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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Forge

The Edmonton Oilers are five wins away from reaching the 2017 Stanley Cup final. The next win, of course, is the most important and it will have to come against the Anaheim Ducks in California on Wednesday. It’s been a thrill ride, one that picked up even more pace in Sunday’s 7-1 drubbing of the Ducks at Rogers Place.

In some ways – the party-your-ass-off perspective — what we’re seeing now is reminiscent of the last ride fans took in 2006, when the eighth-place Oilers snuck into the playoffs and rode a wave of upsets all the way to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final against the Carolina Hurricanes. Watching fans dance in Ford Hall Sunday stirred those memories for me. So much pent-up joy after a decade of nothingness.

This time around is different in many ways, of course. This is a different team and a different time with different players. Not even one player remains from that 2006 team, with the last Oiler who strutted on the 2006 stage, Ryan Smyth, well into retirement. What stands out for me this time isn’t that the Oilers are within one win of making the Western Conference final and five from contesting another Stanley Cup. It’s how they got to where they are now.

Namely, watching the banged up Oilers gather themselves and rebound from a 4-3 double-overtime loss to Anaheim in a game they got jobbed in by more pitifully inept officiating to pound the Ducks and even the series. I didn’t see that rout coming. It was another test, another example of playoff trial-by-fire the Oilers not only survived but roared back from with great gusto, pulling fans to their feet in the din. What we’re seeing is this team grow before our eyes.

THE LEARNING CURVE

When it comes to gaining experience and gathering what we call gamesmanship, there is no substitute for finding yourself in the middle of the fray, ready or not. That is exactly where the Oilers find themselves now. It’s not something you can study on film, that you can fully grasp based on words passed along by the handful of veterans the Oilers have in the room, although that certainly helps. You have to be in the middle of it, as the Oilers are now, going into Game 7 against the Ducks.

“Our team hasn’t experienced it,” coach Todd McLellan said Monday. “It’s been 10 years since we’ve been in the playoffs, so there’s not a single individual that’s played together with anybody here that’s gone through Game 7 . . . it’ll be another opportunity for us to grow and gain experience as an organization and individually as players. A lot of players and coaches have their own past histories with Game 7 but you can’t really introduce that to the group.”

McLellan and assistants Jay Woodcroft and Jim Johnson have been down the playoff road before with other teams. So have veterans like Milan Lucic, Mark Letestu and Benoit Pouliot. For most of the other Oilers looking to make a push past the Ducks and into the conference final, though, it’s learn-as-you-go. That’s true even in the case of Leon Draisaitl, who has been as hot as a $3 pistol all season against the Ducks, and the unquestionably gifted Connor McDavid as well as the relatively young core of this team.

“It’s about what’s happening within that little culture that we have going in the locker room,” McLellan said. “You can’t bring in the outside. You can share some stories if somebody asks you any questions but I don’t think it’s going there. I think our group is just going to prepare for what they believe will happen and attack the game that way.”

NO GOING BACK

Apr 30, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Anton Slepyshev (42) celebrates after scoring a goal in the second period against he Anaheim Ducks in game three of the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve got to admit that when I hear the word “culture,” even from McLellan, I cringe. We’ve heard that term mouthed so often, and so emptily, over the last decade by the likes of Steve Tambellini and others who talked a good game but didn’t deliver, I suppose a gag reflex is to be expected. The difference with McLellan is we’re seeing action, not just chin-wagging.

Winning, more than anything else, changes culture. That said, so does sticking together through the bumps. Hanging in when half your blueline is banged up or out of the game altogether changes culture. Likewise, refusing to buckle and fold your hand when the referees pooch a goaltender interference call as obvious as the one that should have been whistled on Ryan Kesler with 15 seconds to play and you blow a three-goal lead and lose in double-OT.

What we’re seeing now is what changes culture. What these young Oilers are experiencing through all the ups and downs, through the ebb and flow that is playoff hockey 12 games into this 2017 post-season, is the forge that will bend, shape and toughen them for years to come. Win or lose Wednesday — not that anybody is willing to settle for the latter at this point — this team and every single player on it will be better for what we’ve seen so far.

Here we are. The Oilers are one win from the Western Conference final. Five wins from reaching the Stanley Cup final. Nine wins from what at the start of the season was, well, unthinkable. From where I sit now, it’s better to marvel at how far these Oilers have come rather than focus on how far there is to go. Dance until the music stops

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  • Homer

    Woohoo I love winning!!! It’s been far to long for this old hockey fan to sit on the edge of my seat and be so emotionally envolved. I log through the entire range of emotions sometimes before puck drop. Can’t wait for game 7 bring on them ducks!!!

  • R U Kidding Me!

    The Oilers are the better team. We have a better goaltender and more offense than them. I’d say our defense is even outplaying theirs. This series should already be over but as long as the Oil play their game hard for 60 minutes, we’ve got this one.

  • Hemmercules

    The wait for the next game has been agonizing since the minute the last game ended. I think about nothing else. Wednesday is going to be so intense. Imagine if they come out like they did Sunday, just a wrecking ball that nothing can stop. Its been an emotional run, please Oilers don’t let it end.

  • Randaman

    Well written Robin. Win or lose, it’s been a hell of a season but I have a hunch the group in that locker room aren’t close to done.

    4 to 2 for the Oil

  • Shredder

    Well don’t let the music stop now, win one more!!

    Also, I don’t even remember the DOD anymore, do you? These playoffs have been the best closure on that decade, right to the point that I don’t think of them the same way anymore. Maybe it’s that we are going with the Orange instead of Blue…

    • FISTO Siltanen

      One more win and the Oilers have more play-off game wins than the Flames have had over the last 9 years and will have more play-off round wins than the Flames have had over the last 11 years.

      Is this their decade of darkness?

      • m3sh

        Arguably, not the same. Our DoD was witness to multiple bottom finishes, busted top draft picks, endless lotteries, inept management, goddamn Dallas Eakins. Calgary had some years there with Iginla winning the Hart, Kiprusoff, (*@#&($* Regehr and Phaneuf, and they were winning the division. Of course, we could say it’s a DoD for them as far as actually winning something in the playoffs, and I must say it was always enjoyable and a sure bet they would lose in the first round.

  • Canoe Ride 27.1

    It’s been a great year. The Orange Crush at Rogers is even more than I thought it could be. We have the better team and the best fans. Let’s end this! LGO!

  • geoilersgist

    Watching how this team plays for each other is part of what makes it so great to me. These guys are playing like they would take a bullet for anyone on the team. Is it Wednesday night yet?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

  • positivebrontefan

    I’m nervous, excited, I find myself pacing the floor for no reason at all, I’ll start a conversation about something and then get distracted by thinking about the Oilers next game and then just sit there with a goofy grin and a faraway look in my eyes. Is it Wednesday night yet? Lets Go Oilers!!!

  • The Oilers were the better team head to head in the regular season. They beat them in OT towards the end of the season, they beat them in the post season, and would have this series wrapped up if not for bad officiating, and a bit of naivety. It’ll be disappointing if they don’t win this series. They’re the better team.

  • oilerjed

    Can’t let it end yet! Its way too much fun having the multitude of Canuck fans that have been harassing me endlessly over the last decade, sheepishly tell me how great the Oilers are playing. Most were hoping we got crushed in Game 6 and were left with their tongues hanging out after the 7-1 beat down.
    The heart this team is playing with is inspiring and I can barely stand the three day breaks.

    Lets Go Oilers!

  • MessyEH!

    This team has played beyond my wildest expectations.

    I picked them for 82pts and McD to get the same.

    Well they blew my expectations away. Dr Drai and Patty Maroon were the real surprises this year.

    Win or lose on Wednesday night this team has shown they are for real. Bonafide at last.

  • tileguy

    A lot of the feeling comes from the “us against the world” attitude we harbour. Us against the refs, us against trolls, us against Torontonians, us against stupid Americans. How Canadian is that?

    • It’s not Canadian, it’s Edmontonian. I’d be perfectly happy if the rest of the world that was deriding us for 10 years would simply mind their own business, and focus on whatever the hell their teams are doing now. Edmonton isn’t Canada’s team. They belong to us. Edmonton. 780.

      • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

        I don’t care if it’s selfish, I agree. The team, the city and the fans have been mocked mercilessly for literally a decade. “The North Pole of the NHL”, “the place where talent goes to die”, “the final stop of aging free agents”, “a second rate city”, “least desirable destination for players”, etc. Screw them all, the Oilers are our team, and these are our victories.

        Go Oilers, I hope they don’t just win tomorrow, I want them to absolutely crush the Ducks and embarrass them in their own building.

      • MrBung

        Maybe after choking in that many game 7’s at home they are due for a win? My hunch is that tomorrow’s game will result in the Ducks getting the first two goals. The Oiler claw back into it and tie it. Game 7 overtime. Then the Ducks score to win it. It will be a tough pill but once the Oilers will use as motivation for the future.

        • JudgeDredd

          I’m thinking the Oilers score the first three goals, they are going to come with speed and hit everything just like they did in game 7. They need to keep it a fast paced game and not let Anaheim slow it down cause that’s when they beat us.

          If it wasn’t for that epic collapse in game 5 this series is over already. time for some killer instinct and make this the final Duck hunt!

        • pkam

          This is in the mind of their core players, Getzlaf, Perry, Kesler, Fowler and Cogliano. Just like the Oilers, they will need a new core in order to turn this around.

  • BleedOrange

    I love that my stomach is in knots now from excitement and not complete dread. Looking forward to a huge Oilers win on Wednesday, and strongly pulling for RNH to net a goal. He’s due for one and I just can’t wait to see the celebration when he gets it.

  • Derian Hatcher

    1) Stay out of the box
    2) Refs – don’t call chicken-crap penalties. No one is there to see you (O’Halloran) – no one should be talking about the refs after this game. That means you did a good job.
    3) I have been very critical of Eberle. I hope he proves me wrong (I welcome it). Bring your highest compete level and shoot the puck Ebs. We all know you have it in you. Just bring it.

    That is all.

  • Oiler Al

    Oilers need to start hard and fast [like the last game].They play with more cofidence it seems when they have the lead.
    Lucic takes care of Getzlaf and Maroon covers Kesler. Gryba and Larsson do the rough stuff on the back end.

  • Connor'sGotHart

    I still think Nuge will be with this team but I think Eberle will somehow get dealt to another team . I’m just not sure who would take that deal especially in light of this year’s playoffs.

  • BobbyCanuck

    Dear Connor, just shoot the puck already, have you noticed the other teams D and Goalie do not even bother trying to cut off you shot at net, because 98% of the time they know you are going to pass, surprise the other team by shooting the puck every now and then, I can promise that you will catch the goalie off gaurd

  • Alberta Ice

    Two game 7’s on Wednesday! Oh baby! This will be like two “A Tale of Two Cities” story lines to complete. This is high stakes NHL hockey drama at its best. I know not what the final outcomes will be, but the outcomes will be final. Can’t wait.

  • Derian Hatcher

    The concept of DOUBT. There is no reason for doubt to enter the Oilers dressing room. They were not even supposed to be here (predictions from the beginning of the season). Just go out and play, take do your job, manage the puck, stay out of the box and get in 15 and 17 grill as often as possible.

    There is every reason to believe DOUBT may creep into the Ducks room. They must know deep down that two of their most important goals should not have counted, if not for incompetent officialting. The got taken to the wood shed on Sunday AND they have a history of choking in games 6 and 7. John Gibson…does the team in front of him believe he will bounce back?

    Go Oil

  • slats-west

    “Time will prove that this coach was a very good hire for our organization. I really feel like he’s the guy to add the cultural elements, and police the cultural elements, that are necessary to build the quality team that we’re trying to build.” Craig McTavish on Dallas Eakins … cringing is an understatement RB!!

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