After Game 1 stumble, Oilers must exorcise playoff demons in a hurry

Edmonton Oilers winger Zach Hyman speaks about the adjustment needed to tie the series with the LA Kings.

EDMONTON — We thought we were past this.

But then you realize that the Edmonton Oilers have lost seven consecutive playoff games — going back to the 2020 bubble — and it becomes clear. They’re not out if this at all.

They’re right in the middle of it, that phobia that strikes a team that has figured out how to win between October and April, but has not a clue what to do come May.

We — media, fans, observers, even the players and coaches — are like the kids in the backseat on that summer trip to the Okanagan, as the Oilers make their never-ending journey from rebuilders to playoff contenders.

We twiddle our thumbs, and blurt out intermittently, “Are we THERE yet?”

“I think you want your team to play with emotion. You want controlled emotions,” begins Jay Woodcroft, the latest in a long line of dads behind the wheel of this 1978, wood-panelled station wagon. “We gave up a chance 11 seconds into the game off just a kind of a broken play, broken coverage. And then we found ourselves on the penalty kill immediately . You want to make sure you’re playing toward your identity and your structure. That’s what’s got us to this point.”

“This point” is the same point they have reached for each of their past three years, down 1-0 one game into an opening-round playoff series, home-ice advantage out the window in 60 wasteful minutes. But this time, “this point” was reached by a supposedly mature hockey team playing in front of a full house of their own fans.

A full house of screaming, orange-clad crazies. A coast-to-coast audience ready to watch a team prove itself on the national stage. An opponent ripe for exploitation, with four defencemen playing their first career NHL playoff game and the great Drew Doughty in the press box, unable to play after wrist surgery.

Those are all supposed to be good things, aren’t they?

As it turned out, the moment was too big for the Oilers. Which is a tad disturbing.

But have no doubt, that is exactly what happened.

The structure they had mastered over the previous 10 weeks disappeared. The veteran goalie choked, making the worst possible decision at the most crucial moment. And the team rolled out a game that was perhaps 60 per cent as solid as they’d played a week prior in the regular season — when there wasn’t as much pressure.

“First game of the playoffs, lot of nerves, lot of emotions,” began Zach Hyman on the familiar morning after a 4-3, Game 1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. “I think at times we did the right things, at times we didn’t. That second period was a strong period for us; our special teams were good. I think you could take away things from that game that we liked and things that we didn’t and I think for Game 2, we’ve looked at all that stuff and we’re ready for it and we’re excited for it.”

It’s crazy to think that a team that has been in the playoffs for three straight seasons could have Game 1 nerves.

“A lot of us weren’t here two years ago and a bunch of us weren’t here last year,” Tyson Barrie pointed out. “There were no fans the last two years, so last night was certainly a different atmosphere than we’ve been used to in playoffs.”

It presented a moment we have all been jonesing for since the 2020 bubble. But when you’re lugging a six-game losing streak into a scene like the one Monday night at Rogers Place, sometimes that energy goes from positive to negative.

“Game 1 of the playoffs, especially after the last two years with no fans, that’s why you play the game,” said Barrie. “The excitement you feel in the room, and then to get out there and everyone’s going crazy, there’s not really a feeling like it. It’s tough to say how you’re going to react to it. I think we kind of know what to expect now … and we’ll be able to settle in, play our game and get into our structure a little earlier.

“There’s nothing like coming out of the tunnel and everyone’s going crazy like that. It’s awesome.”

Then there was Phillip Danault — the human buzz kill — and linemates Alex Iafallo and Trevor Moore. In the House that McDavid Built, they were the best line on the ice in Game 1.

That’s OK, if the Oilers can make this a one-game issue.

Beat us when we’re playing poorly? Fine, they’re saying.

Beat us when we deliver our best game? Well, that would be another story.

In order for the latter to occur however, the Oilers have to deliver their best game. Something they haven’t done much, over these past three years, when the chips are down.

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