Five years ago today, the Edmonton Oilers beat the Anaheim Mighty Ducks 2-1 in game five of the Western Conference final. The Oilers thus took the series four games to one. It is their last victory in a playoff series to date.
The winning goal was scored by one Raffi Torres, a gentleman you may now know as a distinguished cheap shot artist for today's Western Conference champion the Vancouver Canucks. Anaheim heavily outshot the Oilers, but Edmonton was saved by goaltender Dwayne Roloson, an old pro who, it turns out, is still capable of saving teams' bacon even five years later. Marc-Andre Bergeron, who assisted on Torres's goal, was also an Eastern Conference finalist this year, while the Ducks got a useful contribution from the seemingly ageless Teemu Selanne. Not that much has changed in five years, it turns out. Even the plucky old veterans are still just as plucky and a little bit older. Even Rem "the Gem" Murray was kicking around until quite recently, spending the 2009-10 season in Italy after giving up an NHL injury pension to be part of that Stanley Cup run.
We thrashed the Ducks so badly that we knocked the "Mighty" out of them. But in the five years since then they've qualified for the playoffs four times and won the Stanley Cup in 2007. The team which beat us in the Finals that year, the Carolina Hurricanes, have been less successful with only one playoff appearance in five tries. But they did get to the Conference Finals in 2009. The other member of the final four, the Buffalo Sabres, have made the playoffs three times in five attempts and won a couple playoff series.
And the Oilers? Zero playoff appearances, two last-place finishes. One of these things is not like others.
Five years, of course, is not a really long time between playoff series wins, and it's only the second-longest such run in our NHL history. Prior to 2006, the Oilers' most recent series victory had been in 1998 over the Colorado Avalanche. That six-season stretch included four series losses to the Dallas Stars, something which became the worst sort of tradition for we Oilers fans even as the series never failed to thrill viewers. And really old-school fans will recall that the Oilers failed to win a playoff series their first six years in the World Hockey Association; they needed to add Wayne Gretzky before they could kayo the New England Whalers in 1979.
But such a collapse following a Finals appearance is pretty rare. The 1995-96 Florida Panthers were famous "one-hit wonders": after getting out of godawful Eastern Conference, they were promptly slapped around by the Colorado Avalanche and fell back into the obscurity that was their right. But even Florida made two playoff appearances in the next five years, although they only managed to win one game between them.
I tried to find another former NHL Stanley Cup finalist who missed the playoffs in their next five seasons. I tried. But I couldn't do it. I admit that I didn't go through every season because this article's on a deadline, but I looked up every hapless team I could remember from the post-Original Six era and, without exception, they at least showed up in the next half-decade. Not all of them won a playoff series (the aforementioned Panthers, for one; the 1998 Washington Capitals also lost in the first round all three times in the next five years they managed to get to the dance). But I haven't been able to find a team that didn't make the playoffs at all.
Ah, well. Nobody needs to be told that the Oilers are pretty hapless. And I I'd take Edmonton's fate over Florida's: they made the playoffs a couple of times because the Southeast Division in those days was the worst in hockey history but they got creamed every time out and entered a franchise death spiral that they still haven't pulled out of. Every guy on the 1997-98 Panthers wasn't worth Ales Hemsky. The Oilers at least have Jordan Eberle, and that's something.
The fact that the Oilers are probably the least successful post-Stanley Cup finals team in NHL history doesn't change anything. It doesn't make Taylor Hall into a bad player (or Nikolai Khabibulin into a good one). But it's still worth commemorating these little milestones. They remind us of the heights to which we once aspired and the degree to which we've fallen since then. Hey, remember when the Florida Panthers reportedly offered us Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton for Chris Pronger, but Kevin Lowe brushed them off because he wanted a draft pick? When Horton deflected the series-winning goal for the Boston Bruins past Dwayne Roloson last night, I remembered. Maybe Horton, stuck in Edmonton, would have just become the next Joffrey Lupul while Froot Loops himself scored 45 goals a season. But a couple missed decisions like that and even the best team can become really crappy.
If we can fall that quickly, we can probably rise just as fast. For all my negative ranting, I've never truly lost hope; I see a lot more exciting puzzle pieces on this team than I did on the 2003-04 Oilers. But we need to make brilliant decisions rather than bad ones. The team's best trade in the last three years was getting an asset for Steve Staios; a nice piece of work but not exactly something that's going to lead to a Cup appearance. That's not exactly "getting Chris Pronger for Eric Brewer and some minor-league scraps" or even "renting Jaroslav Spacek for Tony Salmelainen".
This team always a chance. When I remind you of depressing milestones like this, it's not to make you jump off the High Level Bridge. Quite the contrary. It's out of hope that we'll pressure the guys who run this team to bring in the personnel that can make it good again. We weren't always draft lottery make-weights. We don't ever have to be again, if the powers-that-be will it.