Game 7 loss necessary medicine for Oilers to swallow on path to greatness

Nick Ritchie scored the game-winner to get the Ducks a 2-1 win over the Oilers in Game 7 to book a date against the Predators in the Western Conference final.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Sometimes, you just can’t put it any better than they do.

“I don’t think anyone thought we’d be here, one period away from the conference finals,” said Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot, after he’d rolled yet another heroic performance in a 2-1 Game 7 loss. “I’m proud as hell to be a part of this group right now and I’m looking forward to the future with this team.”

In a nutshell, right?

In their first Game 7 of their maiden playoff voyage after the Decade of Darkness in Edmonton, the Oilers simply weren’t ready to beat the Anaheim Ducks. There’s no shame in that — Anaheim is very good, mega-experienced, and has beaten this Edmonton team for fun for longer than most of these Oilers have been National Hockey League players.

When it was all on the line, and Team Canada veterans like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry stared down the barrel of a fifth consecutive home-ice Game 7 loss, they simply refused to allow the narrative to continue. We should respect them for that — they’re too good to carry that yoke any further.

Anaheim was better Wednesday night, winning by a score that flattered Edmonton on the whole.

We’ve been in plenty of dressing rooms where the dream has died over the years, but can recall very few where the leap from tonight to tomorrow was so easy to make. There are the ingredients of a Stanley Cup champion in this Oilers room now.

Not quite yet. But soon.

Like, Pittsburgh-in-2007 soon.

“You look at any team that’s won, and it starts with a disappointment,” said young captain Connor McDavid. “We took a huge step forward. If we’d have told you we’d go seven in the second series, back in September, I don’t think anyone would have believed it.

“We’ll be back.”

Anaheim played a veteran, clog-the-middle game that gave them the puck in transition, then rolled around the Oilers zone at will for much of the night. Andrew Cogliano, another four-time Game 7 loser who played like a man possessed, scored Anaheim’s first goal, and Nick Ritchie busted open a 1-1 tie with a well-placed wrist shot just 3:21 into the third period.

Edmonton’s only goal was a gift from Ducks defenceman Shea Theodore, potted by Drake Caggiula just 3:31 into the night. In the end, the shots, the possession and the score favoured Anaheim. As did the series.

“There’s still a little bit of inconsistency in our game but we’ll grow up and we’ll fix that as we move forward,” promised head coach Todd McLellan, who has done such a fine job in vanquishing a losing culture in Edmonton. “The one question that I had that I think is answered: we weren’t afraid of the stage. We were willing to come out on it and perform. For an inexperienced team from Day 1, that’s a good sign moving forward.”

Edmonton started the season as a wild-card pick, got better and better still, finally becoming the 103-point team that pushed Anaheim to the third period of Game 82 before the Ducks could claim first place in the Pacific. Those two points translated to home ice in Game 7 of Round 2, a place where the Ducks must have been thinking, “If we don’t beat these Oilers tonight, are we going to beat them next year? And the year after?”

“There are a lot of positives we can take from this year,” said McDavid. “We won’t have to answer that experience question anymore, which is nice. Come next season, we’ll find ourselves in a similar spot, and we’ll be able to look back on this, feel that disappointment, and know … how much that sucked.”

“We know how good we are,” echoed Leon Draisaitl, who had an incredible 13 points in this series. “We have a bright future ahead if we keep getting better, if we decide to keep going the right way as a group.”

Anaheim’s captain, Getzlaf, turned 32 on Wednesday. Perry turns 32 next week. McDavid is 20, and Draisaitl will be 22 in October.

It’s a metaphor for these two franchises, one that has been good for a long while, the other on the precipice of just such a run.

This was the medicine that every young team must swallow, and truth be told, it still tastes pretty good this morning in Edmonton.

“We basically got a college degree in a month when it comes to playoffs,” observed McLellan, whose old team in San Jose somehow never found a way to graduate. “I looked around the room when we were done and we had a minute or two together, the amount of bumps and bruises and scrapes and ice bags and just scrawny, bony looking players. That’s a good sign for us.

“It wasn’t long ago we talked about just coming into these buildings during the regular season and trying to survive. Now we can push and compete with these teams.”

No, now they can beat many of them.

Soon enough, it looks very much like the Edmonton Oilers will be capable of beating them all. Just not yet.

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