This was more than just teams that met every year in the playoffs. This was looked at in Edmonton as “good vs evil”. As what was so fundamentally flawed about the NHL. The big market, big spending, sun belt team vs the small market, can barely survive, Canadian team. Built vs bought.
Obviously there is no need to go into great detail about what went on in 97 as I did that yesterday and if you didn’t read it, you’re an asshole. And how then would you know about what I’m going to tell you. You need to read chapter 1 before you read chapter 2!
Chapter 2 looked like it wouldn’t happen. 98 was a very dramatic season for the Oilers. Started horribly, Jason Arnott started worse which led to him being moved to New Jersey for Bill Guerin and Valeri Zelepukin. Shortly after, Houston Rockets then owner Les Alexander attempted to buy the team. There was a 30 day period to come up with 70 million American to keep the team in Edmonton, and Cal Nichols managed to bring in what would become known as the E.I.G. to keep the team in Edmonton. They went on a 2nd half surge and found themselves in 7th once again heading into the 98 playoffs, this time drawing the 96 Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
It didn’t start good either. After taking game 1, the Oilers fell behind the Avs 3-1 headed back to Denver. That was easily one of the greatest comebacks in league history when you consider how big of underdogs the Oilers were in that series. The Oilers were likely bigger underdogs considering the Avs were just 2 seasons removed from a Cup. The season previous they were the President trophy champion. But after looking nothing like the Cujo of 97 in the first 4 games of the series, Cujo looked better than ever as the Oilers won 2 of 3 in Denver en route to the amazing 3-1 series comeback which setup a rematch with the Dallas Stars.
If 97 had the fire started for this rivalry, then Oilers head coach Ron Low decided to pour a jerrycan full of gas on it by telling his team after the game 7 victory in Denver “The fat man wants us – well, he’s got us!” Thank you Terry Jones for publishing something said behind closed doors!
In 97, the Oilers were spent by the time they got the Avs. It looked a lot like last year’s Ducks and Flames series did. The Oilers competed hard, but they just weren’t in the same league as the Avs. In 98, while you had a feeling it might be the same story against a pissed off Stars team, you also knew the team was more experienced, had a better blueline than the year before with the additions of Niinimaa and Hamrlik, and the Stars didn’t have the offence the Avs did. Cujo just came off back to back shutouts to end the series against one of the top offensive squads in the game and he did it to the Stars the previous year.
The Stars had an addition too though. Goaltending was the story in 97 for Dallas too, namely Andy Moog letting in a lot of weak goals. Enter: Ed Belfour. Those Ryan Smyth clappers weren’t going in this time around.
The turning point of this series without a doubt was game 3. Series tied at 1, game 3 at the Coliseum and the Oilers dominated the play. They were all over the Stars in game 3…but couldn’t cash. 0-0 into OT. I recall the Oilers dominating early in the 3rd and watching the game with my impartial brother in law with him saying “if they don’t score soon they’re done”. Sure enough, they didn’t, and the Stars closed it in OT. In part thanks to Benoit Houge. In part thanks to Janne Niinmaa turning the puck over twice in the same shift.
That was essentially it for that series. I was in the house for game 4 and the Oilers never came close, then game 5 back in Dallas Greg Adams scored late to essentially seal the series (despite a late push from the Oilers).
This was the final game Curtis Joseph played in an Oilers uniform. As a fan you held out hope that they could find a way to sign him, or that Cujo would be such a team guy that he would take a massive home town discount to stick with the team, but it was not to be. In 99 the Oilers would be searching much of the season to fill those massive shoes.
Bob Essensa? Nope. 1993 1st round pick Eric Fichaud? Nope. Future 2x Vezina winner and Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas? Nope. Mikhail Shtalenkov? Nope.
They started off that season red hot. I remember going to a Friday night game in early November against the Avs that was for 1st place in the newly formed Northwest division. They lost, 5-2 I believe, but they were playing great. The next game I went to was in early December as I got to do a job shadow with Rod Phillips. Such an amazing experience for a 14 year old kid, until they lost to the league worst Tampa Bay Lightning. Rod wasn’t too pumped after that one, the players weren’t too pumped after that one, Joey Moss I specifically recall being PISSED as I walked into the room after the game. The Oil managed to hang around 8th from December until mid March, but they were disappointing a lot of people despite having lost Cujo.
I can’t recall the date, but remember exactly where I was when Glen Sather decided to shake up the club. It was a Saturday, and my team was at provincials in Red Deer (Eckville to be specific but we stayed in Red Deer, don’t you love how detailed this is?) 2 separate deals. Boris Mironov and Dean McAmmond went to Chicago for Ethan Moreau, Chad Kilger, Dan Cleary and Christian LaFlamme and believe it or not I swear I did not look that up! So there might have been more to the deal but it is more fun for me to write this stuff off memory alone.
Slats also dealt Mats Lindgren to the Islanders to somewhat solve the goaltending issue, acquiring Tommy Salo. I say somewhat, because Salo was kind of a curse. He was good enough that he never hurt the team, but never good enough to steal them a game. He was good enough to not look for an upgrade, but not good enough to not be aware they needed an upgrade. A few days later at the trade deadline, Slats pulled off one of his greatest heists of all time acquiring Jason Smith from the Leafs for a 99 4th rounder and a 2000 2nd. Maybe the most underrated Oiler of all time.
So the Oilers entered the playoffs red hot, but only had the 8th seed. Stars again, this time with Brett Hull added to the fold. No problem for the Oilers right?
The good? Every game was a 1 goal game. The bad? The Oilers failed to win a 1 goal game. The Oilers couldn’t have played the Stars tougher in the 4 games. For 4 games the game plan was to simply PUNISH the Stars at every turn and hope to wear them down. It was awesome to watch, but really didn’t do anything.
I was at both games 3 and 4 of the series. Game 3 was the debut of the goal horn. The newly named Skyreach Centre decided to join the party in the NHL and get a goal horn. That goal horn went off 5 times that night. Only twice was the horn correct in going off. Not because the puck didn’t go in the net, but because of the beloved foot in the crease. Man, the Stars REALLY benefitted from that rule didn’t they?! Actually, 1 of those goals was called back because of Pat Falloon lightly bumping into Ed Belfour about 20 feet out of his net…not that I’m still bitter….Anyway, the Oilers blew a 2-0 lead in the 3rd to lose 3-2. Game 4, Gretz was in the house for the first time since retiring. Game went to the 3rd OT. I made my old man stay for it all…including the handshakes because the Stars won on a Joe Nieuwendyk tip in and even though the scores all looked good, it felt like the Stars kicked the Oilers ass for the 2nd year in a row. This would be Ron Low’s last game as Oilers bench boss.
2000 saw Kevin Lowe take over as head coach (let the good times roll…), but more of the same. Oilers got in the playoffs once again as the 7th seed, and once again got the Stars in the 1st round. Back to back ass kickings yet again in Dallas, back to Edmonton down 2-0. It’s kind of funny I have yet to talk much about Doug Weight. From 96-01 this was Dougie’s team. Doug Weight was the FREAKING MAN for a kid who was an Oilers fan in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. He was cool, he played with his heart on his sleeve, and he was really the only skilled guy the Oilers had.
Weight was under the gun heading into game 3 of this series with the Oilers now having lost their last 9 games to Dallas in the playoffs. Weight and to a lesser extent Bill Guerin hadn’t done shit in the first 2 games in Dallas. Game 3 of the 2000 series was Doug Weight’s best game of his career. This was for once an ass kicking dished out by the Oilers. One of the loudest the barn has ever been. Again, in Edmonton the Oilers fans HATED everything the Stars represented. So add to that 9 straight playoff loses to that hate. Oilers win 5-2 thanks to the hat trick turned in by Doug Weight. A young Sid Sixerio will walk you through this one.
Game 4, and once again a spoiled Tyler Campbell was in the house. This one felt different. This one felt like perhaps the Oilers had turned the corner. The Stars jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, Oilers tied it before the end of the first, both goals by Guerin. The Stars took the lead back in the 2nd, and once again the Oilers tied it, once again thanks to Guerin’s now hat trick. They don’t comeback on the Stars, nobody does! This one felt different. This one felt like they had finally figured these assholes out!….Nope. Guy Carboneau. A guy who was playing with a guy dating his daughter. And before you say it…she was legal. Series goes back to Dallas at 3-1 and you know how it ends.
By 2001, this is getting real old for Oiler fans. But 01 is finally a pretty big improvement. 01 was probably the best season of Doug Weight’s career (yes, better than the 104 point season in 96, scoring was dramatically decreased by 01). 01 saw the Oilers set a record of 10 consecutive wins, and only fail to win 11 after an amazing back and forth Saturday night tilt with the defending Cup champion New Jersey Devils who were on their own 10 straight run. 6-5 in OT, Patrik Elias got the winner I believe.
Despite the improvement, despite Craig MacTavish now in charge as head coach, despite finally having a 2nd line centre in hometown kid Mike Comrie, despite Eric Brewer stepping in and really outplaying the man he’d been traded for (Roman Hamrlik) and Igor Ulanov having a career year and thus the 2 of them really solidifying the blueline, despite an improving Tommy Salo, the Oilers only finished 6th. And you know who dropped to 3rd.
This one literally felt different. Like game 4 the year before felt different, this felt and actually was different. Game 1 went to OT…the Stars won. Game 2 the Oilers FINALLY won in Dallas. A crazy game that saw the Oilers leading 3-2 (a RARE occurrence in those days, especially in a Stars playoff game) and hanging on for a 4-3 win.
Game 3 was boring as could be for about 58:55. The Stars played the perfect game and led 2-0 late. But then Ed Belfour made a critical mistake, coughing up a puck to Georges Laraque coming hard on the forecheck. Instead of taking Belfour out, Laraque stole the puck and centred it for Ryan Smyth who had an open net the Oilers all of a sudden had life. Then with 5…..7 (?) seconds left, Rem Murray tipped an Eric Brewer point shot to tie the game at 2 and Skyreach Centre was in a frenzy. But the frenzy didn’t last thanks to Benoit Houge. The man who ended game 3 in 98 on the same ice did it again 3 years later and once again the Stars had a 2-1 series lead.
Game 4 wasn’t as boring as the score indicates. Doug Weight got tossed early for hitting Richard Matvichuk from behind. The physical play didn’t stop there as Jason Smith was a 1 man wrecking crew all night, laying massive hits on Houge and Brett Hull. Like games 1 and 3, game 4 went to OT but not before Mike Modano nearly ended it in the dying seconds of regulation. Finally though, the bounces went the Oilers way. On a PP, Ryan Smyth attempting to setup behind the net had the puck roll off his stick and it went right into the slot, right to Mike Comrie and for the first time since 97, the Oilers and Stars were tied at 2.
Down 2-0 going to the 3rd in game 5 the Oilers looked done. Had they lost 2-0, 2-1, 3-1, nobody would have been that down. But man, the way they lost, coming back to take the lead early in the 3rd with a flurry of sheer domination, only to let off the gas once they took the lead. The grumpy old men line of John McLean, Kirk Muller and Mike Keane just killed the Oilers all series and produced both the equalizer, and then the OT winner.
For 17 year old Tyler Campbell it was sheer agony. The worst trip to Spain ever as it cost me watching the first 5 games of the playoffs. Myself and some of my buddies on the trip desperately scrambled to find the highlights anyway we could (which resulted in me being kicked out of my room one night, rocking nothing but my boxers). But we flew into Edmonton on the Friday night and I made sure the old man and myself had the tickets to game 6. No way the Oilers were losing this one. This series had been so amazing, it had to go 7. Ryan Smyth scored early and the Oilers carried that 1-0 lead into the 3rd. Game 7 was on the cusp of happening.
There was a moment in the 3rd period of that game that just made the whole crowd go “uh oh”. Tom Poti rushes the puck up ice, real good individual effort. And after his shot on net, or maybe he didn’t end up getting a shot but after the opportunity he came up what is the far side wall on TV, over by section 134, and got absolutely destroyed by Derian Hatcher. That hit took the life and energy that was in the building and put it all in the Stars bench. Hull ties it, Nieuwendyk snipes late, Modano empty netter and just like that a great series that seemed destined to go 7 was done in 6. This time though, the Stars definitely felt the series as they were dominated and swept by the Blues in the next series.
That was Doug Weight’s final game as an Oiler. July 1st, 2001 was not a happy Canada day for me. Weight for Marty Reasoner and Jochen Hecht. Just an awful return even though I grew to love Marty Reasoner. Dougie is somewhat forgotten now days. Not a hall of famer but a damn good player who embraced the team and the city.
2002 was the first season since 96 that the Oilers and Stars didn’t make the playoffs. It was also the first time since 96 that the Oilers finished above the Stars in the standings as the 2 teams were in one of the most insane playoff races of all time. 4th-10th in the West were separated by about 2 points for the last month of the season, and none of the teams seemed to ever lose. The Stars and Oilers met on a Saturday night late in the season that the Oilers won 1-0 on a goal with exactly 1 minute to play by Mike Comrie, after a LONG video review.
After the game I met Greg Millen for the 2nd time in my life, this time in the pisser. He fit in well with the rest of the dicks in there. This wasn’t a case where we were each taking a piss and I was trying to chat him up, and I wasn’t drunk, this was as we were washing our hands and I said hi and told him that Gord Redden had introduced us 2 years previous. He was a dick…and then Chris Cuthbert who was already my favourite play by play man stepped up to the sink without me knowing, and seeing that Millen was an ass, struck up a conversation with me. Chris Cuthbert is a better guy than play by play man, and he’s the best play by play man.
Nothing about that story applies to this, but it’s a decent story.
So finally we have 2003, and by now all the any hope for an upset that 1997 gave Oiler fans was gone. 97 wasn’t happening again. And the Stars had LOADED up in the 02 offseason. Arnott and Guerin were now on the other side (even though Guerin was hurt that series). Belfour was thankfully gone, but Marty Turco had a G.A.A. under 2.00 that season.
The high point of this series for the Oilers was the game 3 comeback. Series tied at 1 headed back to now Rexall Place, the Stars like most game 3’s dominated the first 2 periods of the game. It got wild in the 3rd (for that era of the NHL anyway). Georges Laraque tied it on a great individual effort. The Stars took the lead back, but shortly after a rookie named Fernando Pisani got his first of many playoff goals. Then with the building still buzzing, Radek Dvorak found some hands to go with his speed for the only time in his career…and somehow I can’t find a clip of this goal. One of the nicest goals in Edmonton Oilers history and there isn’t a clip of it anywhere. Everyone lost in the Anson Carter deal (well, the Rangers eventually won it when Carter turned into Jagr), but the Oilers won the deal that night. Oilers held onto the 3-2 lead the rest of the way. One of the other cool things about that night was around the final minute of play. There was a massive delay, I believe it was a clock issue. Everyone in the building was standing and going insane. And this must have lasted close to 5 minutes. I remember seeing a replay of the game later on and a shot of Kirk Muller’s face during it, he just couldn’t believe the noise. 5 minutes of it…long time to be that loud!
But that was it for the series highlights from an Oilers POV. I guess Marc-Andre Bergeron became a bit of a folk hero for his play in game 6, specifically when he laid a beauty hip check on Brendan Morrow. But the Stars were just head and shoulders above this Oilers group, especially with Tommy Salo being a shell of his former self. Beat down. Stars in 6…again. Stars win the best of 9 series of series 5-1.
Someone is going to read this piece and laugh. They’re going to mock me or Oilers fans for glorifying loses, better yet, ass kickings to Dallas. Fair enough. But you have to remember what it was like at that time in sports. Small market teams didn’t win shit. There was no formula for small market teams to follow. And you sure as hell couldn’t win playing up tempo as the Oilers did at that time. They were one of VERY FEW teams that played what you would call an honest game. They didn’t play chicken shit hockey. Think about the 03 Anaheim Mighty Ducks. That team played chicken shit hockey, as boring as could possibly be. Sure, they made it to game 7 of the final in 03, and not one person around the game will ever bring it up as an accomplishment because of the way they played to get there.
Those teams didn’t win anything substantial, but they didn’t short change anyone. They embodied the personality of the city and the region. As blue collar as it got. They redefined playing “Oilers hockey”, and they set the table for what was to come just 3 years later.
Follow me on Twitter @TJ_Soups