The Edmonton Oilers had been enduring an up-and-down road in their attempt to become relevant in the NHL since the end of their dynasty in 1990. The franchise that dominated the late 1980s with Wayne Gretzky had seen The Great One leave for Los Angeles following the 1988 season. The Oilers won another Cup with the rest of that team, led by Mark Messier, in ’90. After reaching the conference finals the following two years, Edmonton fell of the NHL map.
Edmonton missed the playoffs each year from 1993-96, something tough to do in the NHL. From 1997-2001 they made the postseason each time, but never advanced past the second round. Then there were two misses in 2002 and 2004 sandwiched around a first-round exit in ’03. The NHL’s 2005 season was canceled due to a lockout and a young team came back in 2006 hoping to resume their building process.
Craig MaTavish had been the head coach since ’01, an eternity for a head coach in the NHL and his lineup had only one core player over the age of 30, in defenseman Chris Pronger. The team’s scoring tilted to the left wing, with the top three goal scorers—Ryan Smith, Raffi Torres and Shawn Horcoff all filling that spot on the ice, while Ales Hemsky was a great passer on the right side.
The Oilers suffered through an early seven-game losing streak, but reached .500 by November 13, and then won 13 of 18. January was tough, with ten losses, but four of them were in overtime or a shootout, so the team was able to still accumulate points and they were staying competitive. The Oilers righted the ship and finished strong, with a final record of 41-28-13. Though they were the #8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, they’d made it with room to spare—ironically because Los Angeles collapsed down the stretch.
Edmonton might have had a nice year, but the best team in the NHL was the Detroit Red Wings and that was who awaited in round one. The Oilers dropped a heartbreaker in the opener, allowing the Wings to tie the game 2-2 with 6:14 left and then win in overtime. It might have been the kind of narrow loss that crushes a young team, but instead it had the opposite effect. Goaltender Dwayne Roloson got locked in, and over the next two games he saved 77 shots, the Oilers won both and took the series lead.
When any team makes a surprise postseason run it requires unlikely heroes and for Edmonton that was Fernando Pisani, a player who did little in the NHL prior to this season and little after, but in the spring of 2006 he caught fire. After Detroit tied the series in Game 4, Pisani scored the first goal in the second period Game 5 and the Oilers won 3-2. The series went north of the border for Game 6 and trailing 2-0 in the third period, Pisani scored twice to tie the game. Then after Detroit regained the lead, Hemsky scored twice and Edmonton had the first-round upset.
The NHL playoffs are known for gutted brackets and 2006 provided one in the West. Second-seeded Dallas also lost in the first round, so Edmonton’s next opponent was San Jose, with its one-time Hart Award winner in Joe Thornton at center. When the Sharks took the first two games by 2-1 counts, there was no reason to think the Oilers’ magic would extend past the first round. There was even less reason to think it when they fell behind 2-1 in the third period of Game 3. Then Torres scored with less than seven minutes left, and the fact Edmonton outshot San Jose 58-34 eventually took its toll and the Oilers saved their season with an overtime win.
After that Game 3 surge, Edmonton took over the series. They won consecutive games 6-3, getting goals from six different players in one game and holding San Jose to 18 shots in another. Even more surprising was that they trailed both games 3-1 before taking over. In Game 6, the Oilers combined a strong defensive effort, holding San Jose to 24 shots, with goaltending—Roloson saved them all. The 2-0 win put Edmonton in the conference finals for the first time in 14 years.
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were a year away from a Stanley Cup championship run, but in these finals, the #6 seed ended up overmatched by a red-hot Roloson. The goalie saved 64 of 66 shots in the first two games, both 3-1 wins for Edmonton. The Oilers led 1-0 in the third period of Game 3. It turned into a wild finish with each team scoring four times, but the 5-4 win put Edmonton in command. Even though they lost Game 4 and trailed 1-0 after two periods in Game 5, the Oilers got two third-period goals and clinched a trip to the Finals behind another great outing from Roloson.
NHL fans are accustomed to seeing “the hot goalie” dominate the playoffs and it seemed like Edmonton had him in Rolson. That made his injury in the first game of the Finals against Carolina all the more devastating. The Hurricanes were a good team—the #2 seed in the East—and in fairness, they had peppered Roloson for three goals in Game 1 to build an early lead. But you have to wonder what might have happened had the goaltender not been injured.
Edmonton still almost came back in Game 1, as Pisani scored the first of four third-period goals, but the final was 5-4. Juss Markkanen was now in the net and looked helpless in Game 2, a 5-0 loss. He played better in the next two games on home ice, but the Oilers only split a pair of 2-1 games. They needed to win three in a row—two of them on the road to claim the Cup.
Pisani easily led his team in scoring this postseason, with 14 playoff goals and he had a “get on my back and I’ll carry you” kind of night in Game 5. Pisani scored sixteen seconds into the game, and in a 3-3 tie in overtime he scored again to extend the series. Then in Game 6, Pisani scored the game’s first goal early in the second period, dished an assist and keyed a 4-0 win. Now they were back to Charlotte for the decisive Game 7.
There was a little more magic left—trailing 2-0 early in the third period—Pisani scored to keep the Oilers alive, but Carolina held them off and scored an empty-netter to clinch the Cup.
This is the point of the story where we like to say that Edmonton, with its band of twentysomethings, and emboldened by Pisani’s playoff breakout, started a new and glorious era. Well, not quite. Edmonton fell back into obscurity as quickly as its unlikely playoff hero did. Roloson would get close to the Finals again, reaching Game 7 of the Eastern finals in 2011, but that would be with Tampa Bay. In the post-Gretzky era, 2006 was the great high point in Edmonton.