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Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid carries the puck around Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar during the first period at Rogers Place. (Perry Nelson/USA Today Sports)
Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid carries the puck around Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar during the first period at Rogers Place. (Perry Nelson/USA Today Sports)

Oilers make NHL playoffs for first time since 2006 Add to ...

It was fan appreciation night in Edmonton on Tuesday, and the timing could not have been better.

The Oilers’ long-suffering faithful used the occasion to celebrate their team’s return to the playoffs after 10 seasons of futility. With 10 minutes remaining, the crowd began to chant: “We want the playoffs.”

In the last minute, as Cam Talbot turned away a flurry of point-blank Los Angeles shots, it sounded as if the roof was going to be blown off Rogers Place.

The longest post-season drought in the NHL came to an end with the Oilers’ 2-1 victory over the Kings. The Oilers’ last playoff game was June 19, 2006, when they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. It was so long ago that Twitter had not been launched yet. It came along 26 days later.

So many delirious Edmonton fans took to Twitter last night that the wireless signal inside the packed downtown arena crawled to a near stop.

The city is excited again thanks to the resurgence of the Connor McDavid-led Oilers.

The 20-year-old captain put Edmonton on top 1-0 in the first period when a pass he directed toward Pat Maroon was deflected and bounced off Jonathan Quick’s glove into the net. It was McDavid’s 89th point, increasing his lead in the season scoring race to seven over Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Chicago’s Patrick Kane with a half-dozen regular-season games left.

The victory was the Oilers’ seventh in eight games, and with it they became the first Canadian team this season to secure a berth in the playoffs. Only the most optimistic among their supporters would have predicted that, in the previous 10 years they won fewer games than any other NHL team.

The winning goal was scored by Eric Gryba, on a puck the hulking defenceman swatted toward the net. It fluttered past Quick like an R.A. Dickey knuckleball with 12:57 left in the second period. It was Gryba’s second goal of the season and second game-winner. The only other time he scored was also against Los Angeles, at Rogers Place on Dec. 29.

The players congratulated Talbot after the victory, the second time he has thwarted Los Angeles in eight days. In the two games, he only allowed one goal against the Kings and had a combined 69 saves.

After winning, the Oilers gathered at centre ice and saluted their fans.

“It has been a long time coming,” Jordan Eberle said. Three days earlier, Eberle had played his 500th game as an Oiler. That’s a lot of losing for a guy who just turned 27.  “It hasn’t gone the way we wanted, and to finally have the opportunity to do this is exciting. We finally have a good team and are winning.”

Fans were waving shirts over their heads as they celebrated, and banging on the glass outside the room where Todd McLellan gives his post-game post-mortems.

“They have been here for 10 years, and they have gone through a lot of pain,” McLellan said of the team’s followers. All 39 of their home games at Rogers Place have sold out. "They stuck with us. I’m not sure that happens everywhere else.”

The Oilers have 93 points now, and can leapfrog San Jose in the Pacific Division by beating the Sharks when they visit on Thursday night.

McDavid has 14 points in his last eight games as the Oilers have pushed hard for the playoffs.

“In the last minute, you are looking at the clock and want it to count down as quickly as possible,” he said.

Eager fans began pouring into Rogers Place three hours before the puck drop, filling the Molson Canadian Hockey House. Dressed in Oilers regalia, Ellen Krips sat sipping a $5 draught across from her husband, Rod. They had driven 90 minutes to Edmonton from their home in Viking for their first game of the season, a gift from their son and daughter-in-law.

“I am very much an Oilers fan,” Ellen said.

Rod was there to see Kings coach Darryl Sutter. The Sutter family hails from Viking.

Nearby, in the arena’s soaring entrance hall, Marion Jevne slowly pushed her walker across the floor. She is 85, has had season tickets since 1981, and wears headphones so she can listen to the radio play-by-play.

“I want us to win tonight,” she said. "I want us to stay ahead of Calgary.”

The Oilers looked poised for an easy victory at the start. It took McDavid only 49 seconds to find Oscar Klefbom wide open in front of the net for an apparent 1-0 lead. The goal was disallowed because one of the Oilers was caught crowding Quick in the crease. Later, a goal by Zack Kassian was also wiped out, causing the crowd to chant  unkindly about the referees. 

The year before last, the Oilers won only four of 29 games in their division, the victory Tuesday left them 15-5-3 against division opponents.

“This is about putting the right people in the right spots and letting them do their job,” Bob Nicholson, the Oilers’ chief executive officer said.

It was Nicholson who brought in Peter Chiarelli as general manager, and Chiarelli hired McLellan to turn the team around. That has been done.

“Getting into the playoffs for the first time in 10 years is probably the easy part,” McLellan mused. “The job gets tougher. Everything we do from this point on is a new experience for us.”

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