Oil­ers fi­nally strik­ing it rich

The Washington Post Sunday - - HOCKEY - BY JESSE DOUGHERTY jesse.dougherty@wash­post.com

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.”

LYNNE SLADKY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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