Edmonton Oilers still learning how to win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan comments after a disappointing Game 1 loss to the San Jose Sharks.

EDMONTON – In the pantheon of Edmonton Oilers coaches, Todd McLellan is the anti-Dallas Eakins.

Eakins, an analytics prophet, gave every member of the Oilers inner circle a token to have in their possession at all times, this proving their commitment to the cause. Eakins was a fitness freak who sent letters out to his players in the summertime outlining his fitness requirements, and even took the misguided step of extending his diet plan to the media covering the team, for reasons nobody ever figured out.

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So when McLellan caught himself referencing a metaphorical “little red box” on Thursday, the day after a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 1, he knew right away he was out of character.

The question was succinct and well asked — “What’s the difference between winning in April and winning in November?” — and McLellan thought for a moment before answering.

“We have this little red box of things, uh… It’s going to sound corny,” he said. Like a suicide pass leaving his stick, he’d have taken the “little red box” shtick back if he could, but it was too late.

Eakins would have had a little red box, and he would have installed it on a well-lit dais in the Oilers room. Perhaps right under his slogan “Chop Wood And Carry Water” a campy mantra if ever there was.

But McLellan’s little red box was something he scrawled on the whiteboard back around Christmas time, the most literal method he could conceive while trying to teach a young team all the things encompassed under the term “winning.”

What went into the box?

“(Things that) make a difference in winning and losing,” he explained. “It’s not about the reverse on the breakout; it’s not about the faceoff play that you run in the offensive zone.

“It’s about game management. It’s about shift management. It’s about momentum, discipline, commitment level… All those catch-words that coaches use to fill those boxes. And there aren’t very many analytic guys out there that can chart them.”

McLellan has spent two seasons in Edmonton trying to teach winning to an organization that had lost more than any in the NHL over the preceding decade. And he did a hell of a job, producing a team this season that won more games against the West and the Pacific than other team in the conference or division.

Then the playoffs start, his old team rolls into town, and the Oilers walk right out of McLellan’s classroom and into the San Jose Sharks School of Hard Knocks.

Lesson No. 1 was meted out by the Sharks from puck drop in the second period, to Melker Karlsson’s overtime winner. It was Puck Possession 101, and there was no recess.

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“They played like a more experienced team,” said veteran centre Mark Letestu. “It’s a lesson.”

The fact is, the Oilers have learned reams about winning — in the regular season. Lessons like the ones the Sharks taught them in Game 1, however, those classes don’t get offered until spring session.

Fail enough of those tests, and they kick you out of school until next fall.

“It’s a matter of handling those momentum shifts,” said San Jose’s Jannik Hansen, “and they happen shift to shift, period to period and game to game as well.”

Edmonton took a 2-0 first period lead, went to the dressing room for intermission, and never had control of the game again. At a time of year when momentum swings wildly, it swung once in Game 1 — and never swung back Edmonton’s way again.

“You’ve got to take those experiences where you had to learn how to win in the regular season and apply them to a playoff game,” said Milan Lucic, who had two points in his Oilers playoff debut. “Yeah, it is different, because everything is more magnified. Every mistake and every breakdown can cost you. And it did (Wednesday) because they were able to apply their will and apply their pressure for the last two periods.

“That’s where we need to re-learn how to win a game here in the playoffs.”

Not quite, Milan.

Your team learned how to win in the regular season. Now, it has to learn how to win in the post-season.

One is undergrad stuff. The other an after degree.


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