Oilers finally striking it rich
Taylor Chorney could see it in their faces, hear it in their throaty cheers, feel it whenever he skated onto the ice at Rexall Place — if the Oilers could succeed, even marginally, it would set Edmonton ablaze.
Chorney, now a Washington Capitals defenseman, spent portions of four playoff-less seasons with the Oilers, part of a postseason drought that has spanned 10 in all. During that time, he never saw how the city celebrates a winning product. But it was never hard to imagine.
“Most of the time we were near the bottom of the league, and we were still selling out games, and you could still feel the buzz,” Chorney said. “I think it’s probably one of the better hockey cities in the league. What’s happening now is really cool.”
What’s happening now is a stark departure from the Oilers’ recent history, which has seen just two playoff appearances in 15 years. The Oilers are 33-21-8 and tied for second place in the Pacific Division. They already have more wins than they finished with in any of the past seven seasons. Not even a string of recent injuries has slowed them in a recent 5-3-0 stretch.
For the first time since they reached the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, the Oilers are making strides instead of sputtering near the bottom of the standings. But they haven’t achieved their goal yet.
“We are still pushing,” Oilers Coach Todd McLellan said. “We have some really good games, and then we take our foot off the gas pedal. It’s a little bit of immaturity, not age-wise, not professional-wise or anything like that, but just not having been in this situation for many years.
“When teams really crank it up for the last little bit, we’ve been out of it. So we’re learning.”
Before the Oilers opened the season 7-1-0 and created playoff expectations for a franchise that had become one of the NHL’s annual afterthoughts, this memorable campaign started with a really big building.
In September, the Oilers officially traded in Rexall Place for Rogers Place, a new arena that offered the Oilers a state-of-the-art weight room, hot tubs built into the floor and the NHL’s largest scoreboard overhead. It also offered change heading into McLellan’s second season in Edmonton.
“It was a new chapter, a new start,” defenseman Brandon Davidson said. “And I think we needed that, honestly.”
At the center of that new start is 20-year-old captain Connor McDavid, who leads the NHL with 69 points and is a Hart Trophy favorite. But the Oilers also have received a big lift from their defense and goaltending, which allowed the fourth-most goals in the league last season. This season they have allowed the seventh fewest.
That transformation started by trading former No. 1 overall draft pick Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson. It also included adding Cam Talbot in net. Talbot, the backup for New York Rangers star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist two seasons ago, is 31-17-7 with a 2.36 goals against average.
“They’ve got a really good balance on their back end,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said Friday. “To me, the real — probably their MVP is obviously Connor McDavid, but close behind him if you talk to Edmonton people might be their goaltender.”
All of this, if you ask the Oilers, doesn’t mean much in February, even though they sit in playoff position. They are still measuring their progress against the NHL’s best teams, and they need to get healthy on defense and won’t settle for any consolation prizes. Now they are hunting bigger game, and in the process McDavid and his teammates could get to shine on the league’s biggest stage. Now there could be an upstart contender to challenge the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks in the West.
And it means a whole lot to Edmonton, the city that stuck around to see its Oilers surge from the cellar.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on it when I can,” Chorney said. “It looks as crazy as I always thought it would.”
Captain Connor McDavid, right, and the Oilers are in position to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since a run to the finals in 2006.