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
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