EDMONTON — How many obstacles stand in the way of a team with playoff aspirations from October to the night it achieves that spot in April?
For this edition of the Edmonton Oilers, the first to achieve a three-year string of playoff appearances since the 1998-2001 teams, there has been more than most.
A No. 1 goalkeeper who couldn’t get his health back until well into the new year. A head coach who never found the solution, so his GM found it for him, with a slick hire that’s looking better by the day. A six-game losing streak, followed by a seven-game losing streak that had these Oilers out of a playoff spot in late January.
“It was too high and low a season. I think everyone would agree with that,” admitted Leon Draisaitl, moments after the team clinched a playoff spot in a dazzling 6-3 game before a sold-out crowd at Rogers Place. “But… good teams go through that, and we knew from the beginning of the season that we had a good team. It was hard for us to stay healthy, that’s a big problem. (And) every team goes through that.”
On a night in which Evander Kane scored three and added an assist, the Oilers finally came out of a game with Colorado with two points, after losing in overtime and a penalty shootout earlier this season, two games that were high level and tremendously entertaining. How was the game on Friday?
The win gave them 98 points and an ‘X’ next to their names in the Western Conference standings. But with the Los Angeles Kings an almost certain opponent in the first round, the moment gave them something else: a sense that they’re ready for whatever lies ahead.
“We talk about adversity all the time, and there are two ways to do it,” said goalie Mike Smith, who was once again better than his counterpart, Darcy Kuemper, that night. “(You can) feel sorry for yourself, or grab it and do something about it. And I really feel like going through the tough times this year really made this team stick together and grow and understand what it takes to win tight hockey games.
“It’s easy to just stop playing when things go wrong and give up. But it’s hard to fight through those tough times and do something about it. Do something about it,” he said, “there will be times in the playoffs when you don’t get it right. But you just have to stick together, stick together as a group, and good things will happen.”
A year ago this team entered a playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets after managing the Jets all season. They were then rudely swept, left to ponder what they were missing in the playoffs, when the regular season had gone so well.
This year the regular season was more complicated. But when you look at what this team is today, it’s infinitely superior to the one that became Winnipeg’s doormat last spring.
Kane has been a threat on McDavid’s left side, a conglomerate of speed, power and accuracy, with an infectious on-ice attitude that brings his teammates into the proverbial fray.
Zach Hyman is new, a solid, professional 25-goal man who makes his linemates better and is stubborn up front.
Duncan Keith is an upgrade at the back, a big one that could be tapped if Darnell Nurse, who left Friday’s game in the second period, is injured for an extended period of time. Smith is back and, if anything, playing even better today than he was a year ago.
Connor McDavid is twice as much a 200-footer today as he was a year ago, and Draisaitl has improved as well, from a starting point that was ahead of the captain. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the middle of the back row and young Ryan McLeod in the fourth, the Oilers are super strong in the middle, a critical characteristic of any decent playoff club.
And now, for the first time in three years, they’ll unfurl it all in front of a hockey-mad city that’s ready to once again assume its role in it all.
The place was on fire on Friday. When the playoffs begin in May, Friday’s scene will look like a church picnic.
“That atmosphere, that’s part of what we play,” Draisaitl smiled. “At the end of the day, the main goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and it’s fun to see these people come out and cheer us on. Even when things don’t go our way, they seem to find a way to support us.
“We are excited to be inside. That step one is done.”