Experience is good. Even when it’s bad.
So while it’s not ideal that the Edmonton Oilers suffer through a season-threatening tailspin almost every year, resulting in more upheaval and well-deserved criticism than a team with this much talent should ever have to endure, it’s paying off now.
Surviving these annual crises has taught them to stay calm when the walls are caving in and to tune out the chatter when it tells them all is lost.
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“That’s what was impressive with our group, no one ever threw in the towel and said, ‘This is a writeoff,’ ” said Brett Kulak, part of a defence corps that is making a dramatic recovery.
“We know we’re an elite team and one of the best in the league and it was just a matter of time for us to find our game and get playing. We’re still not perfect, we have things to improve, but we’re well on our way.”
That poise and calm is part of the reason they are still in the fight after a miserable start dropped them to second-last place in the NHL and got Jay Woodcroft fired 133 games after being hired.
They’ve won six in a row, the longest winning streak in the NHL by a wide margin, moving from 15th to 11th in the Western Conference and closing the gap on a wild-card spot from eight points to five.
There is still a long way to go, but what seemed impossible just a few weeks ago is now well within their grasp. A season that could have imploded by mid-December can now be salvaged.
“You’re always going to go through tough stretches throughout the course of a season,” said winger Evander Kane. “It’s really highlighted and probably stings a little more than it normally would when it happens right from the beginning of the season — that was a new experience for a lot of guys — but we’re a team that, when our backs are against the wall, we rise to the occasion.”
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Nobody was going to come in and change things for the Oilers, not even a new coach. The players had to make a conscious decision to dig in and take the necessary steps to save their year. So they called on the experience of last year … and the year before that, and the year before that …
“Everybody started playing better, and it wasn’t necessarily a lot better, just a little better,” said Kane. “We were making big individual mistakes that were costing us early in the season.
“We couldn’t have started worse than we did but we’re slowly digging ourselves out of a hole here.
“We understood that we needed to put a bunch of games together in order to give ourselves a shot at climbing back in the standings. So far we’ve done a good job of making up for some of that lost ground but we still have a long way to go.”
As the Oilers have shown in the past, going 18-2-1 down the stretch last season and turning their previous coach firing into a 104-point season in 2021, once they find their stride they can sustain it for a long period of time. They will try and make it seven-straight against a tough New Jersey team Sunday afternoon.
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“It feels like our hunger and intensity has grown, we’re getting that winning taste and what it takes,” said Kulak, adding momentum and confidence are valuable weapons. “When you start playing at that level it’s way more fun. Everyone is finding their game a little more individually and we’re having fun and playing well.”
Head coach Kris Knoblauch notices a significant change in the team’s vibe from the time he arrived. Everything from the volume in the room to the expressions on the ice are better. It’s amazing what a handful of wins can do to change the energy.
“Absolutely, guys are talking on the bench, they’re positive, they’e engaging,” said Knoblauch. “When you’re winning hockey games it’s so much easier. The pressure is off.
“You start enjoying the game. Not only playing the game, but coming to the rink and spending time in the dressing room, and being with each other. Winning and scoring erase a lot of problems.”
The difference between now and last year, of course, is that this isn’t just a stretch drive — they Oilers have to play nearly .700 hockey for 58 more games. That’s a long time to keep your foot on the gas but the only other option is to pull over and let everyone else pass them by.
“Now you have to balance being confident and not being complacent,” said Knoblauch. “When things are going well it’s easy to relax and not be as hungry. I don’t see that right now, but when you do have success it’s human nature to fall into that trap.”