Following their historic run of 5 Stanley Cups between 1984-1990, the Edmonton Oilers were headed for a bit of a dry spell. After reaching the Conference Final in 1991, Mark Messier moved on to the New York Rangers while Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr went to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri were already gone.
The next year, 1992, the team made it to the Conference Final again and then lost Joe Murphy, Vincent Damphousse and Kevin Lowe. They'd ship out Esa Tikkanen and Craig Muni early the following season.
With that, all of the key links to the Dynasty Days were gone, and so too was the spring ritual of playoff hockey in Edmonton. The 1992-93 season was the first in the NHL history of the club that they would register a "Did Not Qualify" in the post-season record books. They would repeat this 3 more times through the 1995-96 campaign. As the team struggled to find new footing, there were many nights where the Northlands Coliseum sat virtually vacant. Attendance plummeted as losing hockey was an impossible sell in the City of Champions.
But, though the 1995-96 season didn't result in a playoff spot, it did showcase the start of something special.
25 year old Doug Weight, acquired a couple of years earlier from the Rangers in exchange for Esa Tikkanen, hit his stride. #39 exploded for a 104 point season and his 79 assists trailed only Ron Francis, Mario Lemieux, Peter Forsberg and Jaromir Jagr, putting him in elite company.
The team that year saw Weight flanked by a rising crop of young players: Ryan Smyth, Jason Arnott, Todd Marchant, Dean McAmmond, and Miroslav Satan.
1995-96 also saw the arrival of a new goalie. Curtis Joseph would take over the cage midway through the season when Bill Ranford was dealt to the Boston Bruins.
With a young group in front of him, Curtis Joseph was the backbone for heroics in late April of 1997 and early May of 1998.
In '97, of course, the Oilers were back in the playoffs largely thanks to a relentless season of netminding from Joseph, who rarely ceded the net to backup Bob Essensa. Once the team was in, it was Joseph who robbed Joe Nieuwendyk in Game 7 OT in Dallas to help set up the Todd Marchant breakaway series winner.
The stunned look on Ken Hitchcock's face on the Dallas bench following the save and the exuberance of Ron Low embracing his goaltender on the ice after the winning goal are moments etched in all of our minds.
But, to me, as good as that save was on Nieuwendyk and as dramatic as the series was against the Stars, CuJo's best work and the more shocking Oilers accomplishment came a year later.
Tomorrow, it's the 15 year anniversary of Game 7 of the 1998 Conference Quarterfinal series between the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche. That there was a Game 7 at all was something of a miracle for the Oilers, who trailed 3-1 in the series.
With his team on the ropes, Curtis Joseph allowed just 1 goal in the final 180 minutes of the series, including back-to-back shutouts to stun the Avalanche on May 2nd and May 4th, 1998, winning the series for Edmonton.
Stymied by Joseph, this was the only year in the first 7 years of the Colorado Avalanche existence that they would not reach at least the Conference Final.
May 4, 1998 would be CuJo's last game as an Oiler. He signed as a free agent with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 1998, but not before delivering two extraordinary playoff series victories to a new generation of Oilers fans.
The by-the-book history lesson ends there, but I'll share one childhood memory with you before I wrap up. Yes, a childhood memory, involving Curtis Joseph. For those that don't know, I was one of those new generation of fans. I was 11 years old when they beat Dallas in '97 with CuJo between the pipes and he was my favourite player.
Anyways, the team used to hold a yearly event called "Carnival of Champions". It was a day to meet the players, tour the arena and have a bunch of silly fun. I have two vivid memories of going with my dad one year.
The first is a tour of the broadcast booth on the catwalk where I got to meet Rod Phillips and Morley Scott. I remember shaking hands with them and Morley told me he liked my jacket. 9 years later, I started working with those guys every day in what will always be a top career highlight for me. Working on a Stanley Cup run (and following seasons) with the broadcasters I grew up listening to still doesn't even seem real.
The other memory from that Carnival was getting to go onto the ice and take a couple shots on Curtis Joseph. They had a little mat put out for you to stand on and a few sticks for you to choose from and they set you up with a couple pucks about 15 feet away from the net, which Joseph tended without his mask on. I went 5-hole with both shots and scored on the 2nd one. Every kid scored on the 2nd one, but I didn't care.
There were 18 Colorado Avalanche players on May 2nd and 4th of 1998 that didn't.