Oilers eye another late-season run in wide-open West: ‘We’ve got to buckle up’

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) is congratulated for his goal during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Anaheim Ducks. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

EDMONTON — At this point a season ago, Jay Woodcroft was playing the piano as fast as he could. He had taken over a team that was swirling in the drain, with Dave Tippett handed a ticket out of town. 

There were 38 games left in the 2021-22 season when Woodcroft dropped into his first National Hockey League head coaching job, and when Game 82 had been played, there was only one other NHL club (Florida) with a better winning percentage than Edmonton’s .724 over that 38-game span. 

Today, as the Edmonton Oilers return from the All-Star break to their final 32 games of the season, they are a coach and a roster that have danced this dance before. 

A year ago, they rescued a season that was in peril. 

This time around, the Oilers are that well-positioned horse, picking up speed and heading into the final turn. They’re in a good position, but only if Woodcroft’s ride gallops to the wire with grace and expedience. 

“The people who were here last year during the stretch run and the playoff run,” began Woodcroft, “have the benefit of that experience of what it takes to win at crunch time. (What) the margin of error is in the third round of the playoffs. 

“This year’s group has come through some adversity so far in the year, in the form of some major injuries. And I think it’s OK that it’s not a smooth sail. That’s where a team comes together and forges its own character.” 

Look, there is only one Boston Bruins in the NHL this season, with wire-to-wire dominance and that air of a “Guaranteed Lose Night” for every opponent as the Bruins maraud from town to town. Everyone else is just that: everyone else. 

Out west, that means that an Oilers season spent in the wild-card position could absolutely end up in a Pacific Division championship – their first flag since 1987 – with Edmonton trailing Seattle by just three points as play resumes. Of course, with Colorado and Calgary chugging along just three points behind Edmonton, it could go the other way too.

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“We know we’re in striking range (of first place), but we’re also in striking range backwards,” said Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl. “It’s tight, with lots of teams still in the mix. So, we’ve got to buckle up and bring our best game most nights.” 

As the Oilers land in Motown for their first of two meetings with the 24th-place Detroit Red Wings in nine days, Edmonton is on a 7-0-1 tear with a run of also-rans still left on its menu. This road trip goes to Detroit, Philadelphia, Ottawa then Montreal, and then it’s home to Edmonton for a date with the Red Wings before their opponents begin to put on some weight. 

When it comes to strength of schedule, Edmonton has the fifth-easiest schedule left in the league, according to powerrankingsguru.com. 

The bad news? Of the seven NHL teams with the easiest schedules left to play, four of them are Pacific Division contenders, with Seattle at the top of the list. 

But a hockey season is a sequential thing, and for an Oilers team charged with improving on their three-round run last season, that starts with coming out of this All-Star break with the same steam they brought into it. 

How do they fire right up to that 7-0-1 pace? 

“I don’t think there’s any tricks or magic pills or anything like that, it comes down to hard work and execution,” Woodcroft said. “I also think that we came out of the (Christmas) break pretty well, and that mindset comes from our captain, who laid it out there that this is an area that he wanted to see improvement in: The way this team plays coming out of breaks. 

“I take that as a challenge, and a good challenge.”

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Connor McDavid is ready to win, and as he looks at the Western Conference — with an addition at the trade deadline yet to arrive — he sees a Western Conference that can be had. Not with ease, or even that the Oilers should be favoured. But today, there isn’t an opponent in the West that represents “eight wasted days,” as Flames coach Darryl Sutter said about meeting the 2021-22 Avalanche in a playoff series. 

So, it starts now, with the set-up for the stretch run. Take a look at the Pacific. 

It’s wide open with 32 games to play. Is that the goal here? 

“We don’t talk about that stuff,” McDavid said. “You want to put yourself in the best spot heading into the playoffs, and that’s obviously higher up in the standings for home ice and all that. 

“But at the end of the day, we want to continue to grow our game. We know that if we do that, good things will happen.” 

How good? 

It’s time to find out. 

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