Despite regular season, Peca now one of Oilers' heroes
Rarely has a hockey player been able to put behind him as miserable a regular season as Peca endured and rebound to put on the kind of virtuoso performance he's delivering in these playoffs.
On Sunday night, Peca assisted on the winning goal and then added an empty-netter as the seemingly unstoppable Oilers headed home with a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference finals with a second straight 3-1 victory over the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
The game marks the fifth straight in which Peca has recorded a point. Not coincidentally, the Oilers have won all five of those games (they have, in fact, won six in a row). As though Peca needed to provide any further proof that he has gone through a full and complete identity transplant from his lamentable regular season, he played on this night through the initial stages of a flu bug that swept through the Oilers dressing room and played havoc with their lineup.
"There was a lot of us that were starting to feel the primary effects of what's going around. It was gut-check time. We threw around a lot of clichés before the game on how to deal with this adversity, but it just came down to finding ways to do it," Peca said. "I didn't feel great. But it's one of those things I was just hoping it wasn't going to progress any worse."
Feeling punky or not, Peca logged 19:19 on Sunday night. Only Ryan Smyth had more ice time among Oiler forwards.
"He's absolutely on top of his game from a confidence level," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said. "The measure of a good player is to continue the play and the play not dying with you. And Michael's continuing the play and the play never dies with him. He's making good plays every time he touches the puck."
A case in point:
With less than three minutes to go in the second period and the game tied at 1, Peca carried the puck into the Ducks zone. He feathered a pass through a defender to set up a scoring chance. He then chased the puck down in the corner. Fell. Got up. Moved the puck up to Sergei Samsonov, who found Fernando Pisani in the deep slot. Pisani's rising shot beat Ilya Bryzgalov for a 2-1 lead.
That shift is Peca's season in microcosm, especially the part about falling down and getting back up again.
For most of the regular season, Peca was a lightning rod for discontent in Oiler Nation. The team was inconsistent and, for a period of time, it appeared as though they might not even qualify for the playoffs. With just nine goals and 23 points, the lowest point totals in a decade and a $4 million salary to boot, Peca seemed to be a very expensive experiment gone awry. The move to Edmonton had taken a toll on Peca's young family and he seemed flummoxed by the role the Oilers expected him to play.
"I'll be honest. I let the baggage hang around probably a little longer than I should have as the season was going on," Peca said after Sunday's win. "Once I got down in the sun during the Olympic break, I made a promise to myself that I wasn't going to deal with it anymore, I was going to cut the baggage loose. I had a meeting with [MacTavish] and showed him that I was going to be there for the team from then on and my game just continued to get better and better and better and I'm happy where it is right now."
The baggage Peca speaks of was the pressure, in some ways unrealistic, he put on himself.
"Not playing to the expectations I had for myself," he explained. "I'm aware of the expectations people had of me. But that doesn't mean much when I'm letting myself down and that's often the biggest things. And any time you can turn that around and obviously contribute at this time of year and have success, it makes it easier to forget about it."
MacTavish was candid about what he believes was his role in Peca's struggles, saying it took him a long time to figure out Peca's personality and the kind of game he needed to play in Edmonton.
"I will say this about Michael, that I myself was not very helpful for him early on in the season because I was trying to figure his game out and the personality," MacTavish said. "And, you know, I was surprised. I had really high expectations, was very excited to get him, and he was struggling with the new situation and surroundings. I had a hard time getting my head around his game."
Watching him play over the last month, it's hard to reconcile the two Pecas -- baggage Peca and heroic Peca.
In each of the Oilers' six straight wins, Peca has been a force.
He scored a crucial goal in the deciding game against San Jose.
He scored a big short-handed goal to open the Western Conference finals on Friday.
Even before the playoffs started, GM Kevin Lowe said he loved the way Peca was playing.
"What I liked about him was that in all the big games we played, he played his best hockey," Lowe said.
These two games in Anaheim have confirmed what most believed at the outset of the series, that there isn't much to separate these two teams. Twice the Oilers have opened the scoring. Twice the Ducks have tied it. Twice the Oilers have entered the third period with a 2-1 lead and withstood considerable pressure before twice scoring an empty-net goal to seal the victories.
In many ways, what separates these two teams is Peca, both figuratively and literally.
The Ducks have enjoyed long periods of puck possession in the Oiler zone. They outshot the Oilers 34-25 overall and 10-4 in the third Sunday. But when there is so little to separate winning from losing, it's all about delivering the goods.
Peca, after a season in which he appeared to be fresh out of goods, has delivered heroically.
The Ducks are looking for such a player.
Chris Kunitz, who led all Ducks shooters with five shots on net, had a glorious chance on a 2-on-1 four minutes into the game, but couldn't deliver. Then, in the third period, he was sent in alone, but Edmonton netminder Dwayne Roloson flashed his left pad to deny the rookie.
Teemu Selanne had several good chances, but couldn't find the back of the net.
Corey Perry, back in the lineup for the first time since the end of the Calgary series, had a good chance from the circle on a third-period power play.
Francois Beauchemin's hard drive from the blue line on another power play was snared by Roloson.
Joffrey Lupul fanned on a shot from the deep slot with 7:30 left.
And so on.
"We have worked extremely hard in this hockey game and didn't get any results for it," Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said. "So our level of commitment has to rise beyond what we did today. And you know, you're not going to win many hockey games scoring one goal and that's what happened in those two games."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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