Below, Elliotte Friedman tees up the game to get you ready.
The Oilers were reeling.
Coming off a 7-0 loss to San Jose that tied their 2017 first-round playoff series 2-2, they were down 3-1 in Game 5. Then, with seven minutes to go in the second period, Connor McDavid ran over Marcus Sorensen.
“Obviously I was a young guy and in my first (playoff) series,” McDavid said via text. “There were lots of new things going on. My first year of being a captain, with it being Game 5 in a tied series and being down, I for sure felt pressure to do something. I’m an offensive guy, so scoring a goal or making a play is what I would prefer to do in that case. But I had a chance to finish my check, decided to take it and it ended up being a big hit. Did it change the momentum of the game? I’m not sure, but I was just trying to do anything to help.”
“I do remember Connor’s hit, because it was out of character,” Mark Letestu said. “We obviously needed a spark. We just got railroaded in Game 4, now we’re down 3-1, (the Sharks) kind of got a stranglehold on us.”
“To see a hit like that from your top player, it means a lot,” added David Desharnais. “He wants to win and he’s going to do anything.”
TONIGHT on @Sportsnet
11:30ET/8:30PT – Gretzky's 1st @NHL All-Star Game appearance in '80
— Sportsnet PR (@SportsnetPR) March 21, 2020
Forty-five minutes of hockey later, Edmonton had a stunning 4-3 victory. Desharnais, who played this season in Switzerland, and Letestu, who was readying for an NHL return in Winnipeg after recovering from a virus that attacks the heart, played critical roles in the comeback. On Friday, they reminisced about that night.
Letestu started things with a power-play goal at 18:33 of the second. He’d been added to the man-advantange as a right-handed option to play with lefties Leon Draisaitl, Oscar Klefbom, Milan Lucic and McDavid.
“I don’t know whether it was a hunch or a coach took a flyer, ‘If we throw him there maybe it will work,’” he laughed. “It’s not easy to play with those guys, but it is simple to know your role. They’re so good at drawing people to them and drawing attention, that you’ve got to sit there with your finger on the trigger ready for them to create something. You can’t have anything catch you off-guard.”
“That goal is a good example. Leon puts it through two guys’ legs. If I’m not paying attention, or I’m not ready for it, then it gets by me and we’re talking about something different.”
Desharnais, acquired at the trade deadline from Montreal, remembers watching his previous team earlier in the evening. Mika Zibanejad scored in overtime to give the Rangers a 3-2 series lead over the Canadiens. (New York would clinch the series two days later.)
“I loved it in Edmonton,” he said. “They welcomed me with open arms, that organization. I wanted to make a difference for my new team, and show my old one that I could still be a factor.”
He sure did in Game 5. First, he set up Klefbom to tie it with 2:46 remaining in regulation.
“Getting the puck on the right side, I just kept going behind the net — I like to do that. I saw Klef wide open, coming from the bench, I think. I heard it hit the post and the crowd went nuts.”
You didn’t see it?
“No, just heard it. I was going towards our net, laid it for him on the tee.”
Martin Jones made a huge point-blank save off Draisaitl three minutes into overtime. Desharnais thought the winner came on his second shift of the extra period, but it was his fifth. Otherwise, he’s good with the details leading up to the score.
“I’d just come on the ice and (the Sharks) were pretty tired. We’d had a pretty good shift. (He’s correct, the five San Jose skaters at the time played between 1:11 and 1:30 when the puck went in.) I got the puck from (Andrej Sekera), and made the pass to Leon down in the corner. I knew I could beat my guy to the net. Leon is one of the best passers in the NHL. I knew he was gonna find me.”
“The shot went in, I blacked out. It was ridiculous. That was a really big one. The city was going crazy after the game. It was special. Oh, Wayne Gretzky was there, in the dressing room after the game. I remember shaking his hand.”
What did he say to you?
“I think I blacked out then too.” Desharnais laughs.
And the momentum carried back to California.
“I never felt like we were in trouble (Game 6),” Letestu said. “We were really confident. We belonged. We were good enough to be here.”
Desharnais is a little more emphatic: “We knew we were going to win.”
“Obviously the excitement level was very high, with it being our coaching staff’s old team they were really fired up,” McDavid added. “It was for sure fun, a feeling that I miss a lot and hope to recreate when we get back to playing.”
Letestu points out the game-winning goal-scorers in that series: Zack Kassian (twice), Desharnais and Anton Slepyshev. The Oilers have a couple of nuclear weapons, but there were no passengers. He had a dinner group that postseason with Eric Gryba, Matt Hendricks and Cam Talbot. They keep in touch and are talking about a fishing trip for the summer.
“Beating San Jose was special. As an Alberta guy, after such downtrodden times, to finally get in and feel the energy. I thought it would be that way forever. That’s the best hockey I’ve ever played in my career.”
He pauses and laughs.
“I mistimed it a year, I had another year on my deal. I should have waited a year for it.”
Desharnais’ favourite spring was 2014, when the Canadiens beat Boston in seven games to reach the Eastern Conference Final. But this was still special.
“Leon and I still text. I cheer for them to be back in the playoffs, because those two are beautiful to watch. They can do damage.”