Oilers chase first championship in 26 years
Adam Pleskach, Tulsa Oilers team captain
The last time the Tulsa Oilers won a league championship, Nirvana was the biggest band around, “Jurassic Park” was breaking box office records, and most of the players on the current team hadn’t even been born yet.
A lot has changed since the Oilers won the 1993 Central Hockey League title, but following one of the greatest regular seasons ever by a hockey team in Tulsa, they are ready to chase another championship.
In their fifth year in the ECHL (essentially the Double-A level of minor league hockey, the second rung below the NHL), Tulsa finished with a 42-24-6 record, compiling their most victories since 1982 and the third-most in their 67 seasons. They claimed the Mountain Division crown, finished second in the Western Conference, and will participate in the playoffs for the first time in four years and the third since 2005.
The Oilers face the Kansas City Mavericks in the opening round, hosting Games 1 and 2 on April 11 and 14 at the BOK Center.
But as great as the regular season was, for Rob Murray, second-year head coach and director of hockey operations, it will all mean nothing without playoff success.
“That was our focus, to make the playoffs. We got that done, but now, we can’t be satisfied with that. We’ve got to perform well in the playoffs,” said Murray, who won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup with the Alaska Aces in 2014. “It’s been a few years since playoff hockey’s been played in Tulsa, and I’m proud of the team that we’re able to accomplish that. But I would be disappointed if we don’t make a deep run, to be honest with you.”
Leading the Oilers has been 30-year-old captain Adam Pleskach, who put together a stellar performance in his sixth year with Tulsa, leading the entire ECHL with 38 goals and finishing second with 75 points.
“He’s meant everything to us,” Murray said. “He’s a quality person. He’s a great captain—a character hockey player. He just gets it done every day, be it in practice or the games, and never takes a day off. For me, he’s priceless, really. When you look back, without Adam Pleskach, I don’t think we are where we are.”
The humble Pleskach, whose previous career highs were 24 goals in 2015-16 and 52 points last year, deflected any praise to his teammates.
“Part of it is just the players I’ve been playing with. I’ve been playing with some pretty gifted guys,” said Pleskach, who was named to the All-ECHL First Team. “I’m getting up there in age a little bit, but I take good care of myself. I came off a bad injury two years ago, which kind of held me back for a year, year and a half, and physically, I’m feeling the best I have in a while, so that’s probably been the biggest reason.”
Things might have imploded in early March if not for the performance of backup goalie Ian Keserich, who had been retired since 2013 but began serving as an emergency backup late last season. He got into a handful of games, but usually just participated in practices and was available if the team needed an extra goalie, just in case.
So when both goaltenders Devin Williams, who led the ECHL with a 2.12 goals-against average, and Evan Fitzpatrick, who spent a good chunk of the season with AHL San Antonio, got injured in mid-February, Keserich stepped in and more than held his own. He won the next three games, then got hurt himself for three games (two of which were losses) before starting seven straight from March 1–24, going 6-1-0 in those contests. Overall, Keserich was 9-3-0 with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage.
“We were in a tough spot,” Murray acknowledged. “We had Ian here as a backup goalie and he got into a period here or a period there, really didn’t play much, and then one night, Williams gets hurt. Fitzpatrick, up in San Antonio, gets hurt. Ian had been practicing with us all year, so it’s not like we got him off the couch. I had full confidence that he could get the job done.”
Both Williams and Fitzpatrick are back healthy and in Tulsa, and it is unlikely Keserich will play during the playoffs unless one or both of them gets hurt again, but his role in the team’s success was significant.
Now that the club’s first goal of reaching the playoffs has been achieved, it will be fun to see how far they can go towards a Kelly Cup.
“They don’t hang banners for playoff appearances, and I think the whole team is on board with that,” Pleskach said. “There’s been hockey here for so long and the fans here are passionate about it, and just being here for a long time, you kind of feel like you owe it to the city. I think [a championship] would mean a lot.”