The Edmonton Oilers would love nothing better than to win Game 7 on Wednesday night in Anaheim and, judging by the fact they’ve been the far superior team in 117 of the past 120 minutes of regulation hockey in this series, they just might pull it off.
To say that it doesn’t matter what happens in that game would be a little misleading. After all, the way these playoffs have unfolded, why wouldn’t the Oilers be a legitimate choice to win it all if they can make it past the Ducks? These kinds of opportunities simply don’t present themselves very often, maybe once or twice in a player’s career.
But regardless of whether the Oilers emerge with a win or loss from Anaheim on Wednesday night, one thing is crystal clear. The dark ages for this franchise are over. The lost decade where young players came to the Oilers and learned how to lose is a thing of the past. And the Oilers continue to make surprising and emphatic statements about themselves. As in, despite the fact that Connor McDavid will almost certainly win the Hart Trophy this season, the Oilers have proved in this playoff run that they’re actually a sum of their parts. Anyone who thought the Oilers would be one game away from the Western Conference final with Mark Letestu outscoring McDavid would have been laughed out of the room before the playoffs began.
The Oilers made their most profound statement of this playoff in the aftermath of their Game 5 loss in double overtime to the Ducks. For 57 minutes they were dominant, then watched it all fall apart, capped by a controversial goal that highlighted the fact that video review is not always the panacea. It brought back visions of the Brett Hull foot-in-the-crease goal that ended the 1999 Stanley Cup final and had a lot of people scratching their heads as to exactly what constitutes goalie interference.
Whether it was or wasn’t goalie interference isn’t even important now. What is most important was how the Oilers responded to the whole thing. They had their five minutes of outrage after the game, and then parked it. GM Peter Chiarelli, with a chance to scream injustice to anyone who would listen, calmly expressed frustration, not against the league, but over the fact that the calls went against them. That is leadership. Coach Todd McLellan said his bit, and then basically kicked the crutch out from under his team. Time and again the Oilers had opportunities to play the woe-is-us card and refused to do it.
It’s no coincidence that this is happening under the watchful eye of people such as Bob Nicholson and Wayne Gretzky. The Oilers have matured as an organization before our eyes and I wouldn’t be surprised if the mandate to turn the page came right from the top.
So then what do the Oilers do? Well, just before Game 6, they learn that two of their top defensemen, Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera, wouldn’t be available to them, and then they go out and blitz the Ducks with five first-period goals. Of the seven they scored, McDavid didn’t contribute a point, not even a secondary assist. It was one of those nights you look back on once you’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups and pinpoint that moment in time as the one where the transformation from novelty act to legitimate contender was completed.
In my work as a beat writer covering the Toronto Maple Leafs for eight years, your trusty correspondent saw this phenomenon work the other way many times under the late Pat Quinn. An outstanding hockey mind and ultimate player’s coach, Quinn might’ve been more at odds with the on-ice officials and the league office than any coach in NHL history. It all went back to the goal Bob Nystrom scored in overtime of Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup final against his Philadelphia Flyers, a goal that was clearly offside and almost certainly would have been called back on video review today. Quinn got it in his mind that the establishment had it in for him and he carried that with him for the rest of his career.
And as a result, he created an attitude around his team that it was them against the world, that they would never get a break and that their failings could be, at least in part, attributed to the fact that they were targeted. As a result, not only did the team rarely get the benefit of the doubt from officials, but the rallying cry became one that was adopted by the players and the entire organization.
That’s because people take their cues from those above them in the food chain. If those people believe they’re victims, the rank-and-file will adopt the same attitude and it will always be a crutch. If they own their shortcomings and don’t make an issue of it, they go out and crush their opponent in a game where they had every excuse to pack it in.
The Oilers chose the latter and even if they’re not playing in the Western Conference final this weekend, they’ll ultimately be the better for it.