OILERS’ WINDOW IS JUST BEGINNING TO OPEN
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.
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.