Edmonton Oilers on brink of history after thrilling comeback

Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers takes a face-off against Anton Lundell #15 of the Florida Panthers in Game Six of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Place on June 21, 2024, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Some of Shelina Gwaduri's earliest memories are of huddling around the family TV to watch the Edmonton Oilers play.

Once, she and her older brother, Karim, went to a game and stayed to meet superstar player Wayne Gretzky, the franchise's captain at the time.

“From when I was born basically, the Oilers were in my blood,” the 43-year-old, who now lives in Vancouver, told the BBC.

Her brother died suddenly four years ago.

Now, she wears his Oilers jersey during every game, including as she watched her home team clinch a miraculous comeback against the Florida Panthers in this year’s Stanley Cup finals.

The Edmonton Oilers are now one win away from earning the greatest prize in the National Hockey League (NHL), playing their final game against Florida on Monday in the best-of-seven series.

Should the Oilers succeed, they would become the first Canadian NHL team to win the championship since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens beat the Los Angeles Kings. It would also be the Oilers' first Stanley Cup win since 1990.

But the team is on the precipice of something even rarer: not since 1945 has a team come back from a 3-0 loss to tie a series in the Stanley Cup final. They are only the third team in NHL history to achieve such a feat.

And only one other team - the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1942 - came back from such a deficit and won the cup.

Fans like Ms Gwaduri say a win for Edmonton would be a significant milestone even in the storied history of the team, which was once home to Gretzky, who many argue is the greatest ice hockey player of all time.

His team’s winning streak in the 1980s earned Edmonton the nickname “City of Champions”.

A win would also be a point of pride for Canada, where dedicated fans have been anxiously waiting decades to see the Stanley Cup return to the birthplace of modern hockey.

Ms Gwaduri said that even her husband, a die-hard fan of the Oilers’ rival team the Vancouver Canucks, is excited about the potential win.

“It’s bringing all of us together in the excitement of ‘Oh my god, is this actually happening?’” she said.

Shelina Gwaduri pictured on her wedding day nine years ago donning an Edmonton Oilers jersey
Shelina Gwaduri pictured on her wedding day nine years ago donning an Edmonton Oilers jersey, while her husband wears a Vancouver Canuck's jersey [Shelina Gwaduri]

Once arguably the greatest team in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers have been down on their luck for a long time.

In 2006, the team climbed their way to the Stanley Cup finals with the hopes of securing a sixth title, only to suffer a crushing Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The period that followed became known as “The Decade of Darkness”.

But in 2015, the Oilers signed Connor McDavid - then a 19-year-old hockey phenom from the Toronto area.

The young, gifted player proved to be a generational talent, said Daniel Nugent-Bowman, who covers the franchise for sports publication The Athletic.

“That term gets tossed around pretty loosely, but he is the definition of a generational player,” Mr Nugent-Bowman told the BBC.

McDavid is known for his dazzling skills on the ice, with a speed and accuracy few other players rival.

“If his career ended today, he would be in the Hall of Fame and would go down as one of the greatest hockey players of all time, and that’s at 27 years old, without a Stanley Cup,” Mr Nugent-Bowman said.

But it would take nine years after McDavid’s signing for the Oilers to once again compete for the Cup.

“This journey hasn’t happened overnight,” Mr Nugent-Bowman said.

The dramatic comeback and the team's perseverance against the Florida Panthers only adds to the excitement for Monday.

“I’m a big fan of really good stories,” said Travis Sengaus, who cheers for rival team the Calgary Flames but who is excited nonetheless about Edmonton’s success.

Mr Sengaus recalled other miraculous rebounds in sports history, like when the Boston Red Sox beat the New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, becoming the first - and still only - team to return from a 3-0 series deficit in Major League Baseball.

Or when LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in 2016 to win the National Basketball Association championship after a 3-0 series deficit.

It is widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball finals of all time.

The Oilers, he said, are on the cusp of their own great story - one that's “very hard to resist”.

Connor McDavid at a post-game news conference
McDavid, who plays for Edmonton, is widely considered to be one of the best players in the National Hockey League [Getty Images]

The Florida Panthers, of course, have their own story. A relatively new franchise - created 31 years ago, the same year a Canadian team last won the Stanley Cup - the Miami-based team is hungry for its first-ever championship.

They came close last year, but lost four out of five games in the finals to the Vegas Golden Knights.

While Florida is not known for its winter sports, ice hockey fandom in the state swelled after the recent success of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021.

Ahead of Monday's match-up, Panthers' coach Paul Maurice said he is "not concerned about the past at all".

"The concern of the previous three games certainly didn’t affect Edmonton and it won’t affect us," he said.

Meanwhile, the Oilers' coach Kris Knoblauch said he is just enjoying the ride.

"Not just because we're going to Game 7, but I think we were having a great time when we were down three games," he said.

The series is being fervently followed by tens of thousands of passionate fans in Edmonton, the northernmost city in North America with a population of just over one million people, known for its freezing cold winters and enduring resolve.

Spencer Bennett, a teacher in the Edmonton area, said his school streamed Game 6 during its middle school graduation ceremony.

“It was amazing. We were all just cheering and high-fiving and screaming at the top of our lungs,” he said.

When he and the students sang Oh Canada when it was played during the game's livestream, it was like “having 16,000 of my closest friends singing our national anthem together”.

Mr Nugent-Bowman, who was inside the arena, said it was “the loudest I have ever heard that building”.

“Hockey means everything to Edmonton,” he said, even though the younger generations likely cannot recall the heyday of Gretsky’s reign.

“There’s been just so many lean years, and people have been waiting so long in Edmonton for another team like that of the 80s.”

For Ms Gwaduri, a win is a chance for Edmonton to live up to its nickname once again.

“The new generation can now see that this was the City of Champions, and it still is,” she said.

She plans on watching the final game of the season with her husband and children, along with extended family members.

“It’ll be almost like we’re back in the 80s and 1990 with my family, coming together and watching (the team) potentially holding up that Cup.”