The Peak of the Era
Well, you all know it was leading up to this. If you’ve been reading these all week, you knew this one was coming. Save the best for last, and in hindsight this group really did. Ryan Smyth was the only guy left on the roster from that amazing upset of the Dallas Stars in 1997. This was Smyth’s last full season as an Oiler (until his return of course in the 2011 offseason). But the identity over the now past nine years (eight seasons) hadn’t changed one bit.
Smyth, Ethan Moreau, Jason Smith, Shawn Horcoff, Fernando Pisani, Steve Staios, Jarret Stoll, Raffi Torres, Marty Reasoner, these guys were the identity of this team. And now you had Chris Pronger and Mike Peca entering who fit that mold perfectly. Ales Hemsky was this teams only highly skilled player and big things were expected of him after a big season playing for Pardubice back in the Czech Republic. They were a real solid team top to bottom, but while Conklin and Markkanen were upgrades in 04, they were huge question marks entering the 06 season.
It took little time for that question to be answered. After a 3-0 start that included an awesome Saturday night game against Vancouver where they tied it with under 20 seconds left and then won it in the first shootout in Oilers history, they proceeded to lose seven in a row. That was REALLY the time where fans started clamouring for Craig MacTavish to be fired, which was something that continued for much of 07, 08 and 09. But out of all places for the losing streak to end…in Dallas where they NEVER won. This was the first of five straight, and things were back on course. Something else that needs to be pointed out in this time, is after the first two games at home, the Oilers never played back to back at home again until MID NOVEMBER! That’s basically like a five week road trip! And they were 10-9-1 when it was finally done. Not bad!
On November 29th, the Oilers played the Avs. They lost on the scoreboard 3-2. But what was worse, I missed the 50/50 that night by four numbers. A devastating loss.
That game actually was only one of two games in the midst of a 17 game stretch where the Oilers didn’t get points. 12-2-3. Near the end of that stretch was a phenomenal game in Vancouver that saw the Oilers come out with a 7-6 win. One of the goals was one of the two or three times the Ryan Smyth clapper down the wing ACTUALLY worked. Man that thing was ugly. The final game of that run was December 23rd where they beat the Kings at home and went into Christmas leading the Northwest division.
After that though, things got dicey for the fan base. That was the high point of the regular season for the Oilers and the holes on the team were very obvious. Needed a goaltender, just as badly need upgrades on D because Igor Ulanov and Cory Cross could no longer keep up with the “new NHL”, and they needed to add more skill up front. It sounds bizarre to say it now, especially with how much I’ve crushed the guy for his tenure as GM, but Kevin Lowe did an amazing job leading into the 2006 trade deadline.
In January he acquired Jaroslav Spacek and Dick Tarnstrom for essentially nothing (Cross went in the Tarnstrom deal). The big one for Lowe was the goaltender though, and people were scratching their heads as to why it was taking so long to get done. Curtis Joseph was available and was having a big season in Phoenix. But the Coyotes asking price was ridiculous (I believe it was a teams top prospect and a 1st round pick for an impending UFA…wonder why Mike Barnett never got another GM gig…) Ed Belfour was available, wouldn’t that have been ironic to see Belfour in Oiler silks. But he was a shell of his former self by then. Some believed Robert Esche would be the guy to get. Yep. They did. Morons (actually it was only one guy, but I won’t say that it was Pierre McGuire). But there was one guy who appeared to be higher on Lowe’s list than anyone, and that was Olaf Kolzig.
Thought I was going to say Roloson didn’t you?! There were a lot of options available to Lowe and while Roloson was on that list, he was never expected to be the guy the Oilers chose to get. But finally, on the eve of the trade deadline Kevin Lowe pulled the trigger and sent a 1st round pick to the Wild for Roloson. I was torn on it. I really felt like Roloson looked good in a Jacques Lemaire system and didn’t know how he would work. First game out of the gate was in San Jose. They lost, but Roloson didn’t look bad. The next game was in Columbus, a bottom feeder, and in OT he had a mix up with Marc-Andre Bergeron and they lost. It wouldn’t be the last time these two were in the middle of things, and it wouldn’t be the worst time a goaltender and D-man had a miscue.
The day after Roloson was acquired, most thought Lowe was done. But very literally at the last minute, he made one more big splash in the trade market acquiring the undersized but highly skilled Sergei Samsonov from the Bruins for Marty Reasoner, Yan Stastny (man, I really should have an entire piece dedicated to Yan), and a meaningless 2nd round draft pick….that turned into Milan Lucic. It was tough to see Marty Reasoner go. The guy was such a fan favourite, so great on the PK, and in the dot, what Reasoner will be maybe most remembered for that season was being the faceoff man with 2.2 seconds left on January 29th in Phoenix. Down 3-2, Reasoner wins the draw, Pisani taps the puck back to Pronger and the Oilers managed to tie the game. But the fact was, Rem Murray had returned, signed off the scrap pile, Horcoff and Stoll were having career years, Peca wasn’t what he had been but still incredible defensively and in the dot as well, they just didn’t have a big need for Reasoner and could afford to put him in that deal. And they really needed more skill up front.
I’m 1,000 words in and haven’t even got to the playoffs yet…this will be a LONG one.
Down the stretch, it was a battle for 8th between the Oilers and Canucks, and who wanted it less. Yes, less. I recall everyone had games in hand on the Oilers. I believe the Canucks until late in the year always had three games in hand. So while the Oilers would be two or three points up, they really weren’t. The Oilers lost 12 of 19 down the stretch. Mind you, five of the 12 loses were in OT or a SO, but you just wondered what in the f*** was wrong with this team? They had been solidified in every area and yet were as bad as they had been since the seven game losing streak. Going into game 81, they had a chance to clinch the final playoff spot with a win combined with a Canucks loss who were in San Jose to play the scorching hot Sharks. Ales Hemsky scored with 30 seconds to play against Anaheim to give the Oilers a vital 2-1 in a game where they looked better than they had in weeks. And then later that night, the Canucks lost in San Jose, blowing a 3-2 lead entering the 3rd period. So despite the rollercoaster, the Oilers were in.
Myth: Nobody gave the Oilers a chance vs the Red Wings and it was one of the biggest upsets in NHL history.
Fact: Just about everyone in Edmonton knew the Oilers could and probably should win the series.
This wasn’t a homer point of view. It was a fact that the Oilers always gave the Red Wings fits, the Red Wings were shaky in net, and the Red Wings had underachieved in the playoffs the previous two seasons. Also, this was before analytics were mainstream. But analytically the 2006 Oilers were much better than their 8th place standing showed. They simply didn’t have good goaltending all season. So the x factor was Roloson. He hadn’t been too much of an upgrade to that point, and people in Edmonton were REALLY questioning the trade.
No doubt that Detroit got the better of the play in the series. But the Oilers game plan was the same as everyone’s game plan against Detroit. The Wings wanted to play a puck possession game, so teams would let them, and just make sure they kept them to the outside. 40 shots on net seemed like a lot, but everything was coming from 20+ feet out. This led to a split of the first four games. Game five was really the first game in the series where the Oilers took it to the Wings and even though they just about blew a 3-0 lead, they held on for a 3-2 win and a 3-2 series lead. You think Matt Hendricks is tough, Shawn Horcoff threw his face in front of a Nik Lidstrom shot in the dying seconds…mind you Hendricks doesn’t do PED’s…
You would think with a chance to wrap up the series and coming off a good performance the Oilers would be sky high for game six. For the first two periods of that game, that team was as flat as could possibly be. Steve Yzerman’s final point in the NHL came off a feed to Robert Lang late in the 2nd to give the Wings a 2-0 lead headed to the 3rd. The 3rd, that’s where Fernando Pisani went from solid 3rd line player to unlikely playoff hero. It was a crazy period of hockey.
Pisani got two and the Oilers had it tied with 13:20 to play, just a completely different team than what fans saw in the first 40 minutes. Johan Franzen gave the Wings back the lead back however with just under 10 to play and once again it looked as though the Oilers had blown an opportunity. Then Ales Hemsky, who had really done nothing all series stepped up. I don’t know if you call the first one a fluke, but it definitely was a bizarre bounce. The review of the goal was at least five minutes long, and finally they determined Hemsky did nothing illegal to put it in. Tie game, just under four to play. Then he got the goal MANY Oiler fans remember. And it really wasn’t a good play. Hemsky tried to go 1 on 5 and lost the puck, which a lot of the time is a turnover at the blueline which see’s an odd man rush going the other way. But lucky for him, Samsonov was following up the play, found him now back door, and that was it essentially it. 1:06 to play. They knocked off the Wings.
Onto San Jose. So they had gone from the President’s trophy winners to the hottest team in the league. I fully believed they COULD beat the Sharks, but not nearly as confident. I had picked an Oilers/Sharks conference final before the playoffs began, and I had the Sharks going on. This was pre San Jose being playoff choke artists. This was “the NHL’s next great team” version of the Sharks. Having humiliated the Bruins for Joe Thornton, the Sharks really did look unstoppable. They were a good team prior to getting Thornton (Western conference finalists in 04), they were now easily the best young team in the league and obliterated seemingly everyone after acquiring the soon to be named league MVP.
But those first two games in San Jose…the Sharks weren’t impressive. They won both by a score of 2-1, and maybe it was me being a homer, but it felt much more like the Oilers lost and were playing nowhere near their capabilities than the Sharks being that dominant team.
Game three in Edmonton was the turning point for the Oilers. One of the most dominant 1st periods you’ll ever see in a game both in terms of shots on goal and hits. They beat the piss out of the Sharks, but only had a 1-0 lead to show for. Sure enough, the Oilers had a massive let down entering the 2nd and it was 2-1 Sharks going into the 3rd. And again, the Sharks weren’t impressing. Looking back I can say it was a case of the Oilers having trouble finding their game again after a long layoff and the Sharks confidence being sky high. But in the moment, it just didn’t feel like anything would stop that momentum. Then Raffi Torres delivered. 6:47 to play, perfect shot coming down the left hand side, beat Vesa Toskala over the glove. Tied game, a lengthy OT would ensue.
It was done at 7:05 of the 2nd OT. Like, it wasn’t, but you knew it was. 2 on 1. League MVP with the puck on his stick, Richard trophy winner Jonathan Cheechoo….yes, Richard trophy winner Jonathan Cheechoo…ready to receive the pass, and the pass was perfect on the tape of Cheechoo. Well, it’s been a great season, they tried hard, we’re set for years to come with Pronger locked into a five year deal, oh well. 3-0 San Jose.
But the funny thing is, with 7:01 to play, they had a faceoff in the Oilers zone. That was REALLY bizarre since the game was done.
That really was the turning point in the series for the Oilers. Everyone said it was the turning point for the series, period. I felt like the Oilers got the lift from that stop, but the Sharks were still as confident as could be. Oh yeah, Shawn Horcoff thanks to his PED’s won it in the 3rd OT to get the Oilers back in the series.
Then game four was as wild of a game you’ll ever see. Both teams gassed from game three, it was 3-1 Sharks midway through and things looked again like they did in the first three games, people forget this. And people would say the Raffi Torres hit on Milan Michalek in game two was the turning point in the series because that line of Michalek, Marleau and Bernier was going so good. Nope, that wasn’t it. The Roloson save. That was what gave the Oilers a lift. But the turning point in the series for me was this goal. After Mike Peca cut the Sharks lead to 3-2, the Sharks went on the PP.
That was the goal that sunk the Sharks. They weren’t the same team after that. The Oilers dominated the 3rd and tied the series at two with a 6-3 win. Game five was actually pretty similar, though in this one the Oilers never trailed. In fact, they were the ones who blew the 3-1 lead, but bounced back with 3 more and went back to Edmonton with a 3-2 series lead.
Ok, so I have no way of proving this, but I swear on my life this is true. I’m at game six, and I’m nervous before the game. Because some of the fans in San Jose for game five were booing the Canadian national anthem. At 23 and one day old, I buy media hype. And the media hype was suggesting Oiler fans may retaliate. I was big into HFboards at the time and constantly on the message board like a moronic 22/23 year old would be. And guys on there were talking like Oiler fans should give it right back to them. This, no joke, and it’s embarrassing now, but this scared me that Oiler fans in the house for game six might do something that embarrassing. So when the Star Spangled Banner began (at the eight or nine second mark), no joke it’s me that you can hear start this, because this is taken from the section our seats were in (122). I actually never knew this clip existed until writing this.
Oilers played air tight that night and won 2-0. You knew at this point they were the team to beat for what was left in the playoffs. The Mighty Ducks, Hurricanes and Sabres all wrapped up their series prior to this game, so you knew who was left and you knew the Oilers had the best team top to bottom with Roloson so hot and Pronger playing his best hockey of his hall of fame career.
Man, that game three against Anaheim, specifically the 3rd period, that place was a mad house for about four minutes of game action, and about 20 minutes of real time. Should add, this was the first game the fans sang the national anthem, and while this was a stolen idea from the Canucks…much like everything else, the Oilers were able to finish the job that the Canucks never could…
The Oilers came home up 2-0, and led 1-0 heading into the 3rd. That’s one of the craziest periods of hockey you’ll ever see. I remember thinking when Pronger scored to make it 4-0 how damn hot it was getting in the building, because the fans were going ape shit for lack of a better term. I start it at the 20:40 mark to show what I’m talking about in case your memory is a bit foggy.
I don’t know how the hell they held on that night to win that game, but they did and despite being decimated by the flu according to most, they led the series 3-0. They didn’t finish the job at home, but game five on a Saturday night in Anaheim, they did. They somehow survived a six on three with just over two minutes to play, and the Mighty Ducks, in their final game before becoming just the Ducks, couldn’t cash on a six on four for much of the final 2 minutes. Conference champs for the seventh time and first since 1990.
Onto Carolina, and the Oilers felt like the favourites, especially after the Hurricanes went seven games with the Sabres. They rolled into the final with no injuries and if I recall correctly a nine day layoff. That no injuries thing obviously didn’t last long into the series.
3-0 lead in game one, they were cruising. Before you knew it, Carolina was up 4-3. What the hell happened?! Hemsky scored a beauty on a PP with 6:29 to play to tie it. And then…Andrew Ladd happened. Marc-Andre Bergeron happened. The play that cost the Oilers their 6th Stanley Cup happened. It wasn’t a dirty play by Ladd, it wasn’t a dumb play by Bergeron, it was just horrible luck for the Oilers, and I’m sorry if you’re a Hurricanes fan but yet ANOTHER opportune injury for the Canes. Round one vs Montreal, Saku Koivu. Round three vs the Sabres, three of their top four D-men. And now Roloson. And if the Canes didn’t get enough bounces in their run already, they were about to get a gift from Ty Conklin with 30 seconds to play. 4-3 Canes win game one.
Game two was a Carolina shit kicking. The combination of losing Roloson for the series and blowing game one had all the momentum against the Oilers and they were blown out 5-0.
Prior to game three I finally bought my 60 inch hi-def TV I had been wanting for a year now. With 4K now out in full force, I think it’s a good time to remember when hi-definition was all the rage…now get off my lawn.
Game three was an Oilers win, but man they still didn’t look like the same team. Scraped out the 2-1 win, but you didn’t have the feeling they were coming back in this series.
Game four looked promising. Samsonov scored a beauty of a goal to open the game and I had the feeling that maybe I was wrong after the third game and they were actually getting their game back. But after that it was as bad of an effort as game two, and it was 3-1 Canes going back to Raleigh. Series DONE in my mind. And Markkanen, who had been named the starter for the rest of the series after the Roloson injury, and the Conklin disaster, had been doing fine. They were getting good enough goaltending. But they looked done.
Seriously, I didn’t even give thought to watching game 5 heading into it. I recall going home and forgetting that the game was starting. So when I remembered I thought “well, it’s their last game of the year” so the fan boy in me felt I shouldn’t bail on the team. I probably did bail on them six or seven times that night. Up 1-0 16 seconds in, down 2-1 late in the 1st and the PP just couldn’t do ANYTHING in the series. Finally it got going with an Ales Hemsky one timer to tie it, and then Hemsky made a good play taking the puck to the net with under 30 seconds left in the 1st which Mike Peca shovelled it in and they were up 3-2 after one. I’m back on the bandwagon.
Eric Staal ties it in the 2nd, and once again I’m off the bandwagon. Pretty sure I got off and on six times each in the 3rd, despite no goals being scored. 3-3, OT. Oilers come out to start OT and are dominating. They aren’t holding back at all, like you would assume a team about to lose the Cup would. Mike Peca puts one off the post, and the play goes back up where sloppy Steve…or as others called him steady Steve Staios puts his stick in the feet of Mark Recchi. Ball game. Canes PP, and the Oilers aren’t killing this one off. A pretty weak call that’s going to end the Oilers season…or, give it new life.
For the first time since game one, you had the feeling that the Oilers got their game back going into game six. I was in the house for game six, and I remember my brother going back into his house to grab his camera before we left. And I said “why?” It very literally never dawned on me that the Cup could be won that night. Because you knew the Oilers were winning that game. And it was a Saturday night, so there was some serious tailgating going on that day in Edmonton and thus the fans were in terrific “spirits” that night. Man what an ass kicking game six was. But in hindsight that likely hurt the Oilers more for game seven then helped. It’s always easier to rebound from an ass kicking then a tight loss.
Game six, played Saturday June 17th, 2006 will mark the last playoff game ever played in Northlands Coliseum/Edmonton Coliseum/Skyreach Centre/Rexall Place. Tough to believe.
But game six, I remember the people who also had season tickets in our section saying goodbye to each other mid celebration. We had never done that before. I had been there for the final game/home game from 98-2003, and everyone just kind of left somber. And you get to…not really know the people around you, but you start chatting them up at the games. So a guy named Perry Gill was on my left, and he bought me a beer during game three of the Detroit series, I think the guys name was Mike who sat behind us with his girlfriend most games and by the playoffs that season it felt like anytime we both had our girlfriends their we were on a double date, then a real nice guy whose name I never got had four seats a row down from us and was always there with his wife and 2 kids. My girlfriend at the time compared me to Jimmy Fallon’s character in Fever Pitch when he goes to the Red Sox games and knew everyone sitting around him. It really was similar! But that had never happened and our seasons were in section 122 for at least eight seasons to that point. Everyone was just on cloud nine, and everyone knew there was a parade to come.
Prior to game seven I’ll never forget EVERYONE in the media had the Oilers winning it. Bob McKenzie said pre game he never recalled a bigger road favourite going into a game seven. They had recovered from the Roloson injury, and they had taken over the series. Little doubt they were winning the Cup in game seven.
Yada, yada, yada nothing real good happened until April 18th, 2015…
Nothing at all against Cam Ward, that Conn Smythe trophy should have been Chris Pronger’s. The guy was incredible. Maybe the best performance since Mario carried the Pens in the early 90’s to their Stanley Cups. The man single handily carried the team. And then of course, it was BRUTAL what happened with him in the weeks to follow.
My issue was mainly with the fact that he never came out and did it in a classy way. Had he just decided to hold a press conference, or even release a statement. The guy didn’t even have to be honest for why he wanted out. But Chris Pronger is an asshole, and I don’t mean that in a bitter way. You love the guy as a player because he is such an asshole. But with the good comes the bad, and when it comes to a situation like this Pronger showed he couldn’t have cared less about the fans (which in a lot of ways I understand), and had all the dirty work done for him. Pat Morris (his agent) decided to leak it because they were worried Lowe wasn’t going to act on the request which had originally been made in February, which if you’re Kevin Lowe why would you deal a guy who JUST signed a 5 year deal to play for your team? Oilers fans went from having the time of their lives to having their hearts ripped out and repeatedly stomped on. I don’t know if the word BRUTAL does it justice. A fan base might not ever again go from being so high to so low in just days ever again.
Tough to believe this was all now 10 years ago.
The days of the Oilers having the grittiest team in the league are long gone. Nobody topped the heart those teams from 97-06 had. Easy to take it for granted at the time but now you look back on it and you yearn for players like that on today’s team. Give me another Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Ryan Smyth, Curtis Joseph, Luke Richardson, Jason Smith, Janne Niinmaa, Ethan Moreau, Dean McAmmond, Mike York, Mike Grier, Todd Marchant, Marty Reasoner, Jarret Stoll, Mike Peca, Georges Laraque, sloppy Steve Staios, Igor Ulanov, Eric Brewer, Kelly Buchburger (the player, definitely not the assistant coach), just guys who would do ANYTHING to win. They so rarely had a player who you didn’t love. They just never had that guy who could take them to the next level until they got Pronger, and then he did. How, or why Kevin Lowe got away from building THIS kind of team, I’ll simply never be able to understand why. Hopefully Peter Chiarelli is going to right that wrong.
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