The Oilers Deserve Our Thanks

I was right.  The Oilers didn’t have enough left in the tank to put away the Carolina Hurricanes in the seventh and deciding game of the Stanley Cup Final.  (Truth be told, I was off by one game.  I picked Carolina to win it all in 6.) 
Watching that seventh game was deeply depressing.  No matter how many times I glared at the TV, no matter how many times I screamed, "Shoot the puck!!!", it was all for naught.  They still lost 3-1.  The game moved very slowly for me (despite what the easily excitable Bob Cole and Harry Neale felt on CBC) and it lacked the zip and excitement of the earlier games in the series.  After being down 3 games to 1, the Oilers astounded all of us with two consecutive victories.  It was Game 6 that was the most impressive.  In my view, it was their best play-off game this post-season.  They completely shut down the Hurricanes’ dangerous offense and scored some truly dramatic goals.  Those victories made the game 7 loss all the more distressing.
But enough about the disappointing loss.  I want to focus on the team itself and how proud I am of them for their tremendous efforts this year.  Remember, they barely squeaked into the play-offs and were not even considered to be potential finalists.  In fact, they weren’t even supposed to get out of the first round.  (This was supposed to be Detroit’s return to form.  Oops.) 
I was genuinely shocked that they defeated the Red Wings in 6.  Then, after dropping two road games to their second round opponents, the San Jose Sharks, they won 4 in a row to get to the Western Conference Final.  (They weren’t supposed to defeat the Sharks, either.)
I expected the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, their third round adversaries, to take them down in 7 after a long, hard-fought series.  It never happened.  The Oilers easily eliminated them in 5 games.  (In fact, they nearly swept them.)
But the Hurricanes were a team on a mission.  You could just sense it in every series they played.  Much like the Oilers in round two, they were down 2 games to zip during their opening round match-up with the Montreal Canadiens.  After replacing Martin Gerber with Cam Ward, the Hurricanes finished the series undefeated.  Then, they knocked off New Jersey and, most surprisingly to me, the Buffalo Sabres.
This was a much stronger Carolina squad than the one that lost the Cup to the Red Wings in 2002.  (Paul Maurice was the coach, then.  Maybe he can get the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Final next season.  You never know.)  They had stronger goaltending, deadlier offense and the best post-season power play.  They deserved to win the Stanley Cup and I want to congratulate them on an amazing season.  It will be very difficult for them to repeat.  (Just ask Tampa Bay.)
Led by Rod Brind’Amour, easily the best captain in the post-season, superb rookie Eric Staal and the vastly underrated Cory Stillman, their opponents never stood a chance. 
That being said, how about those Edmonton Oilers?  First, the goaltending.  That late-season acquisition of the Minnesota Wild goaltender, Dwayne Roloson, was genius.  Despite needing some time to adjust to his new team, he got us into the play-offs.  Then he won 12 games, getting the Oilers into the Final.  After that absolutely brutal collision in game 1 of the Final that forced him to watch the rest of the series, Jussi Markkanen stepped in and played brilliantly.  It was not his fault this team lost the Cup.  He may have let in a soft goal or two but he stepped up his play superbly and at an astonishingly quick rate, as well.  Jussi was brought into a crucial point in the series (after not playing for several months) and went 3-3.  Very respectable.  The Hurricanes’ offense and power play were just too strong even for this talented goalie.  Every time he made a save, regardless of the quality, I always said out loud to the TV, "Good save, Markkanen."  When Roloson was permanently sidelined, I was worried we would be weak in the goaltending department.  I worried for naught.  Markkanen proved he has the goods to keep his team in the game.  (Interesting tidbit:  he had a better GAA than Roloson.  2.17 for 6 games of work to Rollie’s 2.33 for 17 games of action.)  Remember, minus the empty netter in the last minute of the third period, he only let in 2 in the final game and not even Inspector Gadget could’ve stopped those shots.  Both Roloson and Markkanen deserve our thanks for their great performances.  (Just as an aside, I think if Roloson had not been injured, the series would’ve ended a lot sooner and the result would’ve been the same.  He did not look sharp in game 1.)
Next, I have to give it up for our offensive guys.  Fernando Pisani scored many a crucial goal for our team (especially that OT winner in game 5) and he was the only goal scorer in game 7.  (His early goal in the third period kept it close.  If only we had found a way to put more pucks at the net.)  Pisani had the most goals of any Oiler in the play-offs:  14.  Chris Pronger, our first-rate defenseman, had the best overall point total:  21 (5 goals, 16 assists).  Ales Hemsky, who can really skate circles around the opposing team when he wants to, had 17 points, the great Ryan Smyth ("Captain Canada") had 16 and Shawn Horcoff had 19.  It should be no surprise that all of these great athletes were among the top 5 Oilers with the best regular season point totals.  They played with their hearts and their souls, their brains and their brawn.  They deserve our thanks.
Our penalty killers and our defensive guys like Jaroslav Spacek, Steve Staios (who played a great game 7 despite making some blunders earlier in the series), Matt Greene, and all the others were amazing throughout the play-offs.  The Oilers were constantly short-handed in every series they played but it was only Carolina (and only during certain games) who were able to breakthough our first-rate shot blockers.  Take a bow, fellows and enjoy your rest.  You deserve it.  You had a great season and don’t let this get you down.  You’ll be back next season.
And finally, even though I am not a fan, I have a newfound respect for coach Craig MacTavish.  Whatever he did for this team this year, he was the guiding light that got us oh-so-close to tasting something we haven’t savoured in 16 years:  the sweet flavour of a championship victory.  I’ve long wanted him replaced by someone better.  I’ve discovered during this post-season that he’s right where he belongs.  Thanks Craig.  Good luck next season.
Despite all of my yelling, the brutal name-calling, my stress headaches, my sometimes bitter temperament, my angry looks, and my frequently high blood pressure, it was a terrific year for my Oilers.  I love this team and will continue to root for them next season.  I never expected them to get as far as they did.  They gave it their all and I’m proud of them.  Maybe next time I won’t underestimate their abilities so much.
This was one of the best teams in Oiler history.  Enjoy the summer, guys.  And see you next season.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
6:54 p.m.
Published in: on June 20, 2006 at 6:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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