TENCER: The Chase
The Oilers have taken a giant leap forward by playing meaningful games in April
|Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
In between the Vancouver and Los Angeles games, I went to the movies with some friends on Friday night. As the movie started, the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings were in OT playing a game with an impact on the playoff picture for the Oilers. I was the jerk in the theatre that couldn't keep his nose out of the phone until the game was over, because it was April 5th and the scoreboard mattered.
It was the first time in a great many seasons that the scoreboard mattered in April, and that's a big step for this team.
So, to heck with the math. I don't want to know how many games need to be won to get in or who the team is mostly likely to catch or what the odds are of this, that or the other. I just want to be able to look down at the standings and up at the game in front of me and know that it matters. And this year, in April, they matter.
Between March 10 and April 3, the Oilers put together an 8-2-2 run to get themselves back into contention and, for an evening, in a playoff spot. That run included an 0-2-1 section, for those of you getting jumpy about the last couple of games. They rolled into that 2nd-to-last game on the marathon road trip in Chicago and were smacked in the face with the reality that they had better start finding some results, or the scoreboard in April wouldn't matter.
They stepped up, and now it matters.
I'm not sure whether they'll make it or not, and I don't really care what the math has to say about it. If the method you use to predict the last 10 games was accurate in predicting that 8-2-2 run, then let me know and I'll pay attention. This team is right there in the standings and they have 7 of their 10 remaining games on home ice and go ahead and ask Columbus and Vancouver and Calgary about the last few games at Rexall Place.
The point is, after a run of 30-30-29 place finishes, this year is a step out of the basement and a new experience for this young team. A few guys, like Ladislav Smid and Sam Gagner, can remember games a few years back that had playoff implications this time of year, but I count 11 players on the roster right now that have zero experience playing meaningful NHL games late in a season. The team is getting a taste of the pressure, a taste of the elevated intensity, and, perhaps most importantly, a taste of what it's like to lose games that mattered.
I wouldn't underestimate the change in culture happening here. For 3 years, losing has been the routine. The "rebuild" was declared and we all know by now what direction you have to head to accomplish some of those things. Along with "rebuild" comes a likelihood that the games late in the season probably won't matter for a little while. As such, losing those games, when you're a mile from the playoffs, was something they were probably numb to.
None of them is numb to losing any of these games. What we've seen here is that losing during a "rebuild" has transitioned to losing during a "playoff race". I don't know about you, but I'm pretty convinced that the excitement of being in a playoff chase combined with the anguish following any losses incurred is an equation and experience that is going to fuel winning here. I've never been through it as an NHL player, but I've got a pretty long roster full of notable former players (it can start and end with: Gretzky, Wayne) that have emphasized that the experience in pressure situations is a necessary key to success and cannot be manufactured or done without. Pressure is a great reality in pro sports, one that has an immeasurable impact on a game. One that boosts "big game" teams and players to the next level and one that seems daunting and foreign to groups that haven't seen it before. The familiarity with pressure will help breed winning, no doubt.
So, to heck with the math. The games matter, and that's a big step. Will they take the next step this year, or will the next evolution have to wait for next year? I don't know. But I'm anxious to watch because, unlike the last 3 years, it's April and we don't know how this ends.
Dan Tencer is the host of 630 CHED's Inside Sports which can be heard weeknights from 6 to 9 pm.