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Loss to Vegas: A Positive Turning Point for the Oilers?

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Photo credit:Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Gregor
11 months ago
The pain from Sunday’s loss to Vegas was still evident when Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and their teammates spoke yesterday, and today when General Manager Ken Holland and Head Coach Jay Woodcroft addressed the media. Devastating. Heartbreaking. Painful. Those words accurately portrayed the feelings of the players, coaches, management and fans. This was the most devastating loss in the McDavid era, but because it hurt so much, I think this will actually help the Oilers moving forward.
Losing to Colorado in the third round last season didn’t produce as painful emotions as this year has. Colorado was clearly the better team, and this year’s edition of the Oilers is more balanced and deeper than last year’s squad. The players believed they had a realistic chance to win. They came up short of their goal, and that was evident in their body language and their words.
“That empty feeling you are left with is great fuel,” said McDavid. “We don’t want to feel that way again. For us, understanding how far away it is to be back in this same position. We have to train all summer, then play 82 regular season games just to get back to this spot. The understanding that when you are there you need to do anything to win a game. There is a lot of work that goes into just getting in that position. We find ourselves a year away again.”
Zach Hyman didn’t mince his words.
“This is the worst I’ve felt after a loss in my career,” he said. “It is not going to get better until you win. We had a really, really good team in the second half. We finished with 14 wins in the last 15. We are returning the majority of our core, so with that being said there is an opportunity to win. It didn’t matter if we lost in the second round, the third round or the finals. If we lost, we were going to feel like this. There are no excuses. Management will do what they feel they need to do to make our team better. That has to be our mindset.”
Holland mentioned some players told him they were going to start working out next week. They are so disappointed. They didn’t feel this deep devastation last year. Last year was the first time they’d won a second round series. It was new territory. They were disappointed they lost, but not to the same extent. There was some satisfaction last year. McDavid mentioned they will channel that pain and frustration and use it as fuel to push them during off-season training and into next season.
But it wasn’t just the pain that showed me this was a bigger learning moment. The top players spoke openly about how they have to change their approach.
“I think sometimes, as a team, for us we find a way to lose games and more so beat ourselves than the team actually beating us,” said Leon Draisaitl. “We have to find a way to learn how to not beat ourselves. We are an attacking team, and we will beat teams with the way we play with our structure and our speed, but sometimes we have to lock it down and not beat ourselves.”
In the final four games of the series v. Vegas the Oilers were 1-3. They were outscored 10-6 at 5×5. Warren Foegele had two goals and he, along with Derek Ryan and Ryan McLeod, were tied with McDavid for the team lead with two 5×5 points. The third line was their most consistent line in crunch time. It wasn’t like the Oilers played terribly at 5×5. They outshot Vegas 98-74. They had more scoring chances, but they got outscored, because they gave away too many goals. It was an issue early in the season, and one they controlled down the stretch, but it reappeared v. Vegas.
It has been an issue for a few years, but this was the first time I’ve heard the leaders speak so openly about it.
“I thought we made too many little mistakes here and there that they capitalized on. The margin of error when you are playing a good team are very small. We made more mistakes than them,” said McDavid.
Mattias Ekholm came from Nashville where they never had enough top-end offence to win. They focused on sound defence and needed to convert when they got scoring chances. It kept Nashville competitive and took them to the Stanley Cup final once, but they were never really a consistent Cup contender. Ekholm believes the Oilers are, but they do need one obvious improvement.
“I think we are really close,” said the bearded veteran. “I think at times as a team, and it sounds weird, we have to win the games, but we just don’t have to lose them. We have to find ways to win 1-0 or 2-1. What this team has is something you can’t just go out and find it. I think a good structure defensively is something you can work on and get better at as a team. But finding the top two players in the world — you don’t just go around the corner and find them. We have them, and it is the best opportunity that I’ve ever been in.”
When asked what mindset he hopes to bring to the team next season, he doubled down.
“Not having to outscore the opposition by a large margin every night to win in the playoffs, because that is so hard to do every night,” said Ekholm. “Hopefully I can help out with the defensive side of things. Having a training camp to come in and learn everything from the start and build it throughout the season. When it comes to playoff time, and what I can bring, that is something I can add and focus on. Learn that we are going to have to be okay with it being a zero-zero game going into a third, and hopefully, that doesn’t happen because we have a great power play, but to make it a little harder for the opposition to score their goals.”
Hyman wholeheartedly agreed with his new teammate.
“I think what Mattias said about not having to score the next one is accurate,” said Hyman. “You have to be able to win the tight ones and understand you won’t have your best every night, but you have to find ways to win. You have to take advantage of the other team’s mistakes.”
Edmonton scored 4+ goals in all six playoff victories. They have the offence to win, but they also lost three games when they scored 3+ goals. They never won a game 3-2 or 2-1. Limiting goals against 5×5 must be the main focus at the start of next season. Offence isn’t an issue. They have elite, top-end scorers, and their depth produced more than enough goals. Woodcroft will need to become a bit more comfortable playing his bottom six players a few more minutes here and there, but that isn’t the main issue.
The overriding messages from the leaders were how painful this loss was, and how they need to reduce the easy goals against. And they want to do it together with this group.
“When you go through hard times, and you stick together and there hasn’t been any major changes to the core group, you want to succeed,” said Draisaitl. “It feels like, starting with Connor, creating a culture here where it is about winning and playing successful hockey and meaningful hockey when it matters, and I think we’ve done that. When you play with guys for such a long time, with every year you almost want it more and more because you just want to win with them so badly. It would mean the world to all of us [to win], but there is a lot of work that goes in to winning. We are aware of that, and we’ll try again next year.”
The Oilers will make some changes to the roster, but the main core is intact. There will be some changes (I discussed some yesterday), but Holland believes the majority of improvements will come from within.
“I think everybody can play defense,” said Holland. “It is a commitment. It is a desire, a determination. The disappointments, the devastating losses they help. When we [Detroit] lost in the first round to Edmonton in 2006 and then won the Cup in 2008, I didn’t change 20 players. It was mainly the same players, just doing some things differently. It is being in these situations over and over and over again, and understanding as GM that we have to make some changes, but every player goes back in the summer and looks in the mirror and decides what they need to change.”
Mistakes will always happen in a game as fast as the NHL, but the leaders made it clear they want to stop gifting the opposition goals. They need to limit the glaring errors. Avoid major lapses.
It sounds like the major change this offseason, and arguably the most significant one, will come from the players.
Losing is painful, but this loss could be the best thing that happened to this group.

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