What does a breakthrough feel like?
It’s when you finally move on from a place of stagnation you thought you’d be confined to forever, shrugging off the cobwebs of years past to step forward in a new direction.
It’s when what you didn’t even dare to dream of a year ago presents itself as a wonderful reality, before you even truly considered it could transpire.
It’s a cathartic spillage of ecstasy, pride, and the hope you’d kept hidden in the depths of your soul, capped off with an undertone of disbelief as you slowly acclimatize to what’s coming.
Are you ready for round two of Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Andrew Ference. Dallas Eakins. Kevin Lowe.
Names synonymous with a now bygone era, the dark stains of which the Oilers have only recently managed to wash away with names like Connor McDavid, Todd McLellan, and Peter Chiarelli. Hastened by the ultimate catalyst in Captain Canadian Super Promise, the tonight’s game marks the crowning moment in a remarkable organizational transformation within the span of two years since McDavid was drafted.
No matter what happens after Saturday night, for the Oilers to make it into the second round of the Playoffs just one year removed from a 31-43-8 season in 2015-16 is something few expected, something some still cannot fathom, and an achievement that truly marks the turning of a page in Oilers franchise history. Instead of striving for a .500 record or greedily dreaming of an elusive playoff berth, this is a team that can now claim to strive for excellence, and they’ve only begun recently to tap into the potential of a young nucleus teeming with skill, speed and energy.
As recently as two years ago, the Oilers were sending out a roster with the likes of Boyd Gordon, Keith Aulie and Mark Arcobello. It feels like a completely new team, with names like Adam Larsson, Matt Benning and Drake Caggiula as the fresh newcomers and symbols of the new wave. There are, of course, also holdovers from that time before, including Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Benoit Pouliot, players whose game and aura have evolved in this new era, changing as they adapted to new teammates and coaching staff.
The whole team grew this season, through bumps and triumphs, the 7-0 loss to the Sharks in game four being a prime example of adapting on the fly. With many players being new, mistakes will be made but lessons also learned quickly-- the Oilers came back to the building where they were humiliated just a few days ago and didn’t give up anything for the first 50-plus minutes of the game.
For Todd McLellan, it was an especially symbolic way to mark a new chapter in his life, beating the team he coached for seven seasons in their own rink.
Change is possible, on a game-to-game and season-to-season level, even with members of a bygone era remaining. It took wholesale changes to many parts of the team, but their toughness, style of play and mentality has transformed this year, along with the overall outlook of a team down in the dumps for way too long.
On the tense ending, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, playing in his sixth NHL season, emphasized how new it all was for him.
“Obviously, it’s my first experience being up in a series late in a game like that, so we can expect them to come hard at us,” he said. “A couple unlucky calls there at the end but we battled hard and came out with the victor, so it’s definitely a huge accomplishment.”
“It was nerve-wracking at the end but we closed it,” said Adam Larsson, a player perhaps most emblematic of the dramatic and often painful changes the team’s had to make to get to this point “We’ve played well over the year in tight games like that and as you can see, it pays off.
“We played as a team today and it really paid off in the end. I didn’t feel like we got tired or anything just because it was five D. Obviously it’s nice, it’s a step in the right direction for the organization and its players.”
Captain Connor McDavid likewise emphasized how lessons learned in the series, especially the 7-0 loss, helped them along the way.
“We learned a lot from that, that was definitely a good learning experience for us,” he said. “We might have been too comfortable sitting up 2-1, getting comfortable, we gave them a chance to get back.”
The Oilers made no mistake tonight, and though it wasn’t easy, it’s now time to look forward and get ready for a new set of sweat-inducing matches.
The first period saw the young Oilers charge out with great energy, stymying the start the Sharks are known for. The veteran team was held to only 6 shots through the first 15 minutes, though many of them came on dangerous chances point-blank on Talbot, who made a number of tricky saves in a much better start than his last appearance at the SAP Center. Strangely, the Oilers played the poorest during their power play, giving up a number of traumatic chances the other way and failing to generate any sustained momentum at all in the Sharks zone.
It was the start of the second period when the Oilers broke through with flair. With signature German precision, Leon Draisaitl took a beautiful pass from Adam Larsson and skated in on a breakaway, fighting off Justin Braun and sliding it five-hole through Jones to give Edmonton a 1-0 lead just 54 seconds into the period.
And then just 56 seconds later, with signature Russian ruthlessness, Anton Slepyshev leapt in on a breakaway of his own and beat Jones glove-side for a 2-0 lead. The prevailing thought at that point was… “IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING?” as Oilers fans tried hard to suppress fantasies of round two for fear of jinxing the proceedings.
The Sharks broke in on a two-on-one shortly after that Slepyshev goal and Marleau had another opportunity up close on Talbot, but the non-Vezina-nominated goalie shut the door confidently and defiantly each time, withstanding the onslaught from the Sharks in the remainder of the period with his usual grace and cool.
The Sharks came into the third with the fight everyone expected them to put up, with an onslaught of shots until Patrick Marleau finally broke through at 12:12 in the period to cut the lead to 2-1.
The praying, shamanistic rituals and stoppage of normal breathing heightened with a too many men on the ice call with five minutes left in regulation. The production of sweat per follicle and amount of nails nervously bitten increased exponentially in those ensuing two minutes, peaking when a Joe Pavelski shot hit the post and narrowly missed tying the game and sending a few dozen people into cardiac arrest.
The Oilers, however, somehow withstood the deluge of pressure, as well as Leon Draisaitl’s stick breaking while he shot the puck at an empty net with around a minute left. Each second felt like a millennia but they ticked down one by one, and capped off by an empty-net goal by McDavid with 0.3 seconds left, the Edmonton Oilers moved on to face the Anaheim Ducks in the next round of the Stanley Cups Playoffs.
HOW COOL IS THAT?????
Tonight’s Good, Bad and Ugly features the song titles of bold songstress Kelly Clarkson, who’s provided a number of notable bops throughout the years.
- THE THING, IT HAPPENED.
- Don’t Let Me Stop You- After writing a post praising Talbot’s breakthrough year and joking that the Oilers would give up seven goals that night because of the piece, my long-running suspicion that I am, in fact, a witch became a conviction. Talbot boldly broke through that curse tonight, destroying whatever demons may have been plaguing him the night he let in five goals at the SAP Center with an emphatic performance, stopping 27 of 28 San Jose shots to steal the win for the Oilers. And by steal I really mean STEAL. There were some insanely difficult stops in those 27 saves, including an unreal glove stop on Melker Karlsson with five minutes left in the first while shorthanded. The Oilers truly had no business winning this if not for the heroics, once again, of their brilliantly understated goaltender.
- Breakaway- The two crucial goals that won the Oilers the game, including the go-ahead goal, came from two speedy young Europeans cruising on breakaways a minute apart and making no mistake on either of them. This is an acknowledgement of the clutchness of them scoring in those circumstances and a renewed love for the breakaway.
- What Doesn’t Kill You (Makes You Stronger)- The three human beings known as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Milan Lucic have taken their fair share of flack over the season, probably the most out of anyone outside of Benoit Pouliot, who was so hated he became largely forgotten over the season (more on that later). These three have been on fire in the playoffs, particularly Nuge (aided by a wonderfully awful playoff beard— shoutout to trying), who had a 91.67% CF with around five minutes remaining in the second (before the Sharks onslaught began). The three ended the night with the three highest CF%s amongst forwards on the team and the only forwards above 50%.
- My Life Would Suck Without You- Here’s a shoutout to our Swedish friend Adam Larsson, he with the silently savage sense of humour. It is hard to capture how impactful he has been this season, consistently logging huge minutes, crushing bodies with no mercy and making the small plays that count. Tonight, this fiend played 26:10 of icetime with Klefbom absent in the third period, finishing with a +25/-23 in 5v5 CF (second only after Klefbom among defencemen), along with four hits, two hits and an assist. Played for most of the critical penalty kill time (3:26) that preserved the win.
- I Forgive You- Last but not least, let us acknowledge the much-maligned Benoit Pouliot, who has stepped it up in the postseason and made this critical stick lift to probably save a goal at the end of the second period.
- People Like Us- This kid with the popcorn bucket on his head is every overenthusiastic Oilers fan out there. Bless you, child, and don’t mind the haters.
- Sober- Man, I didn’t want to be a hater tonight but Kris Russell was not so great on that Marleau goal. Totally lost the puck, then his man Couture at the side of the net, then fell and watched as Marleau cut the lead to 2-1. Finished last on the team with a 32.35% CF and really hasn’t had a great series so far. As usual, he did lead the team with five blocked shots, though. But still.
- Since U Been Gone- It is a night to celebrate, but my heart hangs heavy— I need to find out what happened to Oscar Klefbom this very second. Seeing him hunched over on the bench in the third period, heavy with misery and pain, wanting to be with his teammates though he clearly wasn’t going to play, was one of the most painful things I’ve witnessed. This may be a first world problem but I need to know that he is okay. He was having a hell of a game, too-- didn’t play in the third but still finished with a team-high 71.43% CF and nabbed an assist on the opening goal. I will be performing sacrificial Pokemon card rituals in my backyard to pray for his speedy comeback.
Game in a Haiku
The Edmonton Oilers are
not fucking around.