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Unheralded Mark Letestu becomes a force for the Oilers

In 12 playoff games, Mark Letestu has 11 points for the Edmonton Oilers. That is second on the team to Leon Draisaitl – and two more than Connor McDavid.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Mark Letestu is so unheralded, he is not even his own five-year-old son's favourite hockey player.

"He likes Connor McDavid," said the Edmonton Oilers' third-line centre.

Playing on a team with the NHL's scoring leader makes it easy for Letestu to be overlooked, but the 32-year-old is quietly enjoying the best season of his career.

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In 12 playoff games, he has 11 points. That is second on the team to Leon Draisaitl – and two more than McDavid. On Sunday, Letestu had two goals and four points as Edmonton rolled over Anaheim 7-1, forcing a Game 7 in the second-round series at the Honda Center on Wednesday night.

Even then, his effort was overshadowed. With the Oilers facing elimination, Draisaitl posted his first hat trick in the NHL and first five-point game. Letestu was chosen the second star.

"It was fun," he said. "We have a gutsy group of guys. We are better than people give us credit for."

That can certainly be said of Letestu. He is the leader on the team in faceoffs, one of its best penalty killers, and a top producer on McDavid's No. 1 power-play unit. With six winning goals this season, Letestu tied the 20-year-old captain for the team lead.

"I feel I am a good player," he said. "It is just that the success that is coming my way is a little different. This is the right fit at the right time for me."

He is not a particularly fast skater, nor very large at a compact 5-foot-10. He is simply a hard-working guy who has found a niche as a role player. He is easy to cheer for, accommodating, affable and smart, and a small-town boy from Elk Point, Alta. When he goes home now, he makes time to skate with the local kids.

His wife, Brett, was in fourth grade and he was in sixth when they met. They began dating in the last year of high school, and married in 2010. They have three young children, a McDavid fan among them.

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"I played hockey with her brother and then dated his sister," Letestu said. "I was pretty lucky. She has been with me every step of the way. She even stayed with me in a hotel when I played for the Wheeling Nailers. It must be love."

Letestu was never drafted and never played at the major-junior level. He was a top player for the Bonnyville Pontiacs in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and his jersey hangs from the rafters there. He received a hockey scholarship to Western Michigan University and planned to be an accountant.

"There wasn't a whole lot of interest in me," he said. "I didn't think I'd ever play in the NHL."

He signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007, and spent most of the next three years toiling with Wilkes-Barre of the AHL and the Nailers, a West Virginia-based outfit in the East Coast Hockey League. He had 27 points in his rookie season with Pittsburgh in 2010-11, playing on the power play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The Penguins traded him to Columbus in 2011 for a fourth-round draft pick, and then he signed a three-year free-agent contract with the Oilers a few days after they drafted McDavid with the first pick in the summer of 2015.

He had a career-high 16 goals this season and tied for his career high with 34 points. He was second on the team to Milan Lucic with 11 power-play goals, and has had four more in the playoffs.

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"There was not a lot of fanfare when I was put on the power-play unit, so I wanted to prove that I belong there," he said. "It has turned into something. I have kind of carved out a role on the team with it.

"It is my job to shoot. I try to hit it as hard as I can and hope it gets over the goalie's pads."

He has had two two-goal games against the Ducks in the second round that culminates on Wednesday night. The winner will play the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference finals.

The Oilers were coming off back-to-back overtime losses when they pounded Anaheim on Sunday night. Draisaitl scored two of his three goals and Letestu got both of his as Edmonton took a 5-0 first-period lead.

One fan danced in the aisles at Rogers Place, drawing roars from the crowd as he pulled off an Oilers T-shirt only to reveal another and another and another. Fans were honking their car horns afterward in the street.

The series resumes in Southern California – which is right where the Oilers want it. They won Games 1 and 2 on the Ducks' home ice. In each of the past four years, Anaheim has lost in a Game 7 after leading a series 3-2.

"We have the ingredients to get the result we need," Letestu said. "I think we are ready. We are confident we can beat this team."

It has already been a career year for him, and the playoffs have been full of fits and starts. The one thing that has been consistent is the fan support. The Oilers' followers are so fervent that Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle took his team 900 kilometres to Kelowna, B.C., in between Games 3 and 4 to get away from them.

"I walk my son to school in the morning and teachers tell me how proud they are of the Oilers," he said. "We are in this as a community together. When we come on to the ice before a home game, the crowd is so loud the hair stands up on the back of my neck."

Letestu said he has only played in one Game 7 – with the Penguins – and it didn't go well.

"When I am watching Game 7s on TV, I chew my fingernails to the nub," he said. "It is cool to be a part of."

He has five goals during the Oilers' playoff run, same as McDavid.

That still doesn't go very far with his son. Letestu isn't even his second-favourite player.

"I am a close third, behind Cam Talbot," Letestu said.

Video: Oilers expect Game 7 against Ducks to be ‘a lot tighter’ (The Canadian Press)
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