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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Off the Top of My Head

Even with the Edmonton Oilers having just put the finishing touches on their best regular season points-wise since winning their third Stanley Cup in 1987 with a 3-2 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks Friday, Jay Woodcroft stayed on script, refusing to get carried away.

While fans have been celebrating a first-round playoff date with the Los Angeles Kings, starting Monday, after watching the Oilers haul ass to the finish line at a 13-2-1 clip in their last 16 games for a 49-27-6 record and 104 points, Woodcroft has never wavered. His post-game availability with the media after dispatching the Canucks was no different.

With lots of hell-yeah and high-fives to come from a fanbase starved for post-season success, Woodcroft talked about team identity, staying focused on the business of the day, and living and playing in the moment. Simply put, he stuck with what got him here and what produced a 26-9-3 (.724) record since he took the bench from Dave Tippett. 

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Inside, the 45-year-old from Toronto has to be revved up as he prepares to take on the Kings and coaching mentor and friend Todd McLellan. How can he not be after 17 seasons of paying his dues, biding his time and climbing the coach ranks to get his first shot as an NHL head coach? On the outside, Woodcroft remains a pretty cool customer. He’d be a helluva poker player.

THE WOODCROFT WAY

Feb 14, 2022; San Jose, California, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft stands behind the bench during the third period against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

“I think it’s a good sign the team has a way we want to look on the ice,” Woodcroft said about the Oilers prevailing despite a bad start with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as healthy scratches and Darnell Nurse out with injury. “We have an identity we want to play towards and to see them dig in and find a way to win — it’s the last regular game of the season but it leaves us as we head into our preparations for playoffs in a good mood.”

To understate, this is a completely different group of players and a different time, but Woodcroft’s subtle approach as a first-time NHL head coach since being promoted from Bakersfield strikes me as a polar opposite of what we saw from Dallas Eakins when he came to Edmonton from the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. Eakins wanted to re-invent the wheel. His substance and smartest-guy-in-the-room style was a double-fail. Woodcroft is a different cat.

“I think it was pretty gradual,” Tyson Barrie said of making the transition from Tippett to Woodcroft. “He came in and didn’t try to introduce too much right away. He’d kind of would work on one thing, then as soon as he thought we had a grasp on that, he’d introduce something else.

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“I think the way we’ve been playing the last little while, two-and-a-half months, it’s all building towards what we’re going to be stepping into on Monday. I think we’re in a good position, we’re a confident group and we know what’s expected of us and what our systems are. We’re ready and excited to execute it.”

THE MATCHUP

Feb 15, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl (29) and right wing Kailer Yamamoto (56) after a goal against the LA Kings in the third period at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Beneteau at Sportsnet has taken a solid statistical look at the Oilers first-round matchup with the Kings. You can have a look at that here. There’ll be plenty more to come between now and the drop of the puck at Rogers Place.

Simply put, I like the Oilers in this series all day long even with questions about the status of Darnell Nurse and his lower body injury. Nurse will be back at some point. Not so for Drew Doughty (wrist surgery) and the Kings. 

With McDavid coming off a career-high 123 points and Draisaitl matching a career-high with 110, along with added scoring depth in Evander Kane and Zach Hyman, Woodcroft has more than enough firepower to throw at McLellan’s outfit. That’s assuming the power play won’t be as impotent against the Kings, 0-for-10, as it was during the regular season. 

I don’t think Mike Smith’s hot streak down the stretch – 9-0-1 with a 1.70 GAA and .948 save percentage over his last 10 starts – was smoke and mirrors. Even with the swings in performance in the crease this season, a healthy Smith and a rested Mikko Koskinen are more than enough to get past the Kings.

I like the Oilers in five games.

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STRAIGHT TALK

Apr 7, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Derek Ryan (10 skates with the puck against the LA Kings in the third period at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Ryan has been as upfront as anybody about welcoming the coaching change that saw Tippett replaced by Woodcroft.

“I think that’s Woody’s job and Woody’s been really good at that, Ryan said when asked about the ability to adjust on the fly under Woodcroft compared to Tippett. “I think we were searching for that earlier in the year where things weren’t going our way and it just felt like we were being told to work harder, or be better, and we were searching for more answers. I think Woody’s done a good job of bringing those answers in.

“He says, ‘Hey, this part of your forecheck, or neutral zone, your faceoff detail. All those things are important, and these are the things you can do to get better in those areas.’ I think playoffs is about adapting, being able to change when the other team changes. I think Jay will be really good at that because he’s shown it so far in his time here.”

FEEL GOOD STORIES

  • More from Ryan, talking about Ben Stelter and the perspective this courageous little five-year-old, who is battling brain cancer, brings to the rink.

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Previously by Robin Brownlee