There are many times in any given season when a game is important to a hockey club. Going into last night’s contest between the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, on paper, this game was not one of them.
The Oilers knew prior to the puck drop that the team had sewn up second place in the Pacific Division and home-ice advantage in the postseason. It’s why head coach Jay Woodcroft elected to sit stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, not taking the chance either would get injured ahead of a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Kings. That said, there was more to the decision than avoiding potential injuries.
Oilers Needed Some Reassurance
On a hot streak and going for 15-straight points on home ice, there has been an underlying narrative all season (at least outside the Edmonton market) that this team doesn’t roll without McDavid and Draisaitl in the lineup. With the exception of Darnell Nurse — who is out with an injury — this was an opportunity for everyone on this roster not in the Hart Trophy conversation to prove this Oilers’ roster is more than a two-man team. Deeper than they’ve been in years, it was time to show just how many threats this squad has.
All other starters (not counting Mike Smith) played. The leadership core of the team when the two stars aren’t in where on the ice to usher this team forward. Known in the past as a team that can win in the regular season, new blood like Zach Hyman and Duncan Keith, even Evander Kane were responsible for showing the rest of the roster that, if push came to shove and a star was lost for part of series, this team could manage. Playoff experienced additions like Brett Kulak stepped up and guys who had been there before and weren’t afraid of the team’s lack of playoff success in seasons past made their mark.
The Oilers were playing a hot Canucks team that wasn’t going to lay down and the third period was an indication that this team had the wherewithal to battle back.
Going Into the Playoffs Hot
The Oilers have been one of the best teams in the NHL since Woodcroft took over behind the bench. A loss on Friday wouldn’t have changed that, but a win certainly gave the Oilers confidence when they needed it most.
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A 6-0 blowout without McDavid and Draisaitl would have left everyone with a number of questions. A poor performance by Mikko Koskinen would have insiders suggesting the series hinges on Smith and his ability to stay healthy. Even though they came out of the gates slowly, the Oilers didn’t get destroyed and Koskinen played extremely well, picking up two critical wins as the season closed to build his confidence.
The playoffs are often about momentum. Streaky play, when it’s on your side, can make all the difference. If the Oilers can keep the momentum on their side, they could ride the wave for a while. Perhaps no team feels better about their chances than the Oilers do right now. Don’t underestimate what that means: that’s huge.
Win A Playoff Style Game
Also important, the Oilers won that game despite the officials putting their whistles away. Only one power-play opportunity was offered to the team and that’s critical to note because the Oilers will have to find playoff success without the man advantage. During an entire series against the Winnipeg Jets last season, McDavid didn’t draw a single call. That rarity is unlikely to repeat itself, but the Oilers can’t expect to be offered numerous power-play opportunities.
Friday’s win showed this team that they don’t necessarily need to play 5-on-4 to win.
Their victory over the Canucks on Friday might have meant absolutely nothing in the standings, but you can bet it meant a lot to the players and the coaching staff. Perhaps that game put to rest any doubts the team might have had (if any) that they were good enough to compete when the chips were down and they needed to test their will to win, their resilience, and their fortitude in the face of questions that have existed all season long.
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