EDMONTON — When does a 56-game season begin to feel like a 156-game season?
When your team is forced to play its final game on the same day the real fun begins, with the playoffs opening in Washington just hours after the Vancouver Canucks sashayed past the Edmonton Oilers by a 4-1 score.
So the Oilers lost. Or did they…?
“That game was a win if nobody got hurt,” declared head coach Dave Tippett. “Nobody got hurt, so we’re takin’ a win.”
Let the record show, the loss leaves the Oilers with a 35-19-2 record on the season, and a .643 points percentage that ranks 11th in the NHL and is their highest in 34 years. Extrapolated over an 82-game season, the Oilers would have a 105-point campaign — a number that puts you in the playoffs every single season.
“Nobody remembers a good season if you don’t follow it up with a run in the playoffs. It’s time to really get to work here,” said Tyson Barrie, who was one of seven Oilers defencemen in Saturday’s game, as Evan Bouchard and Slater Koekkoek got some last-minute reps in before the playoffs.
“The big thing is, you make it out and everyone is healthy. We’re ready to go now,” said Barrie, who watched all but 13 minutes of this game from the bench. “Probably not the greatest thing to watch. Not the most enjoyable to play either.”
This game was truly the calm before the storm, with Round 1 against the Winnipeg Jets set to open in Edmonton on Wednesday night. The Oilers have been a playoff lock for a good month now, and have managed to keep their intensity up. They will feel no shame for a 4-1 loss in a meaningless game No. 56.
“You earn the right to be a playoff team,” Tippett said. “We’ve done good work this year. We’ve earned the right to be in there, and now we have to take it another step.”
See You Slater
Slater Koekkoek broke his collarbone on Feb. 20 on an unlucky play against Calgary, and has not played since. A schedule that was extended by the Canucks COVID woes allowed him the chance to get into a game before the playoffs begin.
“A blessing,” he called it.
“You don’t know how much you miss that game day routine. That nervousness, that anxiousness to play,” said Koekkoek. “You get up in the morning and get those butterflies going. Just a real blessing to be out there, and back in the mix.”
While everyone else was just trying not to get hurt, Koekkoek was squeezing every drop out of his 17:18 in ice time, trying to catch up to playoff speed as fast as he could.
“I tried to treat today like more than it was. I tried to be as intense as I could. I didn’t treat it as if it were a nothing game with no ramifications for the playoffs. I tried to treat it like it was the biggest game of my season,” he said. “Is it difficult? Probably. Coming out today was difficult after a long time away.”
Koekkoek and the still-injured Kris Russell would be Edmonton’s fourth and fifth guys on the left side of the defence, with Evan Bouchard the No. 4 on the right side. Throw in lefty William Lagesson and the Oilers have the requisite depth for a long payoff run, and the inevitable blueline injuries that go along with that.
“I thought he’d play a real solid game and he came in and he did,” Tippett said. “That’s a guy who has missed a long time, and he’s worked his tail off in practice to get up and going. We’re glad to get him in a game here, and we’ll see where that goes. We’ve got good depth on defence now.”
No More Highmore, Please
The ghost of Matthew Highmore sent Edmonton into its post-season with a nervous laugh, as the Canucks winger scored twice late in the game. That’s Highmore, the same guy who helped bury the Oilers in the bubble last August, when he and Koekkoek were both employed by the Chicago Blackhawks.
“It’s crazy that we’re back to playoff time,” Koekkoek smiled. “He’s just a solid player, We were having a couple of laughs on the ice today.”
Highmore had a goal and three assists in the final two games of Chicago’s four-game series victory last August. Even though he measures out at five-foot-11 and 180 lbs., Edmonton couldn’t keep Highmore away from its net a year ago. It was a glaring weakness — a lack of team size and ability to battle — that the Oilers have worked to fix this season.
His goals on Saturday were a little different on Saturday: An 18-foot snipe from the left circle that went high glove on Koskinen, and then a lucky backhand from 12 feet out that Koskinen bludgeoned into his own goal.
Still, it was a stark reminder that hard-working players can leave a dent.