Oilers' greatness, Ducks' viability on the line in Game 7

Over the grind of an 82-game regular season, one can lose sight of the ruthlessness of professional hockey. In a playoff Game 7 situation it’s hard to avoid it. The second-round series between the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks is a good case in point.

Superficially, the Oilers are not in a desperate situation. If they lose, there won’t be sweeping changes in the front office, behind the bench, or to the roster. On the whole, the team’s fans will (eventually) find satisfaction in an incredible turnaround season for a team which just last year was a decade removed from the playoffs.

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Dig deeper, though, and the difficulties of Edmonton’s position become clear. It’s easy to say that the Oilers have time to win, but the truth is that even for the best teams chances to win the Stanley Cup are rare. Edmonton is competing earlier than may have been expected, but it also has certain advantages now that will not exist in the future.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers Ryan Kesler

In a pivotal moment for each franchise, the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks square off in Game 7 of their second-round series on Wednesday night. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

The obvious one is with regard to salary. This summer, Leon Draisaitl will be inked to an expensive contract extension. Next summer, Connor McDavid will sign one. Pittsburgh and Chicago and for that matter even Anaheim won with top young players on entry-level deals; as those players get pricier sacrifices need to be made elsewhere and the task of winning becomes more difficult.

Circumstances are another. Winning a championship requires a lot of things to line up, including health and goaltending. The Oilers are getting a superb performance from starter Cam Talbot and until Game 6 enjoyed relatively good health, but as the Penguins could tell them those things don’t just happen every year. It’s also not every year that so many top teams fall early, leaving a plausible road to a championship open to any club able to take advantage of it.

These Oilers have a chance to be a great NHL team, the kind of team that strings together multiple championships with the same core. Those teams, almost uniformly, win early. In this case, “early” ends when McDavid’s entry-level deal does, and sooner is obviously vastly better than later.

Leon Draisaitl Edmonton Oilers
Leon Draisaitl’s emergence as a top-flight player in the NHL underscores the importance of winning now for the Oilers. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

On the other side of the series, Anaheim is getting a dangerous reputation for being unable to close its opponents out. In the last four seasons, the Ducks have entered Game 6 with a chance to eliminate an opponent five times. They’ve done it once; on the other four occasions they lost both Game 6 and Game 7.

It’s the reason Bruce Boudreau no longer coaches the team. When GM Bob Murray fired Boudreau, he made a point of putting much of the blame on the core of the roster, telling AP’s Greg Beacham that he perhaps hadn’t been “hard enough” on those players and that “they’re going to hear some different words this time.”

We can draw a straight line between those comments and the hiring of Randy Carlyle. Carlyle is known to be demanding of his charges, to the point where one former player told Michael Traikos of the National Post that is there was a reunion of the Cup-winning 2007 Ducks team, “there would be maybe 21 guys who would care less if they saw Randy.”

Murray obviously saw a team in need of a firm hand, and went out and got one. If that doesn’t work, it’s hard to know what he might do next. The team’s key older forwards are signed to rich, long-term deals and have no-move clauses. There’s more flexibility with the younger players, but they also represent Anaheim’s best hope of staying competitive as Ryan Getzlaf and company move into their mid-30’s.

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The Ducks need to win Game 7, and not just because of the embarrassment blowing another 3-2 series lead would bring down on the team. If the core of this team falls short, again, under a new coach, it will certainly indicate to the GM that more drastic measures are needed.

These are high stakes. Edmonton’s potential greatness is pitted against Anaheim’s very viability as a Cup contender, and only one club can be vindicated.

It’s a ruthless and uncompromising process, winnowing 16 playoff teams down to a single champion. That’s what makes it so thrilling.

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