EDMONTON – The Edmonton Oilers had opened the season with back-to-back wins over Calgary, pretty heady stuff for an organization that had been beaten into submission by their southern neighbours for years.
So it took everyone by surprise when head coach Todd McLellan took the boots to his club after their first loss, a 6-2 drubbing at Rogers Place back on Oct. 16. He was overtly sour, as the following snippets would attest:
"We looked like the Bad News Bears."
"No one was ready to play."
"We learned that we’re not ready to take a step."
"We just got kicked right between the legs, and we deserved it."
"We have some foundation things that we have to continue to fix. Stupidity is one of them."
Stupidity is one of them…?
Fast forward to Monday afternoon when McLellan, behind the very same podium, was being quizzed about an Oilers club that can clinch its first playoff berth since 2006 with a win over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night. His team is not only a lock to make the playoffs, but the Oilers sit within two points of the Pacific Division lead as they open a crucial homestand against the three California teams.
Was there ever a point where McLellan realized he had a club that could win the Division?
"Standing here today, a moment I reflect on was Game 3 against Buffalo," he said, about to shed a little light on why he appeared to so overreact to that loss.
"We’d had a good training camp. We were alert and paying attention to detail. We’d worked out butts off, and had a couple of good games against Calgary. When we played against Buffalo I saw a lot of habits, a lot of body language, a lot of commitment issues that we had seen in the past."
You’ll recall that the coach and the Oilers leadership group (read: Milan Lucic) cancelled a Players’ Association mandated day off the next day in favour of a practice, a move that sent some early season ripples through the National Hockey League. But the plan worked, and Edmonton ripped off five straight wins to find themselves at 7-1 early in the year.
It was the dawn of something new here in Edmonton. A sign that perhaps it was time we look at this club through a different lens.
"You try and do that every year, but especially this year," agreed Eberle, who with the departure of Taylor Hall became the longest serving Oilers player. "Look around the locker room: Nuge and I were the only ones who have been here a while. Everyone else, it was one or two years. Having a new building helped, too. We built a new team around it."
It truly has taken some time to stop looking at the Oilers and wondering when the floor is going to drop out. But after that hot start they have held their place right around No. 10 in the NHL standings all season long, a consistency that speaks to success finally getting a foothold here.
"There was a new atmosphere. A new building, a new dressing room — it was almost a fresh start," said Nugent-Hopkins, who noted the void left by Hall’s absence. "He was a big part of the team for five years. Right from the get go it was different."
Into that void stepped Connor McDavid, and it is a bit comical to look back to October and recall folks wondering if the captaincy would weigh him down.
"I give Connor a lot of credit for being the leader he is at such a young age," veteran Matt Hendricks said. "He plays the game the team way. He plays to the system. He understands that we need to give a little on the offensive side to be better on the defensive side. He buys into it, and he preaches it.
"We are a young team, and he’s a very, very good role model."
Now we know why McLellan was so upset that Sunday in October. He’d worked so hard in his initial season to iron out the traits of a loser, and three games into Season 2 there they were — all present in a 6-2 loss on home ice.
They cancelled that off day, and for the most part, exorcised those demons for good.
"We weren’t going to let it slip. It became very business-like," McLellan said. "Did it turn the light on that we would have a chance to fight for first place? No, but it was something that needed to happen."
The perennial losers turned a corner that day. Now, they’re chasing first place.
Really, did anyone see this coming?