EDMONTON — This is why Ken Holland tells the story about building a team that gets to the playoffs every year.
You’ve not heard the Edmonton Oilers general manager talk about winning a Stanley Cup in Edmonton. What you’ve heard is lot of thoughts about a team that gets to the dance, year after year after year.
Now, we see why he thinks the way he does.
It’s games like the one played on Friday night that define the term “playoff experience.” A crucial game for Edmonton that started out heavily in the Winnipeg Jets’ favour, then slowly shifted Edmonton’s way. By the third period, it was two teams slugging it out in search of what became obvious would be the one goal that would win this game.
Then, overtime heartbreak.
A Paul Stastny wrist shot, an Adam Larsson screen/deflection, an OT winner that puts Edmonton down 2-0 in their opening round series.
“We battled all game. We were still battling in OT,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “We just needed one to break them. We didn’t get one tonight.”
If you’d have told me the Oilers would allow only two regulation goals in two games (that weren’t empty netters) and would be down 2-0 in this series, I wouldn’t have believed that was possible.
If you’d have added that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — the NHL’s two leading scorers — would be pointless as they board the charter to Winnipeg for Game 3, I’d have started talking you into a wager.
Well, both things are true.
“It’s a challenge,” said Darnell Nurse (32:53 of ice time), when asked about the Oilers’ current predicament. “Playing in the playoffs is never easy. Having the first couple of games not going your way, having that adversity in your face, we’re in a place right now where we just have to find ways to win games. You can sit here and dwell, say the sky is falling, but let’s be real. We have a team that is capable of showing up … hopefully get some bounces our way, and hopefully build off something.
“It’s a challenge we have to be up to meet.”
What amazes is how stark the contrast is between regular season hockey and what we watched here in Games 1 and 2.
Look, I’ve covered playoff hockey for 30 years. I get what happens.
But the abject contrast between two teams who played games with final scores like 6-5, 6-4, 4-3, to a pair of playoff games that were basically a 2-1 game in Game 1, and went into overtime tied at zero in Game 2…
This is what Holland is talking about. These games, these lessons, this experience — it just does not exist in regular season hockey.
“No, probably not,” said McDavid. “There are close games down the stretch, teams vying for spots, positioning and all that. But you can’t replicate a playoff game, the intensity, and the feeling out there. This is what we want to do. This is why you work all year long, to put yourself in spots like this.
“We’ve dug ourselves a bit of a hole, many teams have found a way to win from the spot we’re in right now.”
Many? Well, some.
And perhaps this one.
Look, Edmonton is nowhere close to a complete project. We know that. They’re nowhere close to Winnipeg in depth, which is why Holland didn’t spend a lot of assets at the trade deadline.
The step they have taken, however, led by McDavid and Draisaitl, is they can defend now. They can hang in a 1-1 or a 0-0 game far better than in recent seasons. Bravo.
Now, you have to find the balance between full-out defending, and actually producing some offence. You can’t just wait for a break.
You’ve got to be able to make one.
“That’s what you’ve got to do,” agreed head coach Dave Tippett. “I’ll take pretty goals, if we can get something off the rush. But I’ll take some of those ugly goals too. You’ve got to find a way to will one in the net, and we haven’t been able to do that.”
On a macro level, he’s speaking for his team. On a micro level, it’s McDavid and Draisaitl who have to figure out the same thing.
Why do you think Sidney Crosby became the player he is, scoring dirty goals, competing like a demon? Using his superior skills to forge offence from half-chances and bouncing pucks?
Because the playoffs demanded that from him. That’s all you get to work with, a lot of the time.
McDavid is seeing that first-hand from a Jets team that’s lining up at the blue line and forcing him to dump and chase. It is the antithesis of the game that got him this far.
“Every point matters. Guys are dialed into the details,” he explained. “We’ve been solid defensively a well. They have three real goals, and two empty netters. But (defending) is definitely not an issue.
“We’ve just got to find a way to break through.”