Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Updated: May 19, 1:12 AM ET
Why didn't Canadians see this team coming?
By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com
Oh yeah, we're all real hockey experts up here.
People talk about Canadians and hockey the same way they do about the Swiss and chocolate and Russians and vodka.
We're supposed to know good hockey from bad, supposed to understand the intricacies of our national game (lacrosse, if you must know, is officially the national sport, although Duke is forcing us to rethink this) in a way that eludes those who don't carry a Canadian passport.
How else could we have sold you kind folks the double, heavy-haired whammy of Barry Melrose and Scott Burnside?
Canada's new prime minister, for goodness' sakes, is working on a book about early hockey history.
Well, duh, how come nobody in the Great White North saw the Edmonton Oilers coming, then?
Uh, um, can you repeat the question?
The rest of North America can be forgiven for not noticing the team that went into Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday night and won a spot in the NHL's final four for the first time in 14 years.
But shouldn't this have been so very, very obvious to Canadians?
Well, yes and no.
See, it did not escape notice last fall when the Oilers, one of the poster children for economic reform in the NHL, came out of the lockout having acquired two expensive new stars, Michael Peca and Chris Pronger. Usually, we'd watch as top players made their way out of Edmonton, so seeing talented veterans shipped in was certainly different.
But the Oilers had kind of lulled the country to sleep for a while. Not winning a playoff series for eight years will do that.
Moreover, there were other clubs that seemed far more powerful, specifically Vancouver, Ottawa and Calgary.
Many picked the Toronto Maple Leafs to slide right out of the playoff picture, as turned out to be the case, while the Oilers were supposed to be in the second tier of Canadian teams along with Montreal.
That part seemed correct when Edmonton stumbled a bit at the end of the season to finish eighth in the West while the Habs finished seventh in the East. The Flames and Senators had wonderful regular seasons, and only the Canucks completely disappointed, missing the playoffs entirely.
|Just like the Oilers themselves, goalie Dwayne Roloson has turned in a surprising postseason performance.|
So the prognostications weren't that far off during the regular season.
It's this second season thing that has proved to be a little more vexing.
Then again, nobody banked on Fernando Pisani -- sounds like a great Italian painter, or perhaps a legendary explorer -- being a more formidable playoff force than Jarome Iginla or Dany Heatley.
Moreover, nobody banked on the intimidating force of demonstrating a nightly willingness to put everything on the line to win and the congealing effect improved goaltending can provide.
First, the intimidation thing.
Intimidation often is associated more with fighting and hitting, but the most intimidating part of hockey and other sports is when your opponent seems intent on doing anything and everything short of self-immolation to win a game.
If you've seen the Oilers block shots in these playoffs, you'll know what I'm talking about.
So far, we've seen Shawn Horcoff dive headfirst into a shot in a key game in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings. Ethan Moreau saw that and, in the spirit of one-upmanship, dropped his stick and blocked a Nicklas Lidstrom slap shot with his wrists.
Against the Sharks, Oilers assistant captain Ryan Smyth absorbed a tape-to-teeth pass from Pronger, spent a few hours in the dentist's chair and was the team's best player the next night.
Steve Staios, finally, raised the stakes even more against the Sharks in Game 5, when he took a shot off the forehead, went to the bench to clear the cobwebs and resumed competition without missing a shift.
Get the picture here? This is like Monty Python's Black Knight scene, except the Black Knight is winning despite having lost both arms and legs.
After a while, the famous line from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" -- "Who are those guys?" -- starts to resonate.
OK, enough movie references 'cause it's time to talk about Dwayne Roloson, no matinee idol, to be sure.
Roloson, your garden-variety journeyman goalie, was plopped into the middle of this Oilers story in midstream after the club had discovered, to its dismay, that none of Jussi Markkanen, Ty Conklin or Mike Morrison was suddenly going to turn into the second coming of Grant Fuhr. Or even Curtis Joseph.
So Roloson, deep into his fourth decade on the planet, was summoned in a trade with Minnesota. To understand how the Wild viewed the commodity they were peddling to the Oilers, understand that they are in the same division as the Oilers and were actually just a few points behind them at the March 9 trade deadline.
They didn't think they were sending a Fuhr or Joseph to the Oilers, either.
In fact, a cynic might have wondered whether Wild GM Doug Risebrough was sending Roloson into the enemy camp for the express purpose of helping his team catch the Oilers.
After all, in 15 playoff games before this spring, Roloson had six wins and a save percentage of .891.
If he had "playoff savior" written all over him, it was in Sanskrit.
|"Who are those guys?" Yes, the Oilers are on the verge of reaching their first conference final since 1992.|
Well, he has been just that, but the most important characteristic of his presence has been the manner in which good-to-excellent goaltending has infused the rest of the Edmonton roster with confidence bordering on the delusional.
Otherwise, how could defenseman Jason Smith, after not scoring a goal in 36 career playoff games, have come up with his Guy Lafleur-type move to score in Game 5 against the Sharks?
Smith is supposed to be one of those reliable, stay-at-home guys given the following instructions by the coaching staff before the game: "If you get the puck, get rid of it immediately. You're not supposed to have it."
This is a defenseman, understand, who once was banished by the Leafs because they didn't like the way he skates.
But with Roloson minding the store, Smith felt more than confident to jump up into the play and make like Nureyev, leaving the Sharks to wonder once again, "Who are those guys?"
So, to offer up excuses on behalf of all Canadians, no, we didn't see the possibility of Oilers players using their foreheads to block shots, and no, we didn't foresee Roloson inspiring the troops like Churchill.
This Oilers run is, at the very least, improbable.
Fun, but improbable. In other words, to hockey fans on both sides of the border, the best kind of springtime surprise.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.