Striking Oil The improbable addition of center Petr Nedved has revived Edmonton

April 04, 2004

Not long after the Oilers newest, hottest center had iced yet
another win last Friday (3-1 over the Kings), Edmonton coach
Craig MacTavish was marveling. "That was a goal scorer's goal,"
he said of Petr Nedved's nifty top-shelf backhander. "That's why
we were so excited to get him."

Five weeks ago the Oilers brass never imagined they would be able
to import a sniper of Nedved's pedigree (that goal was the 300th
of his career) nor that he would be sealing a game with playoff
implications. In late February, Edmonton was buried in 10th place
in the Western Conference with a 25-27-10-1 record, nine points
behind Los Angeles for the final postseason berth. "We were far
enough out that it was almost impossible [to make the playoffs],"
general manager Kevin Lowe says. "We weren't ready to take on

His thinking changed in a New York minute. Over their next three
games the Oilers closed to within six points of the Kings, the
beginning of a stretch in which, through Sunday, they had gone
10-0-2-4 and vaulted into a frantic four-way race--with L.A., the
Blues and the Predators--for the West's last two playoff berths.
After beating the Coyotes 4-2 on Sunday, Edmonton, with 87
points, held a two-point lead over Nashville for the final spot.

In a sense it was Rangers general manager Glen Sather, already an
Edmonton hero for coaching the Oilers to four Stanley Cups in the
1980s, who rescued the team. In early March he made a trade offer
Lowe couldn't refuse: Nedved and backup goalie Jussi Markkanen
for two prospects and a second-round pick in this summer's entry
draft. With his speed and scoring ability, Nedved, 32, was a
perfect fit for the Oilers, who lacked an elite pivotman and who
play their home games on one of the league's fastest ice sheets.

But the deal-sealer for small-market Edmonton was this: The
Rangers agreed to pay the remainder of Nedved's $4.5 million
salary (roughly $900,000) this season. Nedved, who was slogging
through a down year (14 goals in 65 games) in New York, has been
energized in Edmonton. Playing alongside erstwhile Rangers
linemate and fellow Czech Radek Dvorak, he had five goals and
eight assists in 13 games.

The trade also freed Lowe to ship struggling goalie Tommy Salo to
the Avalanche at the deadline and hand the starting job to Ty
Conklin, with Markkanen as a backup. Salo's shakiness and
sub-.900 save percentage were a drag on Edmonton's confidence.
The Conklin-Markkanen tandem (a combined 2.22 goals-against
average since the trade) has been a more calming presence in net,
and the Oilers will need that stability in a grueling final week
that includes games at St. Louis, Dallas and Vancouver.

Nedved's stay in Edmonton will likely last only until the Oilers
play their final game this season. Lowe, who carries the league's
sixth-lowest payroll ($31 million), is highly unlikely to
exercise Nedved's $5 million option for next year. Still, the
trade has been an emotional lift in a dressing room accustomed to
seeing star players immigrate to, not emigrate from, bigger
markets. "We're battling for the playoffs, and they bring in a
guy like Petr?" says Dvorak. "That's a great move by the team."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Nedved's offense has his team jostling for playoff position.

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