After season of growth, Oilers finally a team to be reckoned with in playoffs

Connor McDavid scored twice and added two assists as the Edmonton Oilers beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-3.

EDMONTON — X.

It has been inevitable for some time now, so it’s easy for hockey fans in other markets to see the Edmonton Oilers clinch a playoff spot and simply shrug their shoulders.

But for long suffering Oilers fans, whose team has made the playoffs exactly five times now in this 21st century — and just twice in the past 14 seasons — it is time to stop, maybe crack a beer, and enjoy a long slow pull.

With a 5-3 win against the Vancouver Canucks Monday night, the Oilers clinched only their second playoff appearance since Connor McDavid joined the team six seasons ago. Even though they were a playoff lock when the pause hit last March, a loss in the Qualifying Round does not qualify as a playoff appearance.

That loss to Chicago counted for only one thing: a hard, embarrassing lesson that this Oilers team took to heart.

“Everyone left the bubble in a bad mood. No one felt great about where we were at, or how that series went,” said McDavid, fresh off of lighting the Canucks up with two goals and four points. “It was a good moment to step back and learn from it. Learn what it takes to win.”

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The first thing they decided was, it can’t be all about offence anymore.

And the first guys to make that decision? The players that had to do it before anyone else would.

The two top scorers. The Hart Trophy guys.

“In the past we tried to come back from (a deficit) by cheating on offence, and it was led by Connor and myself,” said Leon Draisaitl, early in the 2020-21 season. “Him and I, we figured out that, if you stay patient — if you continue to play good defence — you’re going to get your chances.”

It’s been a theme that has allowed the Oilers to climb up to ninth in the NHL in both goals against per game (2.68) and goals for (3.26). Take those numbers, combine them with a goaltending tandem that has a save percentage of .914 — ranked fourth in the league — and you have the ingredients for a pretty decent recipe.

“That’s the recipe for a playoff team,” said McDavid. “We’ve found ways to keep pucks out of our net, and offensively we’ve been pretty good.”

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This was a team that got off to a 3-6 start. Since then they’ve gone 28-11-2.

Tyson Barrie, the UFA signing who is tied for third in points by a defenceman with 43, looked back to an early season meeting on Monday that stopped the skid.

“There were some new faces in here, myself included, and we were trying to figure out where guys fit in,” Barrie said. “After the (3-6 start) we had a little meeting and just realized, with the shortened season we could be out of it really quickly if we didn’t turn it around.

“I don’t think there’s an easy answer for it, but we did a pretty good job of digging out from that.”

Since Game 10, Edmonton had the three-game losing streak to Toronto in February, and back-to-back losses in March that were sandwiched between seven wins. Those are their only losing streaks. That’s it.

“The cool thing is,” Barrie said, “we’re winning high-scoring games, we’re winning low-scoring games. We’re finding ways to hold a one-goal lead in the third period, which isn’t easy. But that’s a sign of a mature and responsible team.

“Our ability to limit the losing streaks, the poor play, has been amazing.”

Ask the Winnipeg Jets how amazing that is. They’ve dropped seven straight.

So, what’s happened here?

They’ve stopped importing leaders, for one.

Of course McDavid and Draisaitl — the NHL’s two leading scorers with 91 and 73 points — are fabulous. But they now lead by example. The pair that led the NHL in scoring last season but combined to go minus-13, now lead the league in points once again.

But this time they are plus-58 combined.

“The leadership group with McDavid, Draisaitl, Nurse, Larsson and Nuge, they really drive that room,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “Smitty getting healthy and coming in to have a heck of a year for us … the added depth has helped. Tyson Barrie has played very well for us. There are a lot of factors.”

With his 13th snipe of the year Monday, Jesse Puljujarvi gives pause to look back at the 2016 draft class. He now has more goals this season than Patrik Laine (12), Matthew Tkachuk (10) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (nine), all drafted in the Top 6 the year Puljujarvi went fourth overall.

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Meanwhile McDavid became the first player to record 30 goals and 90 points within the first 50 games of a season since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in 1995-96.

Now, all that’s left for these Oilers in the regular season is to drag him to 100.

“I don’t know if we have to try and get him there. He’ll just get there himself,” laughed Barrie. “This guy — he’s proven very difficult to keep off the score sheet this year.

“He plays the right way every night.”

And as such, McDavid has led his team to the NHL playoffs. They are a no-doubt divisional contender, and a team to be reckoned with.

Finally.

“It’s the first step. We’ve given ourselves a chance at it now,” said Barrie. “Now we’ve got a shot to win the Stanley Cup. That’s what the goal is at the beginning of the year.”

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