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Villain-turned-hero helps Oilers tie series

Zack Kassian, once reviled in Edmonton, scores game-winner against Sharks

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- The most unlikely of heroes helped rally the Edmonton Oilers to a 2-0 victory against the San Jose Sharks on Friday to even their best-of-7 Western Conference First Round series at 1-1.

Right wing Zack Kassian, former public enemy No. 1 in Edmonton, scored a shorthanded goal 42 seconds into the second period and was the best player on the ice in Game 2, drawing the Rogers Place crowd out of their seats more than once to chant his name.

Game 3 is at SAP Center on Sunday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports, NBCS CA).

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Oilers series coverage]

That Kassian, 26, was loathed in the Alberta capital before he was acquired in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for goalie Ben Scrivens on Dec. 28, 2015, would be putting it mildly.

Prior to joining the Canadiens, as a member of the Vancouver Canucks, Kassian's reckless stick in a preseason game broke the jaw of Oilers forward Sam Gagner.

"That's funny (now), isn't it?" Kassian said of his reception after being named First Star of the game. "If you'd have told me that a couple of years ago, I'd have bet every dollar that I had. ... But I expect nothing less than that from the fans here. They're so passionate."

It wasn't just one act that once cast Kassian in the villain's role, and probably around the NHL. His reputation with the Canadiens, Canucks and Buffalo Sabres, who chose him No. 13 in the 2009 NHL Draft, was that of a player who crossed the line frequently, was a volatile hothead and did not play with respect.

Those transgressions have been weeded out to the point where Kassian plays hard but now under control the vast majority of the time.

In addition to his goal, Kassian was a tenacious forechecker and penalty-killer, and he made thundering hits on Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon in the first period and center Logan Couture late in the second.

"You're going to cross it (the line) once in a while," Kassian said. "It's a feel-out process with the refs, and I'm trying to talk to them a little more, trying to see where their heads are at. I need to ride that line if I'm going to be successful and help my team."

There's more to Kassian's story than his previous undisciplined play. Before he was traded to the Oilers, he was treated for substance abuse and admitted Edmonton likely was his final opportunity to have a successful NHL career.

"I came here -- last chance," Kassian said. "I just wanted to earn the respect of my teammates. We have a great team in here and I'm just a small piece of the puzzle. We're jelling well. It's a fun team to play with.

"I came here with an open mind, that I would do whatever I had to do to help the team, most importantly."

Video: SJS@EDM, Gm2: Kassian nets SHG on breakaway

Oilers coach Todd McLellan said it's difficult to compare, but there's another NHL player he knows who found a similar redemption.

"The guy that comes to mind, and I don't know if it's fair to compare their private lives because everybody lives differently, but Darren McCarty when I was in Detroit," McLellan said. "He became a folk hero there. He had a tough go away from the rink but found a way to come back and play and won a Cup with us there.

"There's more to Kass's story than the equipment, the skates and the gloves. He's pretty inspirational for everybody in that room, considering what he's gone through in his personal life. He means a lot to them. The guys help him get through his days. We're lucky to have characters like that and we're lucky that we have a team that cares about those characters."

Kassian had 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) in 79 regular-season games and led the Oilers with 101 penalty minutes.

In his 10th career Stanley Cup Playoff game on Friday, he was the toast of the town, and nobody was more pleased than his linemate, center Mark Letestu.

Video: SJS@EDM, Gm2: Kassian delivers a huge hit on Dillon

"I certainly didn't think they'd be chanting his name (with) the villain role he played here for a while," Letestu said. "He has the tools to have an impact on the game one way or the other. He has enough talent to put the puck in the back of the net, he's always a physical presence, and he's added the penalty-killing to his game. There's a lot of different ways he can have an impact, and in a lot of those areas, if he wasn't our best player tonight, he was pretty [darn] close.

"It's a credit, not only tonight, to how he's built the last year and a half. He's become a real good teammate and a real good player."

Letestu, whose pass set up Kassian's breakaway goal, said he admired his linemate more for his sobriety than for his goal.

"I don't know if I'm as strong a man as he is, what he's gone through," Letestu said. "He's resurrected his career. It's really a nice story., so hopefully he continues. He was awesome tonight. That's the player he can be. There's probably another level he can get to."

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