EDMONTON — How many hurdles stand in the way of a team with playoff aspirations from October to the night it clinches that spot in April?
For this edition of the Edmonton Oilers, the first to accomplish a three-year string of playoff appearances since the 1998-2001 teams, there have been more than most.
A No. 1 goalie who couldn’t find his health until well into the new year. A head coach who never found the solution, so his general manager found it for him, with a deft hire that looks better by the day. A six-game losing streak, followed by a seven-gamer that had these Oilers outside a playoff spot late in January.
“It was a little bit too much of an up-and-down season. I think everyone would agree with that,” admitted Leon Draisaitl, moments after the team had 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 is a big issue. (And) every team goes through that.”
On a night where Evander Kane scored three and added an assist, the Oilers finally walked out of a game with Colorado with two points, after losing in an overtime and a shootout earlier this season, two games that were as high-pedigree and wildly entertaining as Friday’s game was.
The win gave them 98 points and an ‘X’ beside their names in the Western Conference standings. But with the Los Angeles Kings an almost certain first round opponent, the moment gave them something else — a feeling that they’re ready for what lies ahead.
“We talk about adversity all the time, and there are two ways to go about it,” said goalie Mike Smith, who was once again better than his opposite number, Darcy Kuemper, on the 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, grow and understand what it takes to win tight hockey games.
“It’s easy to just stop playing when things are going bad, and give in. But it’s hard to battle through those tough times and to do something with it. Do something about it,” he said, “There are going to be times in the playoffs when it’s not going to go your way. But you’ve just got to stick with it, stick together as a group and good things will happen.”
A year ago this team waltzed into a playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets after handling the Jets all season long. Then they were rudely swept, and left to ponder what it was they lacked in the playoffs, when the regular season had gone so swimmingly.
This year the regular season was more of a slog. But when you look at what this team is today, it is infinitely superior to the one that became Winnipeg’s doormat last spring.
Kane has been a menace on McDavid’s left side, a conglomeration of speed, power and snipe, with an on-ice attitude that is infectious, bringing his teammates into the proverbial fight.
Zach Hyman is new, a solid, professional 25-goal man who makes his linemates better and is dogged on the forecheck.
Duncan Keith is an upgrade on the back end, a big one who might be tapped if Darnell Nurse – who let Friday’s game in the second period — is hurt for any length of time. Smith is back, and if anything playing even better today than a year ago.
Connor McDavid is today twice the 200-foot player he was a year ago, and Draisaitl has improved as well, from a starting point that was ahead of the captain’s. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins centering the third line, and young Ryan McLeod the fourth, the Oilers are uber strong down the middle, a pivotal feature of any decent playoff club.
And now, for the first time in three years, they’ll roll it all out in front of a hockey mad city that’s ready to once again assume its role in all of this.
The place was on fire Friday. When the playoffs open in May, that Friday scene will seem like a church picnic.
“That atmosphere, that is part of what we play for,” smiled Draisaitl. “At the end of the day the main goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and it is fun seeing these people come out and cheering us on. Even when it is not going our way, they seem to find a way to support us.
“We are excited that we are in. That step one is done.”