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Two Minutes Never Looked So Good: The Story of the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers

I'm a big sports fan who loves Mexican lucha libre and hockey.

Take a trip down memory lane and recall the Oiler's epic 2005-2006 season.

Take a trip down memory lane and recall the Oiler's epic 2005-2006 season.

Introducing: Hockey

We interrupt your not-so-regularly-scheduled lucha libre column to talk about something else—hockey! Isn't that swell sports fans? As much fun as talking about 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. 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!

the-05-06-edmonton-oilers

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!

Glen Sather, back when he was awesome

Glen Sather, back when he was awesome

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 very excited Chris Pronger was Edmonton's big offseason acquisition.

A very excited Chris Pronger was Edmonton's big offseason acquisition.

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!

Dwayne Roloson, great goaltender, man who made Kevin Lowe look smart

Dwayne Roloson, great goaltender, man who made Kevin Lowe look smart

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.

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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.

Jonathan Cheechoo and Joe Thornton, arguably the best one two punch of the 05-06 NHL season

Jonathan Cheechoo and Joe Thornton, arguably the best one two punch of the 05-06 NHL season

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.