Edmonton Oilers console goaltender Mike Smith (41) after he allowed the game-winning goal during third overtime period NHL Stanley Cup playoff action against the Winnipeg Jets, in Winnipeg on Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

‘It’s still very fresh:’ McDavid, Oilers look to move on from early playoff exit

‘It’s still very fresh:’ McDavid, Oilers look to move on from early playoff exit

EDMONTON — A day after a triple-overtime loss ended their season in an unexpected fashion, the Edmonton Oilers were trying to move on.

A regular season of promising steps forward failed to translate into playoff success for the Oilers, who were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Winnipeg Jets.

As sweeps go, this was a hard-fought one. Three of the games went to overtime, while the Jets won the series opener 4-1 with a pair of empty-net goals inflating the scoreline.

Still, when Kyle Connor’s goal in triple overtime Monday gave the Jets the decisive 4-3 win in Game 4, it marked another year of the Oilers failing to make any noise in the post-season despite having the superstar combo of Connor McDavid and another superstar in Leon Draisaitl.

“It’s still very fresh and very raw,” McDavid said in a video conference Tuesday. “Obviously we have to get over it at some point and learn our lessons, move on and continue marching forward.”

The Oilers have only been past the first round of the playoffs once since losing the 2006 Stanley Cup final in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes.

After that run the Oilers missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons, until a McDavid-led team knocked off the San Jose Sharks in six games before losing in seven to Anaheim in the 2017 post-season.

It was not the playoff breakthrough the team might have expected. The Oilers missed the playoffs the next two seasons, then were beaten 3-1 on home ice by the Chicago Blackhawks in last season’s qualifying round.

“We know that we’ve had some tough times and there’s been a lot of disappointing years,” Draisaitl said. “But it’s going to feel so much better when we do win.”

Despite the gut-punch ending, the Oilers saw some positive signs this season.

McDavid had arguably one of the finest offensive seasons in league history with 105 points in 56 games, running away with the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer. Draisaitl was runner up with 84 points.

Darnell Nurse continued his maturation into a top-pairing defenceman with offensive upside and veteran Mike Smith had a renaissance in the Oilers net with a 21-6-2 record and three shutouts.

None of those things translated into playoff success this year. McDavid and Draisaitl were held off the scoresheet for the first two games of the series. Nurse and Smith played exceptionally well — Nurse logged a Herculean 62 minutes seven seconds in Game 4 — but the goaltending of Jets star Connor Hellebuyck and Winnipeg’s depth at forward proved more than a match.

However, Edmonton’s overall progress, along with returning to a potentially weak Pacific Division next season, could mean another shot at getting over the post-season hump.

Head coach Dave Tippet said the key for the Oilers right now is to become a perennial playoff team.

“You’ve got to punch that ticket to be a playoff team every year and continue to get better and better,” Tippett said. “One of those times you’ll punch that ticket and you’ll go on a good run.”

The Oilers will likely make some changes this off-season, and players who were part of this year’s squad might not be around for another playoff push. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a 10-year Oilers veteran, is a potential unrestricted free agent. So are Smith and defencemen Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie, among others.

McDavid said, despite another year of post-season disappointment, that there is an appetite among those who will be back to take the Oilers to the next level.

“We have a great core here,” McDavid said. “We want to see this thing through together, and we want to do this thing right as a group.

“It feels like we’re light years away, but we’re a lot closer, I think, than it feels today.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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