It took nearly 11 years, but hockey fans were finally able to celebrate a playoff victory in Edmonton on Friday night.
The upstart Oilers, who clinched home advantage in the first round by winning 10 of their last 12 regular-season games, beat the San Jose Sharks, 2-0, to even their best-of-seven Stanley Cup quarterfinal series at one game apiece.
Zack Kassian was the star of the night, scoring the game’s first goal on a short-handed breakaway in the second period. The big forward, who was given a chance by the Oilers last year after he dealt with substance-abuse problems in Montreal, also delivered one crushing body check after another, leaving Sharks sprawled all over the ice.
Edmonton rocked San Jose all game long, outhitting them 22-4 in the first period, 34-7 through two and 41-21 overall.
“Zack was unbelievable,” Connor McDavid, the Oilers’ ascendant young superstar, said. “He dominated the game. It was his show tonight.”
McDavid, who captured the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s scoring leader with 100 points, added an insurance goal, also short-handed, when he fired a wrist shot through goalie Martin Jones’ legs with 9:29 remaining in the third period.
The victory was the Oilers’ first in the postseason since they won Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals over the Carolina Hurricanes on June 17, 2006. They lost in Game 7 in Raleigh that year two days later – their most recent playoff game prior to Wednesday night.
The series now moves to the SAP Center in San Jose for games on Sunday and Tuesday, before returning to Edmonton on Thursday for Game 5.
A raucous sellout crowd filled the city’s new downtown arena in each of the first two games, with thousands of fans who were unable to get tickets watching on television in a beer garden set up in the rink’s entrance hall.
Before the game on Friday, fans walked the concourses in orange construction helmets and orange wigs and hung out in the Molson Canadian Hockey House washing down $8 brats with $11 beers.
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and wearing a No. 97 jersey, Matthew Heimbeckner of Edmonton stood in the arena entrance hall holding a home-made sign. On one side it said, “McDavid for Premier.” On the other, “Shark Fins For Sale.”
“I have been an Oilers fan ever since I can remember,” Heimbeckner, accompanied by buddy Brent Toews, said. “The last time the Oilers made the playoffs in 2006, I was in Grade 12.”
He remembers partying in the city’s entertainment district when the Oilers reached the Stanley Cup finals but says, “Hopefully, I could do it legally this year.”
The Oilers had let their emotions get the best of them on Wednesday night, with eight of their players getting their first taste of postseason in the NHL. Although they jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in Game 1, they couldn’t sustain the effort and got steamrolled the rest of the way.
“I think guys might have been nervous in that first game,” McDavid said. “We were more comfortable tonight. This was a big win for us. But a playoff series goes game by game.”
San Jose outshot Edmonton 44-19 in Game 1, but then got outshot 36-16 on Friday night. At one point, they were able only to generate two shots in three power-plays in the second period.
“We wanted a good bounce-back,” Kassian said. “All in all, it was a much better effort. We knew we could be better. I think we came out firing tonight.”
Friday night’s first period ended scoreless, but the Oilers controlled the tempo. They did not get their first shot until more than five minutes into the game, but put pressure on Jones after that, with Patrick Maroon and Jordan Eberle both stopped on scoring chances close to the net.
The Oilers were throwing their bodies around at the same time. Kassian, Matt Benning and Leon Draisaitl all drew roars from the crowd with checks that left Sharks players reeling.
Kassian had the best chance in the period, barely missing a backhand on a breakaway with Jones out of position.
He broke the scoreless deadlock 42 seconds into the second period, breaking loose for the breakaway after getting a nice pass from Mark Letetsu.
“I was just trying to stay onside,” Kassian said.
The Oilers had beaten the Sharks twice in the last week of the regular season before losing to them on Wednesday night. A veteran team that lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to Pittsburgh last year, San Jose is in the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 seasons.
Edmonton finished 29th last year, but this season finished second in the Pacific Division and won 47 games – their most since 1986-87.
“We got ourselves to this point this year by playing the right way,” Darnell Nurse, the Oilers’ strapping defenceman, said earlier Friday. “You park the last game and move on.
“We have all been through playoffs at some point whether it was in the NHL or not. Everyone in here knows what they need to do.”
Earlier in the day, Todd McLellan, the Edmonton coach, said a pattern had emerged in the first games of the playoffs: several young teams took early leads before relinquishing.
“Every win, tie or loss teaches you a lesson,” McLellan said.” I believe our group can come back with a better game.”
Late Friday night, fans were chanting in the streets outside Rogers Place. It would be several hours before the crowd in the arena’s beer garden would head home. Fans wanted to savour every minute.
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