OIL­ERS’ WIN­DOW IS JUST BE­GIN­NING TO OPEN

Edmonton Journal - - SPORTS - DAN BARNES Ana­heim

Breathe, Ed­mon­ton.

The play­off run is over. It was fleet­ing, but all-con­sum­ing. Dis­ap­point­ing on Wed­nes­day, but oh so glo­ri­ous for 30-odd nail-bit­ing days in April and May.

The Oil­ers brought the city back to the fu­ture in late-game fits and dy­na­mite starts. It was fi­nally, sud­denly 2006 again, though re­splen­dent in orange. Replica Ryan Smyth mul­lets be­came Zack Kas­sian mut­ton chops.

But what was hir­sute to­day is gone tomorrow. Be it close shave or blowout, that’s the cruel, fan­tas­tic re­al­ity of play­off hockey in gen­eral and Game 7 in par­tic­u­lar.

The Ducks beat the Oil­ers 2-1 Wed­nes­day at Honda Cen­ter. On a third-pe­riod goal by Nick Ritchie, for heaven’s sakes. Game 7 al­ways picks its own heroes.

At peak do or die, the Oil­ers didn’t do quite enough here and their Stan­ley Cup hopes, as in­con­gru­ous as it would have sounded to men­tion such a thing just nine months ago, are dead.

But 13 play­off games over two rounds gave Oil­ers fans a tan­ta­liz­ing glimpse through a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity that could stay open as long as Con­nor McDavid and Leon Drai­saitl are Bat­man and Robin, emerg­ing from their shiny down­town lair to col­lar the bad guys du jour.

As long as goalie Cam Tal­bot holds the fort and de­fence­man Adam Lars­son plays all those mean and dirty min­utes. As long as Os­car Klef­bom an­chors the power play and Mi­lan Lu­cic pow­ers down left wing and Ryan Nu­gent-Hop­kins turns into a shut­down cen­tre.

As long as kids like Matt Ben­ning, Drake Cag­giula, Dar­nell Nurse and An­ton Slepy­shev turn this valu­able play­off ex­pe­ri­ence into a big step for­ward in the fall.

This is a team on the rise, but such an as­cent is rarely straight up. And there is al­ways a team on the other bench ready to change your travel plans.

You could see it in the hand­shake line; Ana­heim’s play­off beards are greyer. Their win­dow is open not for much longer, but for now and they barged through it and past the Oil­ers to meet the Nashville Preda­tors in the West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal.

Ana­heim had stubbed its toe on Game 7 for al­most half a decade. Ed­mon­ton missed the play­offs en­tirely for twice that long. So nei­ther team had ac­com­plished much.

And the teams weren’t sep­a­rated by much on the ice, ei­ther. They won two straight in each other’s barn. They traded home wins. And they took the se­ries to the limit.

The Oil­ers come home from Cal­i­for­nia with ex­pe­ri­ence that lasts for­ever and re­grets that will fade over sum­mer. Ed­mon­ton has changed for the bet­ter, too. Rogers Place was the beat­ing heart of ev­ery game night, home or away, and its pulse was strong through­out down­town.

This play­off run lasted a month, but the Peter Chiarelli/ Todd McLel­lan re­build is at the end of Year 2. Much has been ac­com­plished, much more to come.

“When we started two years ago, we wanted to build up the player pool, we wanted to build the talent pool,” McLel­lan said Wed­nes­day morn­ing.

“We wanted to put a team to­gether, fix things that we felt needed to be fixed, in­cor­po­rate a foun­da­tion sys­tem-wise.

“But one of the most im­por­tant things we wanted to do was work on that men­tal as­pect. I think at that time I talked about not fold­ing your hand, be­ing more re­silient, push­ing the game deeper, stick­ing with things.

“And it has evolved over time to where we can now use those tools we have: a lit­tle more re­siliency, a bigger bounce-back in our game. We can be down and still in it. We can take it on the chin and come back. That’s nice to see. It’s nice to have that rep­u­ta­tion or at least be de­vel­op­ing it as we go for­ward.”

The Oil­ers went back­ward af­ter the sum­mer of 2006. They un­rav­elled al­most im­me­di­ately when Chris Pronger pulled the plug. In a trade on July 5, just three weeks af­ter Game 7 of the fi­nal, Ed­mon­ton got two players and three picks from Ana­heim. The Ducks got Pronger and the 2007 Stan­ley Cup.

There will be player move­ment now as well. Some­body will be­come a Ve­gas Golden thinga­ma­jig in June, but it might be a guy like Grif­fin Rein­hart. David De­shar­nais isn’t a good bet to get another deal here. There might be more money some­where else for Kris Rus­sell, too.

The core Oil­ers are stay­ing put and plan­ning another as­sault on the Cup.

And if you’re an Oil­ers fan who shelled out fi­nan­cially or emo­tion­ally for 10 years and re­ceived so lit­tle in re­turn, the team made a pay­ment this spring. But these Oil­ers are on an in­stal­ment plan. You couldn’t get it all back at once.

So breathe, Ed­mon­ton. Go play golf. Plant the gar­den. Mow the lawn. Build that per­gola. Do all those things you haven’t been do­ing on game nights through April and half of May.

And know that you don’t have long to wait for another run. They’re go­ing to be back here next year. And the one af­ter that, too. Your long, NHL nightmare is over.

SEAN M. HAFFEY/GETTY IMAGES

Oil­ers for­ward Mi­lan Lu­cic tries to find some space in be­tween Ana­heim Ducks goalie John Gib­son and de­fence­man Cam Fowler Wed­nes­day dur­ing Game 7 of their West­ern Con­fer­ence sec­ond-round se­ries in Ana­heim. The Ducks won 2-1 to elim­i­nate the Oil­ers.

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