‘We’ve come back from the dead already’: Oilers’ belief strong despite tall odds

Gene Principe talks with Edmonton Oilers defenceman Cody Ceci to discuss the Oilers' mentality following a dominant Game 4 win over the Florida Panthers and how they plan to carry the momentum from that game throughout the rest of the series.

SUNRISE, Fla. — When teammates refer to Stuart Skinner as an “old soul” at age 25, it’s not only because he’s reading Lord of the Rings or is quick to recommend a spot to get “a mean cup of joe” in Edmonton.

It’s also because he’ll readily spill wisdom that is simultaneously applicable to hockey and life.

On Monday, hours removed from his under-the-radar star turn in the Oilers’ 8-1 Game 4 rout, a thoughtful Skinner waxed on about how we are shaped by our past experiences, how our most challenging days reveal our true character.

For the second-most-hyped goaltender of the Stanley Cup Final, getting sat down on the bench in Games 4 and 5 of the Oilers’ hotly contested second round against the Canucks was pivotal.

“What happened in Vancouver did a number of things to me. I think it pissed me off, first and foremost,” Skinner said Monday at Amerant Bank Arena, time now allowing space for truth. “I also was able to get some time to myself. Just get a reset, kind of calm things down and work on my game. I was able to get a couple of practices in. After that, I really wanted to be the guy to help my team win.

“It really sucked, being on the bench and seeing what happened. And that really pushed me to find my game and do absolutely everything I can — no matter what happens. Just to fight my way and to give my team a chance to win every night.

“Going through something like that, it’s funny. In the moment, it seems like the worst thing ever. Then a couple weeks later, you look back on it, and you’re just nothing but grateful and thankful for that moment.”

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What Skinner — and Connor Brown and so many others — are experiencing individually, the Oilers have lived as a whole.

Down, not out.

Bend, never break.

“We’re a unique club,” Brown said, after taking just one win from the Florida Panthers. “I feel we’re most comfortable when our back’s against the wall.”

Such is the Oil’s 2023-24 narrative, too slick to pin down. So, yeah, why not them?

Of the three major North American sports that use seven-game series, the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs stand as the only team to ever pull off a reverse sweep down 3-0 in a final.

We can safely imagine Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl‘s Oilers becoming another victim of a bad start and worse math.

Or we can dream of what the near-impossible — three more wins, including two on the road, against the hockey’s best defensive power — would do for the legacies of those two superstars and how everyone in that room would float in rarified air.

Cody Ceci says, internally, that has been discussed.

“We’ve come back from the dead already, at the beginning of the year. Obviously not a position we want to be in. But just having come from the dead earlier season gives us that belief that we can do it,” the defenceman says.

Under a banner that screamed “Cup or bust,” the Oilers flopped out the gates with a 2-9-1 start and tumbled into a tie for last overall by Nov. 9. 

“At that point in the year, we just thought we were too good to be done,” Ceci recalls. “We have the guys. We’d proven it a couple of years prior. So, I think we just had had the belief and still have the belief.”

When replacement head coach Kris Knoblauch was hired, he certainly sensed frustration among his adopted players. What he didn’t sense was surrender.

Not then.

Not now, with the Stanley Cup heading into the barn for a second game in a row Tuesday — and no chance of an Oiler touching it.


“They feel good. Their backs have been against the wall. They’ve been counted out. Others have said, ‘They’re done. They’re not that good. They’re over.’ Whether that’s in November, in playoff series, whatever it is. And then they just play,” says Knoblauch.

“It doesn’t mean anything to them. You’ve got a bunch of guys who’ve seen hard times and have persevered and come through those struggles. We’re just having a lot of fun with it right now.”

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The coach isn’t spinning here.

Of the handful of Stanley Cup finalists we’ve covered on the brink of runner-up status, few if any carry themselves with such ease and assuredness as these Oilers.

Moreover, none have been so readily available and amenable to reporters. They’re not hiding here.

There is a bold — perhaps odd? — wire of confidence running through the organization.

As Skinner might say, that feeling is born of experience. Of touching 32nd place, then erupting for a record-threatening 16-game win streak. Of starting on the road and knocking off favourites. Of rallying late.

“It was always Oil in seven!” a grown man on a tiny bicycle kept repeating Saturday night in downtown Edmonton celebrating a 3-1 series deficit. He was piping at no one and everyone as he wheeled in slow circles around a parking lot.

That fan — like so many others honking and high-fiving down Whyte Avenue after an 8-1 win — may have been intoxicated on something else, too. We didn’t test. But there is no doubt he was drunk on hope.

So, when Knoblauch proclaims that he’s looking forward to being around the group for another eight days, his players don’t view such commentary as a coach playing positive mind games.

“It’d be a shame if he didn’t have confidence in us by now,” Draisaitl says.

“I think we all believe. I think we all have confidence in ourselves. Faced a lot of adversity this year, and always found a way to push through. There’s lots of confidence going on in our group.”

That conviction has every right to put the Panthers on notice, that they might get dragged back to Alberta, as McDavid put it.

On paper, a 3-1 series lead is a comfortable position, isn’t it, coach Paul Maurice?

“There’s no comfort in playoffs, man,” Maurice said.

“Maybe other people get comfortable. I haven’t had that for 30 years. You’re never comfortable. Which is good, right? Just gotta harness it.”

One-Timers: Knoblauch says the chances of a banged-up Evander Kane reappearing in the series are “good.” Yet the Oilers practised Monday with the same lines and D pairs that won Game 4 by an 8-1 score…. Maurice is considering making a change to his fourth line and injecting Ryan Lomberg into the series. The winger has been scratched since Game 3 of the Rangers series…. Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, and Aaron Ekblad all skipped practice due to maintenance and are expected to play Game 5…. Leon Draisaitl (zero goals, two assists in Final): “I haven’t played my best this series here. Trying to find it. Tomorrow is a great chance for me to step up and be good.”

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