How hitting rock bottom made these Oilers stronger contenders than ever

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EDMONTON — Imagine informing the Edmonton Oilers when they hit rock bottom on Nov. 9 in San Jose that they had nothing to worry about.

That despite a loss to the lowly Sharks that night to drop them to 2-9-1 on the season and deep into a shocking abyss, in less than six months they’d be polishing off a very good Los Angeles Kings team in five games to reach the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Right in that moment after a loss to the lowly San Jose Sharks? I’m not sure that sounded terribly realistic.

“That was a low point, I would say even in my career, it felt like,” superstar captain Connor McDavid said Wednesday night after his team booked its ticket to the second round. “We had a meeting the next day (after the loss in San Jose) and the meeting was, ‘There’s nowhere else to go. We’re last.’ That was a tough realization, you know? But at the end of the day, it was a meeting that let guys let some things go that we were holding onto. This need, to have a great year and whatever, all of a sudden it just shifted to, ‘Let’s get ourselves back in it.’

“A lot of guys were looking at, ‘We want to win the division.’ ‘We want to be first.’ ‘We want to do all this.’ But that forced us to just say, ‘Let’s win the next game. Let’s win the next two. Let’s have a good week.’ I thought it was a good thing for our group.

“I think the start of the season really forced us to be short-sighted.”

In hindsight, what the Oilers will admit is that they hadn’t fully recovered by the start of this season from a devastating second-round loss to Vegas — a loss that cut so deep it produced those Cup-or-bust comments from the leadership core last May that fueled the narrative this season.

But when it came time to hit the ice, it was as if the Oilers wanted to get right back to the second round of the playoffs and bypass the inconvenience of an 82-game season.

It doesn’t work that way, of course.

And when the Oilers realized that, when they hit hockey bottom, they knew it was time to let go of that Vegas playoff loss dancing in their brains and focus on the task at hand: saving their season.

“This was a team that had 108 points last year and went to the second round,” Oilers general manager Ken Holland told The Athletic after Wednesday night’s 4-3, series-capping win over the Kings. “It has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. We were in a bad funk. My worry was that we were going to dig a massive hole, and how do you get out of that massive hole? I knew we were going to start to win, but you don’t know how long that funk is going to go on.”

Worst record in the NHL on Nov. 9

It forced a coaching change one game after that loss in San Jose, Kris Knoblauch replacing Jay Woodcroft, and well, the turnaround eventually was spectacular. Although it’s not something this team ever wants to live again.

“We went 24-3 at one point,” said Holland. “It’s the National Hockey League. You can’t be counting on that every year. Certainly we’re thrilled to be through the first round, and when you look back, I think that that adversity was a good thing.”

It was a good thing, in retrospect, because it hardened them. This Oilers team has been all business for a while now. No shortcuts. It’s been a razor-sharp focus on the task at hand.

The lesson in finally parking last May’s second-round loss was a tough one. But they are, in fact, better for it.

Best record in the NHL after Nov. 9

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“I think for lots of teams, when you have a massive disappointment and you come back the following season — and our guys made a decision two weeks early for training camp — we wanted to be prepared,” Holland said. “But you realize you’ve got to go 82 games to get to the opportunity. The regular season matters. You’ve got to start all over again.”

“I never lost faith that this group of players would claw its way out of the early season hole and be a playoff team,” Oilers CEO of hockey operations Jeff Jackson said. “We are very fortunate to have the leadership group that we do in our dressing room and our deadline additions, and I include Corey Perry in that group, have added so much depth to our team. I feel like we can now play any style we need to in order to win games.”

One can see the clear growth in this team just by looking at their performance in three consecutive opening-round series with the Kings. It took seven games to dispatch L.A. in 2021-22, a series that had plenty of wobbles in it. And it took six games a year ago, once again losing Game 1 at home.

This year? Finally a Game 1 win to set the tone, two road wins in Los Angeles, finding a way to grind out a defensive win, 1-0 in Game 4, and then taking care of business Wednesday night with the Kings fighting for their playoff lives.

The added benefit is a short series. Those matter when you’re a team intent on playing deep into the playoffs.

“First off, you want to win the series,” Holland said. “You win the two games in L.A. and come home for Game 5, you want to win so you get a couple of days off and get you to breathe and focus on the next round. That’s a hockey team over there (the Kings) that gets 100 points every year. They’ve got guys on there that have won the Stanley Cup, so we knew they would come out hard tonight.”

But as Holland pointed out, the Oilers played a nearly flawless third period to close out the series. That’s what veteran contenders do.

“What I liked in the third period is that we managed the puck,” Holland said. “We weren’t trying to score another goal, 30-second shifts, dump the puck in. We were on top of the puck. We made them come 200 feet. They did score a goal and thank goodness we had a two-goal lead, but I thought we didn’t give up a lot in the third period, and that’s that maturity.”

And the Oilers get to rest a bit while the Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks keep duking it out. Do not underestimate the importance of a short opening round in that regard. Oilers superstar Leon Draisaitl called it “massive,” pointing out that it also means avoiding another long flight to Los Angeles for Game 6.

As Draisaitl said, all these things add up when your goal is to play deep into the postseason.

And so here they are in the second round, the scene of the crime, where their hearts got shattered a year ago. And the lingering effects of that loss nearly destroyed them for this season.

Instead, they’re stronger for it and ready to make amends.

The McDavid and Draisaitl Oilers have never looked more the part of serious Cup contenders than they do right here, right now.

Which seemed near impossible back on Nov. 9 at the Shark Tank.

(Photo of Connor McDavid and Stuart Skinner: Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)

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