Don’t Forget About Edmonton

With all the excitement going on south of the Ambassador Bridge, particularly with the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s almost understandable that until last night even the most ardent U.S. hockey fans hadn’t been fully aware of exactly how exciting and surprising the Western Conference semifinal series between the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks was.  And while a lot of justifiable attention has and will be paid to the top-seeded Dallas Stars, who completed a tightly played but ultimately convincing five-game ouster of Colorado last week, last night, with every other Stanley Cup quarterfinal series already ended and the NBA playoffs taking its first night completely off in more than a month, these Canadian rivals enjoyed the ESPN stage all to themselves, for the first time getting a reasonably early (9 PM ET) prime time slot.

And they did not disappoint, as the network’s Ryan S. Clark reported this morning:

With a slightly fading voice and a ticket to the Western Conference finals in hand, Connor McDavid said what many were surely thinking about his team’s latest performance.

“We know how to make it stressful,” McDavid told Sportsnet.

McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers saw their three-goal lead come under threat late in the third period with the Vancouver Canucks scoring twice. Even with those goals, the Oilers held firm in a 3-2 win Monday in Game 7 of the second-round. 

Three second-period goals from Cody CeciZach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins signaled the Oilers were 20 minutes away from the conference final.

Then, their lead was cut to 3-1 on a goal from Conor Garland with less than nine minutes left. Nearly four minutes later, Filip Hronek scored to cut the Oilers’ lead to 3-2 and give the Canucks new life with 4:36 remaining in the third.

But the Vancouver comeback was not to be completed.  As THE ATHLETIC’s  Thomas Drance and Daniel Nugent-Bowman detailed:

Ultimately this Vancouver dream campaign, which exceeded every reasonable expectation and was chock-full of incredible moments, came to an end because the Canucks just couldn’t trouble Stuart Skinner with a high enough volume of quality looks until it was too late.

Particularly in the absence of top goal scorer Brock Boeser, Vancouver didn’t have enough creativity and didn’t control the puck often enough to hang with Edmonton in Game 6 and Game 7. They made it interesting. There’s no doubting this team’s guts.

The on-ice heroics of Skinner were impressive, but as Clark reported it was an off-ice move that most impressed the Oilers’ top player:

Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch immediately called a timeout after Hronek’s goal, a decision that McDavid praised for a few reasons.

“I thought it was a great timeout,” McDavid told reporters. “Even Darnell [Nurse], he was getting guys together and showing great leadership. That’s what he is, a great leader. He’s big in this room and showed great leadership there bringing everybody in. … It just settled everyone down and we were able to close it out.”

And it underscored the significance and impact that the Oilers’ November hiring of Knoblauch was.  Initially seen as a kneejerk reaction nary a month into the 2023-24 campaign, the appointment of the one-time Oiler player and, more recently, the coach of the AHL Hartford Wolfpack completely turned around Edmonton’s fortunes.  While they finished second in the Pacific Division overall, trailing the Canucks by five points at season’s end, they were an astounding 46-18-5 under Knoblauch, a points percentage that exceeded even the Canucks’ remarkable performance under its own coaching savior Rick Tocchet, who replaced Bruce Boudreau last January and in a season and a half restored the Canucks to a level of success and fan interest not seen since they narrowly missed a Stanley Cup in 2010.

Rangers fans are taking particular note of all of this.  While the elimination of Vancouver will deny them the chance for a serendiptous rematch of the Finals they won 30 years ago in thrilling fashion, the possibility of a showdown with Knoblauch is equally intriguing.  As loyal Rangers fans know, the Hartford Wolfpack is their top minor league affiliate.  When the Rangers elected to go with veteran Peter Laviolette as their new coach instead of Knoblauch, who had just led Hartford to a surprisingly successful playoff run last spring, that ultimately freed him up for other opportunities.  Which Edmonton handsomely cashed in on.

So now you’re caught up on why the sole remaining Canadian team is worth watching.  And believe me, I’ll be doing just that.

Courage…

 

 

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