the post-season.
You’ve seen what I’ve seen for the last 10 years, this edition of the Oilers is far from flawless and, as noted earlier, I picked them to miss again last October. If you think I’m blowing wishful smoke here, I understand why. While I remain in the “just enjoy the ride” camp after the DOD, my old gut tells me there’s a pretty good chance the ride might last a lot longer than anybody thought just a few months ago – unless it’s the pancakes.
There’s more here.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.
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