- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
ANAHEIM -- With each Edmonton Oilers victory, the gap between the preposterous and the possible closes.
Less than 48 hours after closing out an emotional six-game series against the San Jose Sharks, the Oilers were at it again, besting a well-rested Mighty Ducks of Anaheim team 3-1 to take the first game of the Western Conference finals.
It all looked alarmingly easy for the first-ever eighth seed to reach the conference finals. And so, the number is seven, seven wins to the end of the ultimate Cinderella Stanley Cup story.
And with each victory, history comes a little closer to repeating itself. With each victory, coach Craig MacTavish's suggestion of the Oilers teams' similarities becomes less curious and more prescient.
"We had a good team in 1990 that wasn't very good until we got into the playoffs, and this team reminds me a lot of that team," MacTavish said. "The expectation of us winning the Stanley Cup wasn't there going into the playoffs, but we quickly got ourselves to a level where everybody was confident in their belief and their ability to win it. I see a lot of parallels here."
What is history, if not a touchstone for the present, a signpost, a cue to what might be possible? Back in 1990, the Oilers were without Wayne Gretzky, who departed two seasons earlier to Los Angeles.
They finished the regular season with 90 points and then, as MacTavish recalled, "came within a whisker of being eliminated in the first round."
The Oilers defeated Winnipeg 4-1 in a seventh game to advance. But after they did, MacTavish said he was as confident they were going to win the Cup (the team's fifth) as he was when they were winning any of the four previous when Gretzky was an Oiler.
Former NHL netminder Darren Pang, now a respected analyst, had just retired and moved from the net to the broadcast booth during the 1989-90 season. He agreed there are parallels between the two Oiler teams.
"They had a team that wasn't supposed to do anything because Wayne Gretzky was gone," Pang said.
They fed on the fact that people gave them no chance.
This team had to scramble its way into the postseason, was given little chance to upset Detroit or San Jose and began this series as underdogs to the Mighty Ducks. Or they were until Friday night.
"I'm not comparing Ryan Smyth to Mark Messier," Pang said. "But Smyth has stepped up at crucial moments throughout the playoffs."
Friday night was no different. With the score tied at 1 midway through the second period and the Oilers on the power play, Smyth found some space inside the blue line, took an extra step, maybe two, and unloaded a heavy shot. Anaheim netminder Ilya Bryzgalov blocked the shot, but Ales Hemsky swatted the rebound out of mid-air past the goalie for what turned out to be the winning goal.
In 1990, it was Bill Ranford taking over for Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr as the Oilers went 12-3 after the first round, rolling through Los Angeles, Pang's former teammates in Chicago and Boston in the final. This spring, it's been veteran Dwayne Roloson, acquired at the trade deadline. If it's possible to be quietly spectacular, Roloson was that in Game 1, turning aside 31 of 32 Anaheim shots. A Scott Niedermayer blast took Roloson's mask in the third, but at no point did he ever appear to be anything but completely in control.
The Edmonton win ended the Ducks' playoff winning streak at six games and seemed to provide an answer for MacTavish's rhetorical observation that you never know when a team is going to jell.
Oilers assistant coach Charlie Huddy was also part of that 1990 team. He, too, sees something of that squad when he looks in the dressing room of this current team.
"I think it's been building a while," the former defenseman said.
The Oilers are now in that strange place, close enough to talk about winning it all amongst themselves, but far enough away that they aren't completely comfortable articulating it for public consumption.
"You have to be able to see the big issue. You have to see what's going to be at the end of the road," Huddy said. "The guys are feeling it. But there's also a long, long way to go."
Defenseman Chris Pronger believes it's too early for comparisons.
"I don't know if you can compare this team until we actually win," said Pronger, who turned in yet another dominating performance in Game 1, playing 31:20, blocking four shots and assisting on the game-winner. "At the end of the day, we've got a long way to go before you can compare the two."
Yes, but the distance is shorter today than yesterday.
If this playoff season has taught anything, it's that the first game in a series is not necessarily a harbinger of things to come. The Oilers lost the first game against both Detroit and San Jose. Anaheim dropped their opener against Calgary.
The end of this series is still hidden in the trees. But on a night when one might have expected something different, the Oilers proved once again they have a very different agenda.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.