EDMONTON — Zack Kassian, like almost every NHL player who was not in St. Louis, did not see a second of the all-star festivities over the weekend. Instead, he was in Santa Monica with his wife and daughter, far away from the skills and thrills, sticks and pucks.
“Just relaxed, hung out by the pool, went to the beach… Got some sun on my bald head, and came back to Edmonton,” he laughed after a tough Sunday afternoon practice that must have felt like punishment for a week in the sun.
“Sneaky bag skate today,” smiled Oilers head coach Dave Tippett, only half-joking. “Lots of drills back and forth. Just ‘cause it’s a two-on-one, it doesn’t mean you’re not working.”
They gathered across the NHL again on Sunday, rusty, sun burnt, and like the rest of us, shocked by the horrible news from Los Angeles. It was a throw-away practice day, yet it was also the first day of the rest of the season.
And when you’re in the Pacific Division, well, it is as if there is a whole new mini-season. Like everything that’s happened so far is almost meaningless.
“Kinda like the lockout year, where there were (48) games that we played,” Kassian compared. “That’s essentially where we’re at — everyone is at zero. We’re all even.
“It’s fun to be in the mix, fun to be in the stretch. Going to be a good couple of months here.”
On Wednesday, the Oilers will open a stretch of 32 games in 63 days, followed by a three-day break prior to Game 82 at Calgary. Their first four games back include three against teams they are currently tied with and one against the best team in the Western Conference.
“Calgary, St. Louis, Calgary, Arizona,” listed Tippett. “This is good. This is the fun part.”
Fun indeed, for an Oilers team that sits with 57 points — one point behind Vancouver in the Pacific, tied with Calgary, Arizona and Vegas. A team that would set an all-time record for NHL futility should it miss the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 seasons has its destiny squarely in its own hands.
“We’re right in it,” said Darnell Nurse, fresh off a vacation in Aspen, Colorado. “It’s a position that, if you’d have asked us at the beginning of the year if we wanted to be in a nice dog fight from all-star break on to the end, we’d have been more than happy to be a part of it. Gonna be fun.”
Edmonton went into the all-star break on a 6-1-1 heater, as hot or hotter than any of the clubs they’re battling. It’s a core group that has tasted far too much failure, and is ready to tear through the next two months with a notion to bury what has become a tired springtime storyline in these parts.
“We’re hungry,” Nurse said. “We all believe we have the right guys to do it.”
There is a still a trade deadline at which general manager Ken Holland can tweak this lineup, but the run that sent Edmonton into the break was truly heartening for this organization. They stumbled hard in December, then came out of the Christmas break with an embarrassing 5-1 loss at home to Calgary. Four nights later the Oilers very nearly did something no team in the history of the NHL has ever done: they very nearly coughed up a 6-0 lead.
They hung on to beat the New York Rangers 7-5 that night, but the Oilers found themselves at a crossroads after allowing 10 goals in two post-Christmas home games. Either they would figure out how to play playoff-type hockey, or the playoffs would once again be something that is exclusive to Southern Alberta.
Since then, Edmonton has won games in Boston and Toronto, beat Nashville and Arizona in convincing fashion, and rekindled the Battle of Alberta to a temperature unseen since about 1991.
They’ve earned the right to be a playoff contender. Exercising that right begins Wednesday when Calgary shows up at Rogers Place.
“We’re at a point now where, we’ve got ourselves in the game,” said Tippett. “I’ve never seen it this close within a division. Basically, your stretch drive starts a month early. The importance of every game, every point, is magnified because the standings are going to jump around every day.”
As a new coach in Edmonton, Tippett spent the first 49 games getting to know his roster. Now he has 33 games to coach that roster into Round 1, a feat that would make him mighty popular in this town.
“The first part of the year you get to know your team,” he said. “Now these games get tighter. You can’t have soft nights. You need everyone to contribute, and that will be magnified because of the importance of every game.”
In a city that hasn’t had a meaningful stretch run since 2017, “magnified” might not be a strong enough word.