Oilers get chance to test improved team toughness against big, bad Bruins

Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand speaks about Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and discusses the near-fictional season he's having and giving him the highest praise. Courtesy: Boston Bruins.

BOSTON — The last team to regularly trot out that old hockey chestnut, “Our power play is a form of toughness,” was the 2011 Vancouver Canucks. They had the fabulous Sedin brothers, the best power play in the league and walked into that Stanley Cup Final here feeling bulletproof at five-on-four.

Then the refs stopped calling penalties, and as sure as Brad Marchand speed-bagged poor Daniel Sedin, the big, bad Bruins rolled right over the power-play-reliant Canucks.

Here in Boston — and in Game 7 at home — the Canucks got pushed right out of the series.

As the Edmonton Oilers and their league-leading 31.7 per cent power play arrive at the TD Garden for a game against hockey’s best team on Thursday night, they’ll add Evander Kane to their lineup.

He missed 31 games with that sliced wrist, and another eight with broken ribs. But on Thursday Kane brings skill and toughness — real, tangible, traditional toughness — to a lineup that has gotten much bigger since the season began.

“It’s been an interesting year,” said Kane, who can log an even half-season of 41 games if he plays the Oilers’ final 17 games. “I think we, as a group, have shaken that label of being a soft team. I mean, I don’t know who hasn’t gotten into a fight this year.

“I think we have some real good team toughness, I think that’s going be big in the playoffs, especially in the Western Conference, where there’s a lot of heavy players. A lot of heavy teams that we’re gonna have to go through, and play through.”

Ten Oilers have accrued at least one major penalty this season, but they’re still tied for 21st in the NHL in that regard. Really, it’s more about the size of the additions that general manager Ken Holland has made since September.

On defence, Vincent Desharnais (six-foot-six, 215 pounds) and Mattias Ekholm (six-foot-four, 215 pounds) have joined a corps that now averages six-foot-three-plus and 207 pounds. Up front, six-foot-six Nick Bjugstad joined at the trading deadline, the aggressive Klim Kostin (six-foot-three, 215 pounds) is here, and now Kane returns, bringing a major change to Edmonton’s personality.

“When you bring a guy like that into your lineup, all the other guys grow a little bit. Aside from what he does as a forward, that’s the real thing he brings,” said Ekholm.

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It stands as a top-three hockey cliché, that belief that everyone “grows a little bit” when a tough, adept scrapper joins the lineup.

But is it real?

“For sure, that’s a thing,” said Ekholm, a veteran of 723 NHL games, and another 75 in the playoffs. “When you have these really big, tough guys who are coming in on the forecheck on you, and you know that you have a guy right there who is going to have your back no matter what? That’s only a small part of (Kane’s) game … but it’s a big reason why guys feel like that.”

Adding Kane for this game against the Bruins is like putting on fresh winter tires for a December trip through the B.C. interior. He is, all wrapped into one, a legit top-line winger for Connor McDavid, a big, fast body that makes your team more imposing, and a guy who understands how and when to swing a game that’s not trending his team’s way.

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“Great on-ice habits,” Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft said. “Someone who goes hard to the net, takes pride in his wall work. Someone who is physical. Someone who understands ways to change the momentum in a game that have nothing to do with scoring a goal.”

“Not to state the obvious,” added Ekholm, “but he’s a goal scorer who has done this for years, and he’s really fast. He’s a great forward who is intimidating to play against — and he usually draws heavy matchups.

“I’ve drawn the heavy matchups for a bunch of my career, and usually those guys are the small skilled guys. But here comes a guy, he’s your height, he’s your size. … He’s intimidating.”


The Oilers still have a power play that makes the pre-game meetings of all 31 other teams in the NHL.

Like those old Canucks, it makes them tougher to play against — if not tangibly tougher, in the hockey sense of the word.

“It’s a form of toughness,” Kane allowed. “The power play is great — historic, almost — but we can’t rely on it to win hockey games or create energy for our group. We have to create energy in games with our five-on-five play.

“As you get deeper and deeper into the playoffs,” the Vancouver native said, “the calls start to decrease. You get less power plays.”

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