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Oilers going strong without Pronger

October 26, 2006|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Years after their Wayne Gretzky-Mark Messier heyday, the Edmonton Oilers had essentially found their lot in NHL life as a small-market team good enough to sneak into the playoffs on occasion but financially unable to compete for championships.

That all changed after the lockout when the salary cap put every team on a level playing field. The Oilers were finally able to grab a superstar in Chris Pronger and what would follow was a surprise Stanley Cup finals appearance that signaled the resurgence of a proud franchise.

Or so they thought. Pronger suddenly wanted out and the Oilers were thought to return to their usual place outside the league's elite.

The supposed fall hasn't occurred. Boosted by five victories at home, Edmonton is 6-3-0 despite losing to the Ducks on Wednesday night in the first meeting between the teams since last season's Western Conference finals.

With Pronger now on their side, the Ducks were considered a trendy pick to win their first Cup. Without him, the Oilers were picked by many to fall short of the playoffs.

"I think there were a lot of teams that were saying, 'Oh, they just got on a hot streak and they rode [goalie] Dwayne Roloson all the way,' Ducks defenseman Sean O'Donnell said. "I'm sure they're a little bit upset. They've got a pretty good team over there."

The Oilers haven't taken the slight personally. They've been able to flourish with help from the players they got in dealing Pronger. Joffrey Lupul is back in his native Edmonton and the third-year right wing has three goals. Rookie Ladislav Smid, the Ducks' one-time top defenseman prospect, is averaging 14 minutes and has two assists.

"Chris is maybe one of the best defensemen in the world and you're going to be questioned about your back end," Oilers defenseman Steve Staios said. "But so far, so good. We've simplified our game a little bit. Everybody's contributing."

Once thought of as one of the cornerstones of the Ducks' future, Lupul, 22, said he circled Wednesday's game on his calendar when the NHL schedule came out.

"I felt fortunate to be part of that young core of guys," Lupul said. "They made a decision that they needed to get Chris Pronger. There's no hard feelings there. I understand the game. He's a great player."

Another former Duck has made a large impact. Petr Sykora, whom the Ducks traded to the New York Rangers in December, has a team-leading six goals and his 13 points puts him among the league's scoring leaders.

Sykora scored 59 goals in his first two seasons in Anaheim but he fell out of favor last season when he had only seven goals in 34 games. Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle said the left wing's lack of productivity led to his departure.

"I'm not knocking Petr Sykora because he's scored 30 goals in the league," Carlyle said. "For whatever reason, it just didn't work. But he's doing it now. He's a pretty good player."

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