Odds are slim, but one can't help but root for these Oilers
Games were dwindling. Hope, characteristically, was not.
"We understand there are expectations, we know there's pressure, but the older guys in here, our leaders like [Steve] Staios and [Jarret] Stoll, have kept after us to relax, to enjoy what we're doing, to savor this experience," Andrew Cogliano of the Edmonton Oilers' Kid Line said Saturday. "Hey, this is fun. We're in the hunt for a playoff spot after everyone outside of this room had pretty much written us off.
"Why shouldn't we be excited? We lost a tough one [Friday] night, but we've learned to let the tough ones go and move on. Besides, there's still a chance. And if there's still a chance "
Fewer than 10 hours later, playing their third road game in four nights, the dog-tired Oilers, their season hanging squarely in the balance, staged a valiant, indicative third-period rally. Edmonton scored twice and hung on as the Calgary Flames dramatically hit the inside of a goalpost in the final minute with goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff on the bench (in favor of a sixth attacker) to win 2-1 and pull even in points for the eighth and final postseason berth in the West.
These against-the-odds Oilers are becoming awfully hard not to root for.
At their lowest ebb, remember, they were languishing in 14th place, seemingly so far away from the action, they weren't traceable by radar.
"It's all a product of what we're trying to build here and the environment we're trying to build," Staios said. "I'm really happy with our group and the way we're responding.
"You know, 6-on-5, it's sort of a [free-for-all]. If they can get it to the net, they outman you," Staios added after Saturday's game. "It was definitely a good feeling once I saw it get waved off."
The comeback victory was representative of this team in so many ways.
The Oilers were still smarting from allowing a crucial point to slip away the night before as savvy ol' Joe Sakic scored with a scant 5.9 seconds left to propel the game into overtime (Colorado eventually prevailed in a shootout). The Flames, meanwhile, had been lying in wait, sharpening the scalpel, since a Tuesday putdown of the slip-sliding-away Vancouver Canucks.
They could've taken the easy way out, felt sorry for themselves, congratulated themselves on merely getting this far to the city limits of Playoff Town. Instead, they rallied. As has been the case so often during this exhilarating 13-4-1 run.
The Oilers have overcome so much this season. The lingering residue from the Ryan Smyth trade to the New York Islanders last season (he's now with Colorado); the flying shrapnel from the hugely entertaining Dustin Penner skirmish with Anaheim GM Brian Burke; injuries that have snatched defenseman Sheldon Souray (shoulder), leading scorer Shawn Horcoff (shoulder), Ethan Moreau (broken foot), pesky Raffi Torres (knee) and, for the past eight games, emerging No. 1 goaltender Mathieu Garon (ankle) from the challenge.
"There's been a lot of adversity to deal with," Cogliano said. "But that's only made us tougher quicker."
Regardless of how the next week shakes out, the future is bright in the Alberta capital. The Cogliano-Sam Gagner-Robert Nilsson moppet line, for starters; blossoming young defensemen like Tom Gilbert and Denis Grebeshkov; the emergence of Garon as a bona fide stopper.
"I think the most encouraging part about all of this is the way we've played," Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe said. "During this good run, the hockey has been good.
"I think we have 15 guys [that are] 25 or under. The responsibility we've given them, the situations they've been put in, not only do they have confidence they can be NHL players, they believe they can be high-end NHL players."
"An example is practice today, after we'd lost a really discouraging game [3-1 at Minnesota] despite playing well. You think they'd be down. Instead, there they are, a half-hour after the practice itself has ended, out on the ice, screwing around. One-on-ones, penalty shots, laughing, enjoying themselves, enjoying each other's company.
"It reminds me of back when we [the Oilers in the early 1980s] were young and coming together as a team."
Whether they do or don't, these past six weeks have been a vital bounce back for the immediate future of the franchise. If the Oil had merely given up as they did in the stunning wake of the Smyth trade, losing 18 of their final 20 games last season, 2008-09 would've been one mother of a sell this summer.
"It shows that maybe you're not as big an idiot as some people might think," Lowe said. "It shows that your plan is workable."
With the Oilers' direct competition in precious possession of games in hand, the odds are not their favor. Still, who in their right mind could've seen them this close six weeks ago?
"We try not to let any pressure get to this group," Staios said. "We've been in some games where we're uptight and we didn't look very good, so we've kept a real good attitude in here. It's a difficult thing to do mentally, but we've managed to do it."
Only days before, Lowe was asked to rate his club's chances of making this late push pay off in a big way.
"Well, I wouldn't want to call it a miracle exactly " he hedged. "But if it happens, it would certainly have to be considered the greatest late-season claw-into-the-playoff run in the history of the Oilers and, if you check it out, we've made a number of them.
"The very first year we made it, for instance, way back when, we had to go 8-2-1 in our last 11 to get in. That was memorable.
"This would be amazing."
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.