Opening night of the National Hockey League playoffs is a big deal for everyone that’s involved, and for three members of the Edmonton Oilers, it’s going to be extra special. When the Oilers host the Winnipeg Jets in Game 1 of the North Division Semifinal Wednesday night (7 p.m. MT), Edmonton forwards Dominik Kahun, Ryan McLeod and Jesse Puljujarvi will make their NHL playoff debuts.
Every time a player suits up for a postseason game, it’s an accomplishment. Just ask Buffalo Sabres forward Jeff Skinner, who has played 773 games in the regular season and zero in the playoffs over 11 NHL seasons. Or his teammate Jack Eichel, who has made three trips to the All-Star Game but none to the postseason since coming into the league in 2015.
Wednesday will be a night to remember for Kahun, McLeod and Puljujarvi. Each has a unique journey bringing them to this point, and each head into their first postseason with different roles and expectations.
The 25-year-old forward missed the playoffs in his rookie season, 2018-19, with the Chicago Blackhawks. A playoff trip seemed to be in the cards after he was traded in the 2019 off-season to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who haven’t missed the postseason since 2005-06. However, those plans were brought to a screeching halt at the 2020 trade deadline, when the Penguins dealt Kahun to Buffalo, a team that hasn’t advanced beyond the regular season since 2011.
Kahun, a frequent teammate of Oilers superstar Leon Draisaitl when the pair was growing up in Germany, signed a one-year contract with Edmonton last November. He spent a good portion of the season on Draisaitl’s left wing but has since moved up to the Oilers’ top line with Connor McDavid and Puljujarvi.
A possible indication of the significance Oilers coach Dave Tippett envisions for Kahun came in Edmonton’s second-to-last game of the season, against the Montreal Canadiens on May 12, when Kahun became just the seventh Oiler this season to see the ice in overtime. Kahun skated out for the first shift of sudden death and scored the winning goal 27 seconds later. He ended the season with nine goals (tied for sixth on the team) and 15 points in 48 games.
Barely three weeks after playing in his first NHL regular-season game, a 6-1 win in Winnipeg on April 26, McLeod will take the ice for his first NHL playoff game against these same Jets on Wednesday.
It has, indeed, been a whirlwind month for the 21-year-old center, who received his first NHL call-up from the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League on April 20 and was inserted into the Oilers lineup as soon as he had cleared quarantine.
McLeod, who was producing at a point-per-game average in the AHL this season, only recorded one assist in 10 appearances with the Oilers but clearly earned Tippett’s trust with his dependable play, averaging nearly 13 minutes on Edmonton’s third line. He will begin Game 1 playing between left wing James Neal, Edmonton’s most playoff-experienced player, and right wing Zack Kassian, who is returning after missing the last four weeks because of injury. McLeod will also be used on the penalty kill.
Of Edmonton’s playoff newbies, no one has waited longer – or gone through more – to get here than Puljujarvi, who has played 194 regular-season games since making his NHL debut five seasons ago.
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By now, the Finnish forward’s story of redemption is well known: Drafted fourth overall by Edmonton in 2016, Puljujarvi’s first three years in the organization went so poorly that he left the Oilers and returned to his home country, where he spent the 2019-20 season on loan, playing with Karpat in the Finnish National League. There was doubt about whether Puljujarvi would ever don an Oilers uniform again, but he ultimately signed a two-year deal with the club last October and returned to Edmonton, a brand new man.
Noticeably more comfortable off the ice, Puljujarvi has played far more assuredly on it, and the results – 15 goals, 25 points, and a plus-six rating (fourth among Oilers forwards in all three categories) speak for themselves. He earned a promotion to the top line during the season and proved a solid fit on McDavid’s right wing. From no one knowing what to expect of Puljujarvi just a few months ago, the just-turned-23-year-old (whose birthday went viral) is now being counted on to compliment the world’s greatest player in his postseason debut.
Like Kahun and McLeod, Puljujarvi should take a moment to cherish the experience before puck drop. Then it’s time to get down to business for the playoff rookies, who could make a big difference for the Oilers this spring if they perform like postseason veterans.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.