EDMONTON — Ten years is a long time between hockey playoff games. With the Canadian exchange rate, it’s an even longer time. But until Wednesday night, that was indeed the length of the Edmonton Oilers’ postseason drought.
Look it up. Until the puck dropped for Game 1 against the Sharks here in Northern Alberta, the Oilers last previous postseason faceoff had occurred on June 19, 2006, a Game 7 loss to Carolina at the Stanley Cup Final. In the 3,929 days between that occasion and Wednesday’s contest, as the Oilers stayed home every spring, the Sharks had participated in 110 playoff games.
So, yes, one team has more experience at this stuff. It’s not a phony statistic, either. Shark players such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau participated in nearly all of those 110 playoff games for the Sharks. Meanwhile, the biggest young Oilers stars such as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl had zero experience in the postseason before Wednesday.
“We want our guys to be relaxed and enjoy it,” said Oilers’ coach Todd McLellan before the puck dropped.
Good luck with that. In the hours leading up to Wednesday’s action, the entire city of Edmonton was exactly the opposite of relaxed. As fans streamed toward Rogers Place, the team’s new arena that opened just last autumn, more than half of them seemed to be wearing No. 97 McDavid jerseys. Pregame watering spots were drowning in Oilers love. Inside the arena, a full 15 minutes before the home team took the ice for warmups–just for warmups–maybe half the seats were full and the crowd began chanting: “Let’s Go Oil-urz.”
The noise grew louder when all 18,347 people sang the Canadian national anthem in unison and the actual game began. And when Edmonton defenseman Oscar Klefbom scored the first goal of the series a little over six minutes into the first period, the entire place lifted off.
But here’s the thing we have learned over the years: Whatever happened Wednesday was going to be overblown–whether it turned out to be an Oilers romp or a Sharks runaway or something in between. The first game of every playoff series receives undue attention. It frequently has minimal relation to what comes afterward.
And that’s where the Sharks’ greater playoff experience should come into play. During those 110 games over the past 10 years, the Sharks have seen just about every scenario and dealt with just about every situation, good or bad. The Oilers have not. A team’s greater perspective and sensibility really shows up with the first major swing of momentum — within a game or from game to game — and how the players handle the dynamic dips and swings. When the series moves toward elimination games, the mindset really shows up.
Here is how McLellan, who coached the Sharks in many of those series before leaving to join the Oilers, put it: “As you get deeper into a series, the funnel narrows.”
The funnel of intensity, he meant. When the Sharks were a younger team, there were many postseasons where they would skate slickly and impressively and take early leads in a series to prove in their minds that they were the better team, then figure that would be good enough the rest of the way. Often, it wasn’t.
Teams that have been around the block (and the rink) know that the grind and the mental strength is what gets you to the finish line in the playoffs. It’s easier to play looser and more free in the first few games. As a series progresses and each shift matters more and more, sticks are gripped tighter and those who have been there have a steadier heartbeat.,
Trying to quantify the value of that experience can be the difficult part.
“It doesn’t mean something until it means something,” said Sharks coach Pete DeBoer. “Whether that’s in a Game 7 or in a Game 3 when you’re reeling and need to right yourself and somebody says something meaningful . . . I just like to say that I feel we have a group of men that thrive at this time of year.”
Marleau would be one. He has played in 109 of those 110 playoff games since 2006. He missed that single game after coming down with the flu during a 2010 second-round series against Detroit that the Sharks still managed to win in five games. Marleau was making yet another playoff start Wednesday, his 172nd overall. After all of those games, is there anything he can face in this series that he hasn’t faced before?
“Well, you never let yourself think that you know everything,” Marleau said at Wednesday’s morning skate.
So what did he learn last year, for example, when the Sharks made their run to the Stanley Cup Final.
“Just how special and how hard it is to get to that place . . .and then still realize there is one more step to take,” Marleau said.
In Edmonton, they know their hockey history. In 1980, another young set of Oilers featuing a teenaged Wayne Gretzky lost the franchise’s first NHL playoff series to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers won the best-of-five in three games but all of them were close. Afterward, Philadelphia star Bobby Clarke said of the Oilers: “The only thing that beat them in this series was our experience.”
With the Sharks’ spate of injuries and late-season struggles, experience may be the only thing that can beat the Oilers this time, too. But it is no small thing.