by Larry Wigge
Fernando Pisani celebrates after scoring the opening goal in Game 1 on Monday.
Fernando Pisani remembers the first time he scored a goal at an NHL rinks like it was yesterday.
It wasn't, even though it seems like the Edmonton Oilers little-known left winger has been scoring goals like he's been doing it all his life -- including his 10th playoff goal in the first period of a 5-4 loss in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"I was 9," Pisani remembered, a wide smile on his face. "It was on a shootout between periods of an Oilers game, the first game Wayne Gretzky played back in Edmonton after he was traded to Los Angeles. I'll never forget how the crowd went wild for my goal. I hadn't scored another goal that exciting until this year's playoffs."
Pisani joins a list of little-known players who suddenly turned hot during the playoffs, like Chris Kontos, who had nine goals in 11 games with the Los Angeles Kings in 1989, and John Druce, who had 14 goals in 15 playoff games with Washington in 1990.
But Pisani's is an even more special story because he's an Edmonton native. And like a lot of kids growing up in the Alberta capital, Pisani played on backyard rinks and dreamed of someday wearing the same uniform as Gretzky, Mark Messier and all the other Oilers stars that gave Edmonton five Stanley Cups in seven years from 1984 through 1990.
What makes the story even better is that he never really looked like the perfect prospect. In fact, it wasn't until the ninth round of the 1996 draft, 195th overall pick, before even his hometown team selected him. And it wasn't until Fernando Pisani was 26-years-old that he played in his first NHL game in the 2002-03 season.
Pisani scored just eight goals in 35 games that season and had 16 in 2003-04 before he set a career-high of 18 goals this season.
"It's a great feeling," Pisani said. "It's one of those things you dream about doing as a kid. Doing it in your hometown is that much more special. It's great that my family and friends get to come out and watch me. It's a lot of fun."
Maria Pisani arrived in Edmonton with her parents when she was 7. Cosimo arrived on his own when he was 19. They came from the same city in southern Italy, Serra San Bruno, near the toe of Italy's boot, but did not meet until their new lives in Canada were under way. Now, Maria and Cosimo are being joined by a growing number of fans at Rexall Place in Edmonton who have begun waving Italian flags.
"Fernando is very reliable in both ends of the rink," said Oilers veteran Ryan Smyth
. "He's a big asset for us and a guy you can put out there in any situation, whether it's the power play, penalty killing or a regular shift. He can contribute with his shot and thinks the game really well."
Pisani isn't a flashy player. He does have good speed and the hockey smarts to make the right play at the right time. Still, on most nights in his short NHL career, he's been sent out to neutralize the more prolific forward lines in the NHL.
"We said going into the playoffs that we needed everybody to contribute," Pisani winked. "I'm just trying to do that."
Oilers coach Craig MacTavish won't shortchange Pisani's hard work to get where he is today.
"He's a well-kept secret to a lot of people ... not us," MacTavish said. "He's just in the right place all the time, makes the right plays in all three zones and he has finish. He's a very complete player, a very dependable player, maybe as underrated as there is in the game. We just have to keep giving him the opportunity because the more ice time he gets, the better he plays."
Pisani did score a lot of goals -- 40 of them as part of a 103-point season -- for the St. Albert Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League the season he was drafted by the Oilers. Fernando then spent four years playing with Providence College, where he graduated with a Business degree, before he played two-plus seasons for Hamilton in the American Hockey League.
"My last year in Hamilton, I put up some decent numbers (26 goals and 34 assists)," Pisani recalled. "That gave me a lot of confidence. But, you never know in this game. After the lockout I really didn't know what to expect, especially if I got off to a bad start and someone younger might be there to take my spot on the big club."
Pisani has made it impossible for anyone to take his spot on the Oilers' second line with Michael Peca and Raffi Torres.
"Fernie's flying," said Torres. "It just looks like me and Michael are along for the ride, doesn't it?"
It's certainly no coincidence that Cosimo Homes, the family business, builds about 25 houses a year now. The business, you might say, is booming. One of the houses they built was for Fernando a few years ago. One of the houses they are building now is a bigger one for Fernando, his wife and their 1-year-old daughter, on the northern edge of Edmonton.
You might say that some around the NHL looked at a younger version of Fernando Pisani as a square peg for a round hole. But not with the Oilers, who have made a habit of finding players who they can develop into their kind of team.
That starts with players who provide speed, grit and character. A perfect fit? He certainly is in Edmonton's Little Italy, plus in front of opposing nets during the Oilers' playoff run.