How bottoming out made these Oilers stronger contenders than ever

EDMONTON – Imagine informing the Edmonton Oilers when they hit rock bottom Nov. 9 in San Jose that they had nothing to worry about.

That despite a loss to the lowly Sharks that night that left them with a 2-9-1 record on the season and mired in a shocking abyss, in less than six months they would be finishing off a very good Los Angeles Kings team in five games. to reach the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Right at that moment after a loss to the lowly San Jose Sharks? I’m not sure that sounded too realistic.

“That was a low point, I would say even in my career, I felt it,” superstar captain Connor McDavid said Wednesday night after his team booked its ticket to the second round. “We had a meeting the next day (after the San Jose loss) and the meeting was: ‘There’s nowhere else to go. We are the last ones.’ It was hard to realize that, you know? But at the end of the day, it was a meeting that allowed the guys to let go of some things we were holding on to. This need to have a big year and whatever, suddenly became, ‘Let’s get back to it.’

“A lot of guys were saying, ‘We want to win the division.’ “We want to be the first.” “We want to do all this.” But that forced us to just say, “Let’s win the next game.” Let’s win the next two. Let’s have a good week.” I thought it was a good thing for our group.

“I think the beginning of the season really forced us to be short-sighted.”

In retrospect, what the Oilers will admit is that they had not fully recovered at the start of this season from a devastating second-round loss to Las Vegas, a loss that was so deep it produced those cup-or-bust comments from the leaders. . core last May that drove this season’s narrative.

But when it came time to take the ice, it was as if the Oilers wanted to get back to the second round of the playoffs and avoid the inconveniences of an 82-game season.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that.

And when the Oilers realized that, when they hit rock bottom in hockey, they knew it was time to put that Las Vegas playoff loss dancing in their brains aside and focus on the task at hand: saving their season. .

“This was a team that scored 108 points last year and went to the second round,” Oilers general manager Ken Holland said. The Athletic after Wednesday night’s 4-3 win over the Kings, which capped the series. “He has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. We were in a bad moment. My concern was that we were going to dig a huge hole, and how do you get out of that huge hole? I knew we were going to start winning, but you don’t know how long that slump is going to last.”

Worst record in the NHL on November 9

It forced a coaching change one game after that loss in San Jose, Kris Knoblauch replaced Jay Woodcroft, and well, the change was ultimately spectacular. Although it is not something this team wants to experience again.

“At one point we were 24-3,” Holland said. “It’s the National Hockey League. You can’t count on that every year. “We’re certainly excited to have gotten through the first round, and when you look back, I think that adversity was a good thing.”

In retrospect, it was a good thing because it toughened them up. This Oilers team has been working for a while now. No shortcuts. It has been a sharp focus on the task at hand.

The lesson of finally putting aside last May’s second-round defeat was hard. But in fact, they are better for it.

Best record in the NHL after November 9

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“I think for a lot of teams, when you have a big disappointment and you come back the next season, and our guys made a decision two weeks early for training camp, we wanted to be prepared,” Holland said. “But you realize you have to play 82 games to take advantage of the opportunity. The regular season matters. You have to start all over again.”

“I never lost faith that this group of players would dig themselves out of the early-season hole and be a playoff team,” Oilers executive director of hockey operations Jeff Jackson said. “We are very fortunate to have the leadership group that we have in our locker room and our deadline additions, and I include Corey Perry in that group, have added a lot of depth to our team. “I feel like now we can play whatever style we need to play to win games.”

You can see the clear growth of this team just by looking at their performance in three consecutive first-round series against the Kings. It took seven games to dispatch Los Angeles in 2021-22, a series that had many wobbles. And a year ago it took six games, losing once again the first game at home.

This year? Finally, a win in Game 1 to set the tone, two road wins in Los Angeles, find a way to get a defensive win, 1-0 in Game 4, and then take care of business Wednesday night with the Kings fighting for their lives in the playoffs. .

The added benefit is a short series. That matters when you’re a team trying to play deep into the playoffs.

“First of all, you want to win the series,” Holland said. “You win both games in Los Angeles and you come home for Game 5, you want to win, so you have a couple of days off to breathe and focus on the next round. There is a hockey team there (the Kings) that scores 100 points every year. “They have guys that won the Stanley Cup, so we knew they were going to come out strong tonight.”

But as Holland noted, the Oilers played a nearly flawless third period to close out the series. That’s what veteran contenders do.

“What I liked in the third period is that we managed the puck,” Holland said. “We weren’t trying to score another goal, 30-second shifts, shoot the puck. We were on top of the record. We moved them forward 200 feet. They scored a goal and thank God we had a two-goal lead, but I think we didn’t give up much in the third period and that’s maturity.”

And the Oilers get some rest while the Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks continue to battle. Don’t underestimate the importance of a short first round in that regard. Oilers superstar Leon Draisaitl called it “huge” and noted it also means avoiding another long flight to Los Angeles for Game 6.

As Draisaitl said, all of these things add up when your goal is to play deep into the postseason.

And here they are, in the second round, the crime scene, where their hearts were broken a year ago. And the lingering effects of that loss nearly destroyed them for this season.

Instead, they are stronger and ready to make amends.

The McDavid and Draisaitl Oilers have never looked more like serious Cup contenders than they do here and now.

Which seemed almost impossible on November 9 on Shark Tank.

(Photo by Connor McDavid and Stuart Skinner: Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)