SAN JOSE, Calif. – Rebuilds, those poor folks in Edmonton learned before anyone else, don’t always move along at the speed you hope they will.
Happily for them, however, once it takes you also never know how fast a good team can rise from those ashes.
One year after finishing in 29th place in the National Hockey League, the Edmonton Oilers closed out their first playoff series in 11 years Saturday, dusting off the defending conference champion San Jose Sharks 3-1 to win their series in six games.
A team hopeful of simply making the playoffs when the season began back in October is now in a conference semi-final against Anaheim. There, the Oilers won’t be favoured, but they’ll have far more than just a puncher’s chance.
How did they get this good, this fast? (Did you ever think you’d ask that question, Oilers fan?)
“It takes work. It takes lessons. It takes repetition in practice. It takes pain,” said the director of this project, head coach Todd McLellan. “It doesn’t come easy.”
Not in the big picture, nor small.
Edmonton got breakaway goals from Leon Draisaitl and Anton Slepyshev at 0:54 and 150 of the second period, before Connor McDavid chipped in his second playoff goal, and empty-netter with 0.03 seconds to play. In between we saw an ageing Sharks club in its death throes, thrashing around the Oilers net and doing anything it could not to be left dead on the beach by the upstart Oilers.
Cam Talbot stopped 27 of 28 shots, and in this game at least, was the difference. Seconds after Martin Jones was beaten on a breakaway for the second time, Talbot stopped Patrick Marleau, sent in alone by Joe Thornton.
That save was a metaphor for this series: Jones was good, but Talbot was better. And the team with the better goalie almost always moves on.
“It was pretty gruelling,” Talbot said. “They were coming at us and we knew they would. Going down 2-0, they didn’t have much to lose.”
Trailing by one goal and on a late power play, Joe Pavelski rang a puck off both the crossbar and then the post behind Talbot.
“That’s all you left him,” someone joked.
“I think I left him a little more than that,” Talbot smiled. “I got lucky.”
In the end, this series boiled down to a bunch of battles and foot races between a 30-something Shark and a 20-something Oiler. We’ve written about how these two teams are passing each other on hockey’s ladder of supremacy, but it’s hard to believe that it might have happened right before our eyes this spring.
“I didn’t think we lost to a faster team,” said a defiant Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer. “I don’t think age or speed was an issue in this series.”
Truthfully, a healthy Thornton (knee) and Logan Couture (busted jaw) were bigger factors. Two top-six players playing at somewhere below 70 per cent really tempered the Sharks’ bite.
“Some heroic courage in playing in this series,” DeBoer said. “There are some men in there who I am amazed found a way to get out on the ice. Especially Joe Thornton. It was exceptional to see what he did, and how he played for us.”
Another factor was Draisaitl’s re-emergence from sickbay. The big, rangy German was sick as a dog through Game 4, then became a force the Sharks couldn’t handle in Games 5 and 6, shrugging off Justin Braun on his breakaway like a juggernaut busting through a screen door.
McDavid had one short-handed goal and the Game 6 empty-netter – four points in the entire six-game series. With Ryan Kesler awaiting McDavid’s arrival in Anaheim, we learned that this Oilers team can win even when McDavid gets contained.
“Our team, we’re watching them grow up right in front of us,” marvelled McLellan. “We’ve been through a push into the playoffs. We’ve been through a round now. We’ve learned how intense it is to close out a game. We’ve learned how to respond after a blowout. We’ve learned to manage ourselves throughout a series. We’ve played in a hostile environment.”
And they’ll play again, in a series that will open later this week at Honda Center. They won’t be favoured, but we’ll say this: Edmonton has become a team you’ll bet against at your own peril.
“We’re a real team now,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “A competitive team.”
It’s been a long time since those words were spoken.
Get used to them.