EDMONTON — The Oilers haven’t experienced a lot of post-seasons the past 15 years, but you can’t deny that they’ve built a pretty good team up here for the 2019-20 season. Fast, exciting, tons of promise.
So to finally have a team that is poised to make the playoffs and possibly even win a round or two, and then to lose out on that due to COVID-19 — while realizing where NHL hockey slots into the world order right now — it stings up here in the province that spring forgot.
“You get to those (regular season) games where the intensity level is there, the pressure to win is there and those are all things you put in that memory bank,” began Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “Then you get to a playoff series, and you have one opponent. You’ve got to make adjustments — not just in-game but game-to-game. You have ways of finding advantages over a team when you’re playing them night after night, and those are things that are different from your regular NHL schedule.
“You get into that playoff series and you’ve got to find ways to win, and sometimes those ways are different every night.”
Tippett was speaking over Zoom from his place in sunny Arizona, to a group of media in Edmonton, where it was minus-10 Celsius with a fresh 8-10 centimetres of snow on the ground.
Tuesday night was supposed to be Game 81 of the Oilers’ season — a head-to-head matchup here between Edmonton and the Vegas Golden Knights. It could have been a Round 2 preview, with Edmonton trailing Vegas by six points with 11 games to play.
Then on Saturday, the Oilers would travel to Calgary for a Hockey Night in Canada game that — had the standings held — would have been the first of a possible eight in a row against the Flames. How awesome would these two games, followed by a Battle of Alberta in Round 1, have been?
And how valuable would it be for guys like McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ethan Bear, Kailer Yamamoto and the rest of a team that finally looks like it could be a Cup contender for some time to come?
“Those are experiences that players go through, especially young players, that they can put in the memory bank,” Tippett said. “As you continue to go through those scenarios, you build up more of that knowledge about what it takes to win in those scenarios.
“I’ve talked to a bunch of people over the last few weeks. St. Louis went through it a bunch of times and then finally it just clicked in and now they are a very confident group. They think if they come back, they have a chance to compete for a second Cup because they have that knowledge in place, that they’ve gone through. Those are things that teams need to learn, not just our team.
“There have been teams over the history of the league that they go through those experiences and then they break through. We’d like to have some those experiences. Hopefully we get our kick at the cat to break through.”
It’s ironic that an organization that has self-destructed like this one — hiring and firing coaches and general managers like the Cleveland Browns for the past 15 years — finally rights its ship just in time for a historic pandemic.
“It’s frustrating for me,” Tippett added on the radio show Oilers Now on Monday. “You’re hoping to get that experience of having that game where you clinch a playoff spot. Having that ability to prepare for a hard playoff opponent. All those little lessons that you learned from a team standpoint. It’s really frustrating that you’re going to miss some of those lessons, possibly.
“We felt like we made some really good strides this year, but those are lessons that you’d really like to learn.”
As a pundit who did not pick the Oilers to make the playoffs in their first season under Tippett and GM Ken Holland, it turns out that each of them pushed the right buttons here to produce a team that spent the season near the top of the Pacific. Give them credit: This is a pretty good team with one of the best cores in the league.
“I think Ken put it best when he said, ‘We want to be playing meaningful games in March,’” Tippett said of Holland’s introductory press conference last May. “My expectations were high coming in. When you have players like McDavid, Draisaitl, (Oscar) Klefbom, Nuge (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), you’ve got good, core players and you should be able to find a way to earn a playoff spot.
“I liked the way our team continued to kind of trend up even after we had some down times. We found ways to rebound and found ways to grab it and when you go through some of that adversity, it helps you moving forward. I like where we are.”
It’s been as positive a season here in Edmonton as we’ve seen in a while, when you consider that this was about to be just their second playoff appearance in 14 seasons.
They’ve had some adversity, these fans. And just when think the sun is starting to shine?
They wake up to 10 centimetres of snow.