Two Minutes for Looking so Good: The Story of the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers
We interrupt you’re not so regularly scheduled lucha libre column to talk about something else; hockey! Ain’t it swell sports fans? As much fun as talking lucha is for me, it feels like I’ve kind of hit a rut with it and, in my opinion, need something to balance it out. And what better way to do so than to write about my favorite sport, a game that features a shit ton of dudes using sticks to shoot a puck into a net, in between brawls and hard body checks into a glass window of course! I don’t know how long it’ll last for, but the plan is to start making this a daily thing; a hockey column during the day, a lucha column (likely a review) in the night. So with that, let’s get started. How do we kick off this hockey adventure you may ask? By talking about one of my favorite playoff runs ever, the Cinderella story of the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers. Judging from how the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers are doing right now, I think their fans will thank me for doing this. So make yourself comfortable because this is going to take awhile, and allow me to tell you of the days of high adventure!
Chapter 1: Background and the Regular Season
Our story begins, as almost every Edmonton Oilers story does, begins with Wayne Gretzky’s trade to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9th, 1988. Why do we begin there? Because for most casual (and even non-casual) hockey fans, that’s the day the Edmonton Oilers went full blown Thelma and Louise off the cliff, never to be seen again until that 2006 playoff run. Not only is that incorrect, it’s laughably incorrect. While the Kings without a doubt won the Gretzky deal from a value standpoint, the Oilers remained a force, reaching the Western Conference finals for three consecutive years (1990-1992), winning the Stanley Cup in 1990 and, most notably, defeating the Kings in three out of four playoff meetings from 1989-1992. So much for the Oilers being nomads without the Great One around. It wasn’t until the 1992-93 that the wheels finally came off for Edmonton, as they missed the playoffs for the first time franchise history. As it turns out, the Gretzky trade was less of a big deal than the fact that every other star the Oilers had, from Mark Messier to Glenn Anderson to Grant Furh to Jari Kurri, all slowly departed within a four season span. Even with the Oilers being a small market team, the sudden exodus of, arguably, the greatest team ever assembled was shocking. Even more shocking was how its architect, Oilers GM/President/former Head Coach Glen Sather, was powerless to stop it.
Once one of the shrewdest minds in hockey, Sather seemingly became incapable of rebuilding the roster. His trades of star players like Messier, Anderson, Furh and Kurri brought back a combined value of Vincent Damphousse and little else, with Damphousse bolting to Montreal after just one year in Edmonton. His drafts between 1984-1994 produced only seven above average players; Kelly Buchberger, Martin Rucinsky, Kirk Maltby, Jason Arnott, David Vyrborny, Miroslav Satan and Ryan Smyth, with only Buchberger, Arnott and Smyth playing five seasons ore more with the team. Keep in mind this is during a time period where Sather also had extra picks via the Gretzky trade, picks he turned into nothing (the 1989 pick was traded to the New Jersey Devils), Rucinsky (who played three seasons before leaving) and notable bust Nick Stajduhar. Whatever magic Sather once had was gone and so was the Oilers run as a dynasty. Armed with only Kevin Lowe, Arnott, Doug Weight (one Sather’s rare great pickups during that time), Buchberger and little else, the Oilers would miss the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, and even upon reaching the playoffs again during the 96-97 season (thanks to the arrival of the legendary Curtis Joseph) were little more than a lower rung, second round playoff team at best. Between that and owner/living example of human fecal matter Peter Pocklington trying to move the team to Minnesota/sell the team to buyers from Houston, the post dynasty era years saw Oilers fans both dreading the end of their beloved franchise and longing for the glory days. At least it served as good practice for them for the 2006-2016 era Oilers!
This brings us to 2005, which you probably recall is the year the NHL was coming back from a lockout that nuked the sport’s popularity and, saddest of all, killed the NHL’s ESPN deal, thus ending the golden age of Bill Clement and Gary Thorne calling games (a moment of silence if you will…and we’re good). It’s safe to say that no one was thinking about the Oilers at the time and why would they; the 2003-04 season saw them miss the playoffs (albeit by two points) and their most notable feature was that their head coach (Craig McTavish) and GM (Kevin Lowe) were both players during Edmonton’s better days. Quietly however the Oilers had built a young roster of good to great players, anchored by the aforementioned Ryan Smyth (the heart and soul guy), local boy Fernando Pisani, two way centre Shawn Horcoff and the 13th pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, a young Czechoslovakian winger named Ales Hemsky. The pieces were there; all the Oilers needed were a little more oomph and oomph was what they immediately got. Thanks to the new CBA agreement, a salary cap was introduced to the NHL and it just so happened that the Oilers had a whole lot of cap room to start out. Lowe turned said cap room into two huge acquisitions, trading away Mike York and a fourth rounder for New York Islanders centre Michael Peca and, most impressively, turning Eric Brewer, Doug Lynch and the wonderfully named Jeff Woywitka into star defenseman Chris Pronger. Still only 31 years old, Pronger had developed into the gigantic, terrifying force of nature the Hartford Whalers hoped he’d be when they took him 2nd overall in 1993, and his 5 year, $31.25 million dollar deal seemingly gave the Oilers a star for both the short and long term, something they hadn’t had since Curtis Joseph left for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1998.
But despite the young core and the key additions, the Oilers went into the season severely lacking in one department; goaltending. With Cujo off enjoying the Phoenix sunshine and Tommy Salo retired, Edmonton was left with this motley crew defending the net; Mike Morrison, Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen. That isn’t just staring into the abyss, that’s being trapped into the abyss with no hope of escape. Not too surprisingly the goaltending situation helped the Oilers get off to a slow start with a 9-9-1 record over their first nineteen games, and it continued to plague the team all the way up to the trade deadline, with only Markkanen proving to be somewhat capable of playing the position. Luckily the other moves appeared to cancel out the goaltending issues; Pronger was everything the Oilers hoped he would be, Hemsky, Horcoff and Jarret Stoll each had breakout seasons and Ryan Smyth, Mr. Oiler himself, put together his best campaign since his rookie year. Still, I’m pretty sure the thought of Markkanen and Ty Conklin anchoring the net for the Oilers come the playoffs (Morrison had gone to the Ottawa Senators by this point, for all two of you who wanted to know) gave Kevin Lowe swamp ass, so naturally he set out at the trade deadline to get a tried and true number one goalie. His choice for that role; Dwayne Roloson. The 36 year old Simcoe, Ontario native was a late bloomer, having spent most of his career in the minors before becoming an All Star with the Minnesota Wild during the 2002-03 season. As such Roloson was considered more a solid goaltender than a great one, which didn’t stop Lowe from trading a first round pick to get him. That’s right; a first round pick. The trade was slammed more than a Paulie Shore feature, and in fact was so preposterous at the time that, had things gone differently, Lowe probably wouldn’t have been able to get a job sharpening skates in Medicine Hat. As it turned out, the trade ended up being one of Lowe’s greatest moves; whether it was incredible foresight or sheer dumb luck I’ll leave up to you.
A far more accepted move was Lowe’s trade for Sergei Samsonov, a celebrated playmaker from the Boston Bruins. The price was steep for him as well, with Edmonton coughing up veterans Marty Reasoner (who returned to Edmonton as a free agent after the season), youngster Yan Statsny and a 2006 second round pick that would eventually become Stanley Cup winner and current Oilers left winger Milan Lucic (funny how that turned out). But the former Samsonov quickly proved to be worthy, netting 16 points in 19 games for the Oilers as the season wound down. Less successful was Roloson, who despite a solid 2.40 GAA managed only a 8-7-5 record with a disappointing .905 Save Percentage. Not only did Roloson’s struggles look bad considering what the Oilers gave up for him, but his average performance coincided with an Oilers slump; after going 30-18-8 through the first 56 games of the season, the Oilers record the rest of the way was a mediocre 11-10-5. In other words, despite the young talent and the big acquisitions, the season overall resembled exactly what the Oilers had been ever since the dynasty ended in the early 90’s. All that was left to happen was for the Oilers, who clinched the eighth seed in the postseason, to crash in burn in the first round against the best team in the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings. As Lee Corso would say, NOT SO FAST MY FRIEND!
Chapter 2: Down Goes Detroit, Down Goes San Jose
This cannot be stressed enough; going into the Detroit series, the only people picking the Oilers to win were absolutely no one. We’re talking the “nobody believes in us!” factor times three thousand. After all, the Oilers were just the Oilers, while the Red Wings (by this point a dynasty in their own right) were loaded with stars like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zettenberg, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios and Pavel Datsuk amongst others. If that’s not impressive enough, consider this; the Red Wings also went through the 2005-06 season without getting shutout once. NOT ONCE! Kevin Costner from 1985-1993 wasn’t an unstoppable as this Wings team was. All of which made it very surprising when the Oilers came out in Game 1 and played the Wings tough, withstanding a 57 shot barrage to take the game to Double Overtime before the Detroit prevailed. Even though the Red Wings prevailed, Edmonton’s defense first style of play, coupled with Roloson’s outstanding performance, gave the team confidence that spilled over into Game 2. This time, the Oilers withstood the barrage and prospered, bolstered by two second period goals by Fernando Pisani and Brad Winchester take too place within a minute of each other. One empty net goal by Jarret Stoll later and the Oilers headed back to Edmonton tied with Detroit at a game apiece. While there were many twist and turns after Game 2, the result changed everything completely, something that was confirmed when everyone turned on their TV to watch Game 3. For whatever reason, be it the long years of mediocrity or fans having hope following the Game 2 win, Rexall Center wasn’t just electric; it was like getting Thundershocked by every single Lightning Pokemon alive. In what was just the start of what would be a legendary run for them, the Edmonton faithful stuck with the Oilers through a tense Game 3 that saw the Oilers blow a two goal lead late in the third. It didn’t matter; the fans and team stayed with it, and Jarret Stoll became a playoff hero by scoring the game winning goal in the series’ second Double Overtime game, giving the Oilers a 2-1 series lead. Any Oilers fans that tells you they weren’t doing their best Morpheus “he is beginning to believe!” impression at this point is lying.
The victory parade was put on hold after the Red Wings stormed back with a convincing Game 4 win, only for the Oilers to shock the world again with a 3-2 Game 5 victory, bolstered by an outstanding defensive performance by Pronger and a seven minute onslaught in the second period that saw Edmonton score three goals. Just like that, Game 6 was now set up for the improbable; an Oilers series win and the best team in the NHL going home. The Red Wings came out of the gates looking to destroy that narrative, dominating the first two periods and taking what looked to be a commanding 2-0 lead going into the third. And just like that, everything changed. Just three minutes into the third and on the powerplay, Fernando Pisani scooped up a Jarret Stoll rebound and fired it past Manny Legace to get the Oilers within one. Not four minutes later, Pisani found himself alone in the slot after a great pass from Jason Smith and deked out Legace to tie the game. I’d saying “Holy Jumpin!”, but I don’t want to be associated with Darren Pang. The Red Wings answered back at the halfway mark with Johan Franzen goal, but it was only a temporary reprieve as Ales Hemsky, who had quiet all series to this point, muscled a powerplay goal past Legace to once again tie the game. At this point I’m pretty sure everyone was getting adult diapers to wear for the never ending abyss known as overtime, for the game surely seemed to be going that way. Then, with just a little more than a minute remaining, Hemsky received a pass from Stoll at center ice and deked his way into the Red Wings zone, pushing the defense back. He then left the puck for Sergei Samsonov before crashing the net all alone, leaving it up to Samsonov to deliver the perfect pass. The rest is history.
With Rexall Place now on the verge of crumbling to the ground, the Oilers held off a final Red Wings onslaught to win 4-3 and, against all odds, eliminate the President Trophy winners in an unbelievable upset. Or was it? While the Red Wings were a better team than the Oilers, in retrospect the distance wasn’t as much as people expected. For one, the Oilers were a stacked team who were only as low in the standings as they were due to goaltending issues. Meanwhile, the Oilers also played in a division featuring two other playoff teams (the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche), while the Vancouver Canucks only finished three points behind them; that’s a tough division. In contrast, the Red Wings division (and the teams they played nearly 30% of their games against) consisted of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Blackhawks (before Toews and Kane) and St. Louis Blues, who just so happened to be the worst teams in the Western Conference. Couple that with Detroit’s decision to go with Manny Legace in goal instead of Chris Osgood and it doesn’t seem too shocking that the Oilers were able to take it to the Red Wings as much as they did. Regardless, the Oilers moved on, the Red Wings went home and the Samsonov to Hemsky play became the most iconic Oilers play of the last twenty years. If that had been the extent of Edmonton’s run, I’m pretty sure fans would’ve been pretty happy with that; well maybe not the Roloson trade still, but everything else sure.
One thing was for sure; the only thing getting easier from that point forward was Oilers’ fans ability to assume the fetal position. That’s because Edmonton’s next opponent was the San Jose Sharks, and while the Sharks didn’t have the never ending lineup of All Stars the Red Wings had, they did contain the ever dangerous one two punch of NHL MVP Joe Thornton and goal scoring leader Jonathan Cheechoo. More than that though the Sharks had the experience of being a playoff fixture ever since the late 90’s; they were rugged, they were skilled and they were ready to finally break through to the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. The first two games in San Jose seemed to confirm they were on their way, as Edmonton’s offensive struggles and the Sharks physical play netted them two one goal victories for a commanding 2-0 series lead. It also confirmed how beloved the Sharks popularity was; as the team stepped on the ice for Game 2, the crowd noise as recorded at a 109 decibel. Or as Chad Muska would say in Tony Hawk Underground, it was louder than a Metallica concert in there. It was a cool moment for Sharks fans; it also, unknowingly, may have led to the series turning in Edmonton’s favor.
I say that because Game 3, back in Edmonton, featured Oilers fans seemingly accepting the Sharks fans challenge to be louder, which they were after being recorded at a 114 decibel. If San Jose was a Metallica concert, the Edmonton crowd a Viking Metal rock opera. Whatever it was, the Oilers fed off it and started the game off by outshooting the Sharks 15-2 in the first period; unfortunately for them, Sharks goalie Vesa Toskala stood on his head and kept the Oilers to only one goal heading into the second. The Sharks would score two to take a 2-1 lead going into the third, but the Oilers kept coming and finally tied it up after a Raffi Torres wrist-shot sailed past Toskala. And so began the Oilers third trek into the endless abyss known as Playoff Overtime, only this one was somehow made the two Red Wings games seem like a relaxing stroll through the park. The two teams traded chance after chance through three Overtime periods, the highlight being a Thornton/Cheechoo two on one attack that ended with Roloson making a save that almost singlehandedly justified Kevin Lowe’s reason for trading for him. Roloson’s reach, one of 32 saves, proved to be another iconic Oiler playoff moment, and it set the stage for two and a half minutes into the third Overtime when Shawn Horcoff beat Toskala to give the Oilers an emotional 3-2 win. Though if we’re being honest, it was over the moment Roloson snagged Cheechoo’s shot out of the air.
Game 4 proved to be another memorable game, at first for the wrong reasons. Despite the draining Game 3 loss, the Sharks cruised to a 3-1 lead through the midway point of the second period, the series seemingly in their grasps. The Oilers cut it to one on a Michael Peca goal, but quickly looked in danger when the Sharks launched an offensive onslaught on the powerplay after Sergei Samsonov penalty. And here is where the series flipped for good. Tried as they did, the Sharks couldn’t put the puck past Roloson and a final pass attempt by Nils Ekman ended up missing everyone and soaring back into the Sharks zone. Not that big a deal right? Normally it wouldn’t be…except it happened the same time Samsonov emerged from the box, skating towards the puck as if the fate of the world rested on him making it. Toskala now had a choice; he could let Samsonov play it and have a breakaway attempt or he could play it himself. He chose the latter, and it would’ve been a good decision if he hadn’t hit the puck right into Samsonov. The winger quickly put the put into the back of the net to tie the game as Edmonton exploded and Toskala did his best impression of a person in a Southwest Airlines commercial.
It’s bad enough to blow a 3-1 lead in a game; it’s even worse when you do it like that. To the surprise of no one, the Oilers turned on the jets and didn’t look back, crushing the Sharks with three more goals in the third to win 6-3. Game 5 was more of the same, with the Oilers scoring three third period goals to once again win 6-3. But the game was overshadowed by the San Jose fans, who took it upon themselves to boo the Canadian National Anthem at the start of the game. Why on earth would they do this? Because many Sharks fans believed they heard Oilers fans booed the American National anthem at the start of Game 4, prompting them to retaliate. In reality, what Sharks fans heard a result of technical and audio issues stemming from the FSN Bay Area broadcast of the game; in other words, audio from player introductions was accidentally broadcast during the anthem, meaning there was no booing at all. Just like that Sharks fans, who started the series as both likeable and loud, now looked like the biggest jerks in the western hemisphere and it was all due to a misunderstanding. Luckily this story was replaced with a good one, in the form of Oilers fans cheering the American National Anthem at the start of Game 6 before joining singer Paul Loreiau in a memorable rendition of O’ Canada. In what easily could’ve been a situation where Oilers fans could’ve responded the same way Sharks fans did, they instead went the other way and created a wonderful moment that all sports fans should take note of. The Oilers rewarded them for their class keeping the Sharks scoreless for a relatively relaxing 2-0 victory, sending the Sharks home. More importantly though was Edmonton was moving on to the Western Conference Finals, something they hadn’t done since the twilight of the dynasty era back in the 1991-92 season. Fitting because things were very much like the dynasty Oilers at the time; the team was firing on all cylinders, the crowd was hotter than ever and there appeared to be no end in sight.
Chapter 3: Roasting the Ducks
The Oilers last hurdle towards Stanley Cup glory was the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, back when they had that awesome logo and were still actually called the Mighty Ducks. Just two seasons earlier the Ducks had done what the Oilers were trying to do, upsetting team after team en route to pushing the New Jersey Devils to seven games in the Stanley Cup Finals. They were even better this time, led by a returning Teemu Selanne, Andy McDonald, brothers Scott and Rob Niedermayer, featuring a young core consisting of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Joffrey Lupul and Chris Kunitz and backed in net by future Oiler Ilya Bryzgalov (Jean-Sébastien Giguère, the Ducks hero from the 2002-03 postseason, was the backup). It was another instance of, on paper, the Oilers looking outmatched by a powerful offensive juggernaut. But after disposing of the seemingly unstoppable Red Wings and the ultra talented San Jose combo of Thornton/Cheechoo, the Oilers weren’t going to be intimidated and most certainly weren’t during Game 1 in Anaheim. With the exception of a powerplay goal late in the first, the Ducks had no answer for Roloson (who stopped 31 shots) and watched helplessly as the Oilers cruised to a 3-1 victory. Game 2 was more of the same, as the Oilers put in three more and Roloson stood on his head once again, stopping 33 of 34 shots for a second straight 3-1 victory. For the first time all postseason, the Oilers would be returning to Edmonton with a two game lead and all the momentum in the world, setting the stage for yet another legendary moment courtesy of the Edmonton crowd.
When the Winnipeg Jets returned in 2011, the moment after the rendition of “O’ Canada” was so powerful that Jim Hughson made the remake that you could feel “the heartbeat of hockey.” When the Oilers and Ducks took the ice for Game 3 of the 2006 NHL Western Conference Finals, the same exact thing could be said. As loud and wonderful as Rexhall Place had been throughout the postseason, Oilers fans outdid themselves here, leaving Don Cherry speechless (an unbelievable accomplishment) and singing “O’ Canada” so loudly and proudly that Paul Loreiau stopped singing and merely held the mic up, letting the fans take it home. In a postseason full of unforgettable moments, including Hemsky’s goal, Roloson’s reach, Horcoff’s game winner, Samsonov’s dash and the Oiler fans applauding the American Anthem in the wake of Sharks fans booing “O’ Canada”, the opening stages of Game 3 served as perhaps the highlight of them all. It was so powerful that it became the norm for games in Edmonton after, with Loreiau letting the fans finish the song at every game from that point forward.
As if the opening wasn’t enough to give you chills, Game 3 itself turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the entire postseason. Like Wrestle Kingdom 12, it had a little something for everyone; hard hitting physical play, great goals, great goaltending, comebacks, heroes, goats. It’s been awhile, but I think someone may have even used a kitchen sink at one point. And best of all most of the action came in the third period, where the Ducks and Oilers scored a combined eight goals in one of the wildest periods the NHL had ever seen. Unlike Game’s 1 and 2, the Ducks hung tough and, despite being down 4-0 at one point, kept rallying up until the very end. Ultimately it wasn’t enough and the Oilers, largely thanks to a 34 save performance from Roloson, were able to just hold on for a 5-4 win, giving them a 3-0 lead and a complete stranglehold on the series. With only one win till the Stanley Cup Finals, the Oilers were poised to complete their fairy tale run at home, leading to perhaps the one major misstep the Oilers had up to this point. With nothing to lose and Jean-Sébastien Giguère brought in to replace Bryzgalov, the Ducks mustered up some pride and dominated the Oilers in Game 4, never trailing in a 6-3 blowout. In the end it was nothing more than a last gasp; despite falling behind in the first of Game 5, the Oilers stormed ahead in the second after a pair of goals by Ethan Moreau and Raffi Torres, and road a 32 save performance by Roloson the rest of the way to defeat the Ducks and clinch a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1990. Somehow the moment proved to be even more historic than that; at the time the Oilers victory made them the only eighth seed in NHL history to make it to the finals, paving away for the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings and 2016-17 Nashville Predators. Perhaps most importantly though; after this season, the Mighty Ducks changed their name to the Anaheim Ducks, making the Oilers inadvertedly responsible from transforming the lovable (and cool) Mighty Ducks of Anaheim into the soulless, evil Anaheim Ducks we know today. It just goes to show you not everything about this run was awesome. Then again, one of of thirty ain’t too bad.
Chapter 4: So Close, Yet So Far Away
By this point Edmonton had slayed three different yet equally challenging dragons just to get the Stanley Cup Finals; now the only beast left to defeat was the Carolina Hurricanes. Or as most of us bitter New Englanders call them, the Hartford Whalers before they were stolen away by Satan’s asshole (Peter Karmanos). Shitty owner aside, the Hurricanes were as legit as any team in the NHL in 05-06, cruising to the second best record in the East behind young stars Eric Staal and Justin Williams, veterans Corey Stillman and captain Rob Brind’Amour and the surprise goaltending of journeyman Martin Gerber. When Gerber began to lose it in the postseason, Canes coach Peter Laviolette made the bold decision to go with Cam Ward, a promising rookie from Saskatoon. It paid off; like Roloson Ward got hot and the Canes overcame a 2-0 deficit against the Montreal Canadiens to win the series. They never looked back after, setting up a showdown between the favored Hurricanes and the underdog Oilers. It had all the makings for a great series, and Game 1 quickly proved it would be (albeit with one minor blemish).
The Oilers picked up immediately where they left off against the Ducks, scoring three goals in the first two periods to take what looked to be a commanding 3-1 lead. Much like the Oilers had so much against the Red Wings and Sharks however, the Canes fought back and by the middle of the third had somehow taken a 4-3 lead. Now it was Edmonton’s turn to strike back. With six and a half minutes remaining, Ales Hemsky took advantage of an Oiler powerplay and beat Ward to tie the game. Much like Game 6 of the first round series with Detroit, it appeared the Oilers were heading to Overtime. Once more it didn’t happen, but for much more tragic reasons. As the game wound down, a Carolina possession led to a collision between Roloson and Andrew Ladd (caused by a Marc-Andre Bergeron hit). Ladd got up alright; Roloson did not, and was taken out of the game with what turned out to be a third degree MCL sprain. Just like that Roloson, who had gone 12-5 with a 2.33 GAA and a .927% in the postseason, was gone for the rest of the series. And it was about to get worse. You’ll notice that head coach Craig McTavish hasn’t been mentioned much to this point; that’s because he largely hadn’t played an impact in the series during the first three rounds. He did here however, replacing the injured Roloson with, wait for it…Ty Conklin.
In fairness to McTavish, the Oilers may have lost the series the moment Roloson went down anyway. But if not, holy hell did they lose it the moment Conklin, a mediocre at best goaltender who hadn’t played in months, stepped in. Sure enough, with 32 seconds left in the game, Conklin was forced to play a puck behind the net and proceeded to send the puck right into captain Jason Smith’s stick. The puck bounced right in front of the net, where Brind’Amour was waiting to slap the puck in to give the Canes the lead for good. The good news is that was all McTavish needed to see from Conklin, as the goalie was never seen again from that point forward, replaced by Jussi Markkanen from that point forward. The bad news is that Markkanen somehow made Conklin look like Ken Dryden in his prime during Game 2, conceding five Carolina goals as the Oilers got blown out 5-0. It hadn’t been that long ago that Edmonton had a 3-1 lead and a healthy Dwayne Roloson at the end of the second period in Game 1. Now Roloson was gone, the Oilers looked thoroughly outmatched going back home for Game 3 and I wouldn’t have doubted if McTavish and Lowe had looked up Michael Morrison’s number in between games just to see if he was available.
As they had all postseason however, the Oilers responded and responded big in front of yet another delirious hometown crowd. Despite the ever relentless Canes and a blown call by officials that prevented a shorthanded goal in the second, the Oilers prevailed 2-1 after Ryan Smyth powered the rebound of a Hemsky shot past Ward with 2:15 left in the game. Just as important was the play of Markkanen; whereas the 31 year old from Finland looked lost in Game 2, his Game 3 performance was one for the ages, earning him first star of the game recognition. He continued his fine play in Game 4, holding the Hurricanes to two goals; unfortunately the rest of the Oilers couldn’t match his standard, as a strong performance by Ward and a lifeless Edmonton powerplay held the Oilers to one goal and a 2-1 loss. Worse, it put the Oilers in a 3-1 series hole, meaning the Oilers would have to win three straight games against one of the best teams in the NHL, with a backup goalie and a powerplay that resembled the film Flatliners to boot. There’s dire and then there’s this. You may say that, regardless of the series result, the fact that the Oilers got this far was a hell of an accomplishment and the fact they still had so much fight in them despite losing Roloson showed that they went down swinging. Let this be a reminder that the people who tell you that are either Cleveland Browns or Colorado Rockies fans, aka people who have never been this close to a championship in their life. The Oilers didn’t come this far just to go home; they came to win.
And luckily for everyone who loves playoff hockey, it became quickly apparent they weren’t yet done when Game 5 started with a Fernando Pisani goal sixteen seconds in. From there, Game 5 morphed into yet another titanic Oilers vs. insert opponent here struggle destined for Overtime. The Hurricanes answered Pisani’s goal with two quick first period goals of their own, only to see their efforts answered by the Oilers, who finally got their powerplay going and added two more goals courtesy of Hemsky and Peca to make it 3-2. Eric Staal answered in the second by poking the puck past Markkanen, tying the game. The two teams then traded chance after chance until Overtime, and it slowly became clear (due to injuries to Doug Weight and Aaron Ward) that the Canes were maybe a player too short to keep up with the Oilers in a long game. The Oilers proved that theory true when Pisani, for about the tenth million time this postseason, came up big, intercepting a Corey Stillman pass and rifling a shot past Ward to give the Oilers the 4-3 lead. There was still some liquor in the cup yet! The Oilers returned to Edmonton in Game 6 and, for the first time all series, were the dominant team from start to finish. Despite the return of Carolina forward Erik Cole, who was coming back after a broken neck suffered in March, the Oilers controlled the action, limiting the Canes to just 16 shots while pulverizing Ward on the other end. To the delight of the delirious Edmonton fans, the final score was 4-0 Oilers and, unbelievably, the underdog eighth seed with a backup goaltender was now one win away from winning their first Stanley Cup in over fifteen years.
And this is where the story takes a turn towards the unhappy ending. Game 7 would go down as a hard fought, if not necessarily classic, battle between the Oilers and Canes, with Carolina ultimately just edging Edmonton out. The Canes would jump out to a 2-0 going into the third before Pisani, yet again, scored earlier in the third to give Edmonton a shot. Ultimately the Oilers wouldn’t score again however, and with less than a minute to go Justin Williams sealed the deal with an empty netter, giving the Hurricanes their first Stanley Cup in franchise history and forcing every former Whalers fan to watch helplessly as Peter Karmanos got to celebrate a title he deserved as much as I deserve a date with Yvonne Strahovski. We did at least get to see Rob Brind’Amour, an excellent player, raise the Stanley Cup he deserved for so long, so it wasn’t a total loss. With that the Oilers run came to an end, and not just for the postseason. No sooner did the postseason conclude did Chris Pronger, only a season into his five year deal, suddenly decide he wanted out of Edmonton after his family had difficulty adjusting to the city. Within a few weeks Pronger, Samsonov, Peca and others were gone and the Oilers were right back to where they were prior to the season; going nowhere fast. And nowhere they went for the next decade, until Conor McDavid came along and gave the Oilers hope yet again. Now hopefully Cam Talbot and Todd McLellan don’t continue to blast that hope into oblivion.
The old saying goes that no one ever remembers the losers, and yet for a three season stretch the NHL postseason’s most fascinating stories were the teams that came up one game short in the Stanley Cup. The 02-03 Mighty Ducks (a seventh seed) became the most exciting team in hockey off the back of Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Paul Kariya’s iconic goal. The 03-04 Calgary Flames (a sixth seed) came within a blown no goal call of hoisting their first cup since the Mike Vernon years. I guess it was only natural that an eighth seed would come along to top both those stories, and the Oilers were just that team. But there was something different about this run, for two reasons by my estimation. First, the Oilers Cinderella story came just a year after the NHL nuked its own season for reasons I still don’t understand, killing all fan goodwill and setting the sport back in ways we all still feel fourteen years later. In many ways the Oilers were the first feel good story of the new NHL, a reminder that, while Gary Bettman and co. may be the biggest buffoons this side of Matt Bevers, hockey could still be awesome. And what made it awesome? Not just the play, but the Edmonton fans. I’ve watched a lot of different sports in the course of my life and I’ve watched even more pro wrestling, two entities that are built on the backs of people making loud noises at events. I’d put the Edmonton Oilers crowds during that 2006 postseason up there with anything you can name. You watch them go delirious for every Edmonton goal, watch them unite together to sing the Canadian National Anthem as loud as possible and get the feeling this is what it must be like to see 16,000 plus high on ecstasy. It was that kind of electricity.
And no, I’m certainly not trying to suggest that the Oilers nor their fans fixed the NHL during this run. But hot damn were they fun and hot damn were they memorable. For a brief moment the 2006 playoffs made Edmonton the hockey capital of the world again for the first time since the days Gretzky took office behind the net. The fans were special. Guys like Pronger, Smyth, Hemsky, Horcoff, Samsonov, Peca and especially Pisani became heroes. Dwayne Roloson proved himself worthy of being traded for a first round pick (a pick that Minnesota traded to the Kings by the way. Kevin Lowe was a genius after all!) and if he stays healthy, this column’s ending may instead be Jason Smith hoisting up the cup while Rob Brind’Amour attempts to deck Peter Karmanos in the background. But while the end wasn’t what Oilers fans wanted and while the aftermath was pretty putrid, it doesn’t diminish the run in the slightest. The 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers ruled and still rule to this day as one of the most exciting, fun and improbable hockey teams of the last decade. I look forward to the day where hockey fans look at them the same way basketball fans look at the Stephen Jackson/Jason Richardson 07 Warriors in comparison to the Curry/Durant/Thompson/Green Warriors of today. And yes, Conor McDavid’s Oilers are the current Warriors in that scenario. That sound you hear is thousands of Edmonton fans getting excited before remembering all their best wingers are gone and Cam Talbot is still their goalie.