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First of all, it’s about Edmonton having their helmets screwed on straight for a second opportunity.
The Oilers don’t have to do in two games what the Maple Leafs did in those three games in Edmonton. The Oilers don’t have to sweep their final two games of the nine games against Toronto in the compact 56-game exclusive north of the border Canadian Division season.
But they definitely do need to win one.
And they definitely do need to avoid another 13-1 total-point combination from the two-game series that the Leafs put together in the three games in Edmonton.
The Oilers don’t have to finish first in the division regular season standings.
There’s no prize for that for a team that plays just as well on the road as at home and this is a season with no fans in the stands.
But there is a prize — the first of the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl era — if they can win the officially-named Scotia North Division championship and hang their first banner in Rogers Place.
There is an honour — a one-time and one-time-only opportunity unless NHL commissioner Gary Bettman changes his mind — of being the last team still skating to represent Canada to go forward to the final four of this year’s redesigned divisions in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The McDavid-Draisailt Window is now officially wide open to skate forward to claim more than Hart Trophies (2), Art Ross Trophies (3) and Ted Lindsay Awards (3) that the two top players in the game have combined to claim so far. And McDavid’s name is virtually assured to be on those trophies again this year along with a possible Rocket Richard Trophy and Draisaitl’s name may even go on a Selke Trophy this year.
McDavid and Draisaitl have accepted the challenge of becoming ultimate, complete team players this year. And that’s been especially true since they were both effectively neutered in the three-game Toronto embarrassment. Prior to that a pair of totally competitive two-game series between the two teams that were spit — the Oilers winning 2-1 and losing 4-2 in Toronto and the Maple Leafs winning 4-3 and losing 4-3 in overtime in Edmonton in January.
McDavid, for only the third time in his career, failed to manufacture a point over three-game stretch that actually extended to 10 periods. Draisaitl managed a single assist.
The Oilers since their trio of pratfalls of epic proportions against the front-running Leafs have gone 7-2. And they’ve been gifted with an unexpected Spring Break of an entire week between games of what was supposed to be a 12-game-in-21-day torture test.
In the nine games they’ve played since the three debacles against the Leafs in their own building, McDavid has scored seven goals and produced 20 points. Draisaitl has scored six and added 15 points.
In that span coach Dave Tippett and staff have effectively evolved their roles to go from either exclusively driving their own lines or exclusively operating as the Dynamic Duo. Now you don’t get one or the other. Now you get a combination of both depending on game-to-game, period- to-period and shift-to-shift efficiency.
As always, you get both along with third star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the power play plus both Draisaitl and McDavid usually combining again when their opponent’s power play expires. Draisaitl takes shifts on a penalty-killing unit and McDavid extra shifts with the third or fourth line.
They’ve made all that work since that trio of Toronto drubbings. The challenge is to do it again now against Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and mates.
And the equally large challenge is for the rest of the team with Darnell Nurse, Adam Larsson, Tyson Barrie, Ethan Bear, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto meeting the challenge in these two games to replicating what they’ve been doing lately and making Edmonton more than a team that can be beaten if you take away the time and space of their two superstars.
As he turns 39, Mike Smith has been writing an exceptional story in goal for the Oilers with his 11-3, 2.34 and .922 numbers so far.
But lets see it when it matters most.
The first two losses of the three to Toronto were due primarily to ghastly goaltending early.
Last year the Oilers finished the season strong and Tippett picked Smith to start Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks where he opened by giving up just a monumentally miserable goal that neither he or the team recovered from.
If Smith continues to play like he’s been playing and/or the team in front of him shows the will to go with their skill to overcome and get at least a split from these two games, the Oilers can proceed with confidence to the final 20 games of the regular season with a very real expectation of going deep into the playoffs.
With both Calgary and Vancouver effectively eliminated from playoff contention during the Oilers Spring Break, this is about Edmonton becoming all they can be when they get to the playoff and not repeat the empty effort they produced during the best-of-three Stanley Cup Qualifying Series against the Blackhawks.
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