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Edmonton Oilers' Leon Draisaitl (29) is stopped by Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) at Rogers Place on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020.
Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) faces off against Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) during first period NHL hockey action at Rogers Place in Edmonton, on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020.
For most of the Decade of Darkness, the 12 seasons of 13 the Edmonton Oilers have spent out of the playoffs, it’s not only been the goal, it’s been a motto and a mantra: “Meaningful games in March.”
How many times have you heard it said by head coaches Craig MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins, Todd McLellan, Ken Hitchcock and Dave Tippett, as well as general managers Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini, MacTavish, Peter Chiarelli and Ken Holland?
“Meaningful games in March.”
Well, here the Oilers are, coming off a massive 3-2 playoff-like victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 29.
And dead ahead are 16 meaningful games jammed into 31 days starting with three in a span of four days beginning Monday in Nashville in a second consecutive potential ‘separation game’ against a playoff-calibre team. After all, Edmonton just separated itself by four points with two games in hand from Winnipeg with the win.
There are teams that make it to March in contention that don’t necessarily welcome playing the style of hockey required on a nightly basis, and others that skate in fear of failure. And there are those that absolutely thrive on it.
With than in mind, I asked coach Dave Tippett on Saturday after the pre-game skate about his team embracing meaningful games in March now that they’re at hand.
“There shouldn’t be any fear in it,” he said. “It should be embracing the challenge, especially when you haven’t been there very much. When you haven’t been there much, you better embrace it.”
And that’s what he thinks he sees with this group heading into the month.
“I think there’s excitement more than fear,” he said. “I think there’s excitement of getting in this position and having the opportunity to move forward. That’s what drives guys.
“I mean, you look at Connor (McDavid) and Leon (Draisaitl) the way they’re engaged right now, there’s excitement right now that we’re pushing forward,” he said. “I would leave the fear out of it and put more excitement and opportunity into it.
“I’ve said it 100 times this year: You earn the right to be a playoff team. You’re not going to back into anything. You have to go earn the right to be a playoff team. You have to win your games and take care of yourselves if you’re going to do that. And that’s the mindset of our group right now.”
Eight hours later, Draisaitl became the first player in the league to hit 100 points and reach the century figure for a second straight season, with McDavid setting him up for a two-goal night before Draisaitl set up Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who also had a three-point night, for the winner.
But more than anybody, it was goaltender Mike Smith who epitomized embracing a game at this time of year and probably positioned himself to be the Game 1 starter of the playoffs, if the Oilers get there.
“I mentioned it a little bit this morning; these are the games you want to play in. These are the games that get the juices following and why you play,” he said. “I’ve played for a long time and I’ve played a lot of meaningless games at this time of year and that’s not fun at all. This is when it’s fun.
“This is when you want to play and this is when you want to play your best,” said the goaltender who stopped 39 of 41 shots to extend his record to 11-1-4 in his last 16 starts.
March for the Oilers does, indeed, come in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.
First, there’s this three-games-in-four-days challenge through Nashville, Dallas and Chicago.
Survive that and 10 of the remaining 13 games in the month will be at home — interrupted by one last three-games-in-four-days Philadelphia-Washington-Ottawa trip.
It’s playoff-game style spacing for the six consecutive games in Rogers Place with a game every second night through to April, when they have one game following a three-day break on the fourth in Calgary, and another three- or four-day break before the playoffs, if they make it.
As the Oilers headed out on the road again following their one-game home stand, players like Kailer Yamamoto, Oscar Klefbom and James Neal all appear close to returning to the lineup.
In basketball there’s March Madness and filling out brackets. Here, March Madness is a different deal.
Every day, virtually every fan is likely to sit down with the standings to try to figure out how many more wins it’s going to take for the Oilers to get in the playoffs.
If you figure the number of points in the standings it will require is 96, for example, that would mean the Oilers would need to win 10 of their last 17.
Of course, you can’t just do that with one team. Now do the math for Vegas, Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Nashville, Winnipeg, Arizona Minnesota and Chicago.
It’s too early yet for magic and tragic numbers. But it’s coming soon. And it’s not to early for ‘If the playoffs started tomorrow …’
Embrace it. It’s part of the package you get when your team plays meaningful games in March.
On Twitter: @ByTerryJones
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