Being an Oiler fan in 2003 was grim. Not as grim as being an Oiler fan in 2009, mind you. But back then, the past still loomed large. The fanbase wasn't used to failure yet. A decade removed from glory and faced with an annual humiliating playoff loss, Oiler fans took took two approaches -- anger or misery. I was the miserable sort. The Oilers had gone to the playoffs four times in the last five years and lost to the Dallas Stars all four times. None of them were close. Four series, sixteen Dallas wins, four Edmonton wins. The annual spring beating at the hands of the Stars became too much for me to handle. The Oilers would scratch and claw their way into the playoffs and Dallas would thump them onto the golf course. It was hopeless. When the Oilers didn't make the playoffs in 2001-2002, I can remember thinking of the positive - that they wouldn't have to lose to Dallas again.
In 2002-2003, the Oilers bounced back and made it back to the playoffs. To every Oiler fan's chagrin, they had to face the Dallas Stars again. Hopelessness set in.
But this time, the Oilers managed a split in Dallas to start the series. Coming back to Edmonton with home ice advantage, Bill Guerin
and Pierre Turgeon hurt and the world's largest single-cell organism, Derian Hatcher
, suspended - there was hope. Steal two while the Stars were disorganized and there was a chance to throw the monkey off of their back and be humiliated by the Red Wings
or the Avalanche
The hope was quickly snuffed out as game three got under way. The Oilers were outplayed in the first two periods by a wide margin. The Stars were missing their stars and it didn't matter. The Oilers were outshot 23-15 and the had taken a couple of bad penalties, calls that for once weren't Dan Marouelli's fault. Play was spirited, but at the same time sloppy and some key guys looked listless, possibly comatose. Any hope for a stolen series was gone. The Oilers were going to lose to the Stars again. Oh sure, there was momentary hope for a fan who was not beaten down by loss after loss to Dallas when Georges Laraque
scored in the third to tie it. But like the Oiler killer that he's always been, Jere Lehtinen
cut the hope right out of Edmonton's soul fifty seconds later. Lehtinen was there to make sure that the proceedings would end as everyone knew they would.
Then a man who would later become a savior, Saint Fernando, somehow got a wrist shot through Turco. It wasn't a bolt of lightning like Pisani fired off time and time again during the 2006 run, no, this was a seeing eye single of a wrister that squeezed through Marty Turco
's pads. A fluke, to a hardened Oilers fan expecting to lose to the Stars. Flukes might win a game, but they don't win a series. Mike Modano
or Lehtinen or Sergei Zubov
would quickly see to it that everyone knew flukes don't win series.
And then, a minute later it happened. The play that gave me hope again, hope that the Oilers might actually beat the Stars.
I can remember this rush like it happened two minutes ago. Radek Dvorak picked up the puck in his end. He made a little stick fake at center as an opposing forward glided by. As he charged through the neutral zone, Eric Brewer skated in front of him, looking over his left shoulder. He weaved around Brewer and headed into the zone and Brewer's head swiveled over his right shoulder and watched the play. I dropped from my couch to the floor in front of the television. Devo deked inside on Matvichuk and quickly back to the carry the puck outside. Matvichuk changed his footing and Devo came back to the inside, completely corkscrewing Matvichuk as he fell away from the play, humorously flailing an attempted hook at Dvorak The puck ricocheted ever so slightly toward the corner and Devo grabbed it on the way through Zubov and found the back of the net to the far side behind Turco.
I yelped and repeatedly pounded on the living room floor. It was a play and a goal of stunning beauty and brilliance, and the new guy, Dvorak, pulled it off. In my mind, Turco is still frozen in his split, looking down at his right pad and Zubov is completely stunned by a guy that didn't know he was supposed to lose to Dallas every year. It was breathtaking to see, and heartening. So heartening, in fact, that it gave me the hope back. Edmonton WAS going to steal these two games. Edmonton was going to win this series!
It was the best feeling I've had as an Oiler fan since those halcyon days of Stanley Cup wins eighteen years ago. The feeling of elation was bigger than Marchant's game seven winner in 1997 and it was never matched in the 2006 run. Of course, the Oilers would go on to lose the next three straight and never play like they were in command of the series, but at the moment I saw a flash of black on the white ice behind the goalie, there was a feeling of joy unmatched by any in the last seventeen years of watching hockey.