What a year it has been for the Oilers. One six-game winning streak and three of five. One seven-game loss streak and another of six. A coach fired after they lost 13 of 15 at one stretch. At that point, given up for dead.
And yet here we are with them headed for the Western Conference final. Eight victories from their first Stanley Cup since 1990. How in the world did this happen? Not even Wayne Gretzky thought it could. The Great One predicted they would be defeated by the Flames in the second round.
Instead, Edmonton dispatched Calgary quickly in the Battle of Alberta. Connor McDavid, the Next Great One, ended the series with an overtime goal in Game 5 on Thursday.
“This is a proud organization,” said Jay Woodcroft, who took over behind the bench in February when Dave Tippett was axed. “We are proud of our history. We are proud of the Hall of Fame players that have come through. We are proud of the runs made throughout the years but our team wants to contribute to that history. It wants to make its own mark.”
There have been years of toil and troubles, but this team has made its mark. This is the first time it has got this far since 2006. That year the Oilers lost in the Stanley Cup final to the Carolina Hurricanes.
To say that the skies have been cloudy in the time between is an understatement. This explains how bad it has been: Woodcroft is Edmonton’s eighth head coach in a dozen years. At one point the team got the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft three consecutive times but barely fared any better.
Now it is Canada’s team, the last that remains in the postseason. The only one that could claim Canada’s first Cup since the Canadiens in 1993. We consider this to be our sport but there has been three decades of futility.
Across Canada hockey fans will root for the Oilers en masse, perhaps with the exception of a bunch of sore losers in Toronto. They look down their noses at them and see a dumpster fire, even as the flames burn around them.
If by any chance Edmonton goes on to with the Stanley Cup it would be the sixth time since 1984. Toronto hasn’t won one since the 1700s yet its followers believe it is a birthright.
Maple Leafs fans harp about McDavid’s career being wasted in Alberta. He was the No. 1 pick overall in 2015. Success hasn’t come easily – but teams he has played on have now won three playoff rounds. Auston Matthews was picked first by Toronto in 2016 and he has yet to be part of a winning series.
McDavid now has 149 points in the 2021-22 regular season and playoffs in 92 games combined. He has had 26 points in 12 games through two rounds and is plus-19. He is still just 25 years old and won his fourth Art Ross Trophy in seven years and is more passionate and driven than ever.
“It’s hard to put into words what that one meant to me,” McDavid said after scoring the winner in Game 5. “It’s special to win. That’s everything.”
His sidekick, Leon Draisaitl, had 17 points in five games in the second round. Don’t bother to leaf through that reference book. It is an NHL record. And he did it while nursing an injury incurred in Game 6 of the first round.
“With what Connor has done, Leon’s performance has gone under the radar a little bit,” Woodcroft said. “The amount of [big] plays that he makes is unbelievable. And he is an absolute warrior to do it with what he is going through.”
There is also a supporting cast that has risen to the occasion: Evander Kane has 12 goals in 12 playoff games; 40-year-old Mike Smith has won goaltending battles over Jonathan Quick of Los Angeles and Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom; and, the former Maple Leaf, Zach Hyman, has eight goals and 12 points.
“Zach is effort personified,” Woodcroft said.
The Oilers will face either the Colorado Avalanche or the St. Louis Blues in the conference final. Colorado held a 3-2 lead in its series with Game 6 to be played on Friday night.
The Avalanche are loaded with talent and led by its own superstar centre in Nathan MacKinnon. The Blues are a gritty veteran team. Either would present a huge challenge.
Edmonton fell behind in three of five games against Calgary but clawed its way back.
“We have had a lot of down moments,” said Draisaitl, who is 26 and in his eighth season with the Oilers. “We are only halfway [to the Stanley Cup] but it feels good to take that next step. It feels good to see us grow as a team.
“I am really proud.”