EDMONTON — The Oilers aren’t settling for the second round.
Edmonton moved on to the next phase of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 2-0 victory over the L.A. Kings in Game 7 on Saturday night, but Leon Draisaitl said the group’s work remains unfinished.
“It feels good, but we’re not done. This isn’t the end. We haven’t reached anything,” he said. “It feels good to do it with this group. We’ve been through stuff all season — for a lot of years, even — a lot of ups and downs, a lot of negative stuff. It feels great to have this feeling right now.
“Being down 3-2 (in the series), going to L.A., grinding one out, coming home and finding a way — it feels good.”
After starting the season on a hot streak, the Oilers struggled through December and early January before firing head coach Dave Tippett on Feb. 10 and replacing him with Jay Woodcroft, then-head coach of the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield Condors.
Edmonton finished the regular-season second in the Pacific Division with a 49-27-6 record and earned a home ice advantage.
But L.A. came into the post-season strong and took a 4-3 win in Game 1. The Oilers roared back with lopsided victories in Games 2 and 3 before the Kings blanked Edmonton in Game 4 and pushed the club to the brink of elimination with a 5-4 overtime win in Game 5. Game 6 in L.A. saw the Oilers stay alive with a tightly contested 4-2 victory.
“We’ve faced a lot of adversity all season,” Draisaitl said. “There were a lot of ups and downs, a lot of people who counted us out long before the playoffs started. And we grabbed it.”
It’s the first time the Oilers have advanced in the playoffs since 2017 when they beat the San Jose Sharks in a six-game first-round series, then fell to the Anaheim Ducks in seven games in round two.
Since then, the post-season has been full of heartache for hockey fans in Edmonton.
The Oilers didn’t make the playoffs in 2018 or 2019, then lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in a play-in series on home ice in the bubble during the COVID-condensed 2020 campaign. Last year, the Winnipeg Jets swept Edmonton in a four-game first-round series.
The team took those experiences to heart, said captain Connor McDavid.
“It’s just using lessons from previous mistakes,” he said. “We have made those mistakes in the past and we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot tonight, which was obviously positive.”
McDavid — who led the NHL with 123 points in the regular season — has continued his dominance in the playoffs, posting a league-leading 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) through the first seven games. He had a goal and an assist, and registered more than 27 minutes of ice time in Saturday’s crucial victory.
“Our best players have been our best players in this series,” said goalie Mike Smith, who made 29 saves for his second shutout of the post-season in Game 7. “And if you want to get through one of the hardest rounds, your best players have to be at the top of their game or better.
“Both (McDavid and Draisaitl) were our horses, our leaders and everyone else followed. It’s not just on Connor and Leon, but they sure did a heckuva job to get us going in the right direction and a lot of other guys filled in the gaps.”
Draisaitl appeared to play Saturday’s game with an ankle injury he suffered during a scrum in Game 6. While the star sniper told reporters after Game 7 he was “fine,” Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft acknowledged he was playing through something.
“He’s a warrior, just an absolute warrior,” Woodcroft said. “He’s a big strong guy who, like (McDavid), is driven to win. I think that type of mindset when you see people play through stuff is contagious. And they’re a big reason, huge reason, why we’re at where we’re at, which is we’re advancing to round number two.”
Saturday’s win is important, the coach said, but the group has no plans to quit any time soon.
“We’re trying to get some rest and some regeneration and prepare for the next challenge,” he said. “We said this to our group yesterday: we didn’t come this far just to come this far. We’re here to progress and continue to move our needle forward.”
The second round will pit the Oilers against the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 matchup between the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars.
Most of the team will be watching the game but no one is rooting for one side over the other, said defenceman Cody Ceci.
“Either team is playing great right now. Every series is pretty close,” he said. “Either way we will have to refocus and get ready for the second round.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2022.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press