SUN Hockey Pool

What happened to the Oilers?

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

It's like they sold their soul to the devil.

In exchange for a Cinderella playoff run and a shot at their first Stanley Cup in 16 years, the Edmonton Oilers would surrender their fate to the Prince of Darkness for all eternity.

Only somebody messed up the wording on the contract and they ended up with an eternity's worth of hardship in one season.

"It's been weird, frustrating, tough, every bad word you can think of applies to our team this year," sighed winger Fernando Pisani, shaking his head at the Oilers' stunning nosedive. "A season to forget, that's for sure."

WHERE TO START?

Where do you start when chronicling one of the most dramatic reversals of fortune the NHL has ever seen? From Chris Pronger's shocking betrayal last June, to Ryan Smyth's stunning departure this February, and all the defections, rejections, injuries, losses (oh, the losses) and disappointments in between, the Oilers' fall from grace is, as head coach Craig MacTavish put it recently, "almost comical, if it wasn't so tragic."

None of them can ever remember a season going so horribly wrong. That it's happening less than a year after they captured the hearts and imaginations of the hockey world, coming from eighth place in the West to one game away from a championship, makes the pain in the pit of their stomachs even sharper.

HARD, HARD YEAR

"It's as hard a year, by far, as I've ever had," said centre Shawn Horcoff. "There have been years, when I was just starting out, when I didn't even know if I was good enough to play in the NHL, and I was pretty dejected. But not like this year. This is worse."

Everything that could go wrong, did.

With 11 regulars out of the lineup during one stretch, they didn't even have enough defencemen left in the organization to ice a full team.

The offence dried up, dropping them to dead last in NHL in goals scored. They were out of the playoff race by the trade deadline. Then they dealt Smyth. Then came the 12-game losing streak.

It just kept getting worse.

"The last little while has been tough," admits Pisani. "Every time we go out there it's a grind; we can't score, we can't keep the puck out of our net.

"It's been frustrating. You try and play hard, but it seems no matter how hard you work you're digging it out of the back of your net.

"After coming off such a good year, feeling like you've grown so much as a player, to not even make the playoffs is a huge disappointment."

It started with Pronger, who bolted for personal reasons, then Jaroslav Spacek, who signed a free agent deal in Buffalo. They left two gaping holes on the blueline that general manager Kevin Lowe, hailed for his brilliance last spring, couldn't fill. And it was all downhill from there.

The rental players who served the Oilers so well in the playoffs were gone, the reinforcements weren't good enough and one by one the leaders fell to injury.

"Those injuries ripped out a lot of our heart and soul, we just lost our identity," said sophomore defenceman Matt Greene, who's run the full gamut of emotions in just two NHL seasons.

"It's been tough, going from the finals to this. It makes you appreciate last year even more."

Dead and buried when there was still a quarter of the season left to play, the players handled the situation with admirable poise.

"This could have deteriorated into a pretty bad situation where you don't even want to come to the rink every day," said netminder Dwayne Roloson.

"We tried to handle it as professionally as we could."

Now they're hoping it gets better next year, yet knowing it can't get much worse.

"A year like this is going to make everyone work harder for the rest of their careers," said Greene.

"None of us will ever want to experience something like this again."


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