ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Even before his Edmonton Oilers took to the ice at the Honda Center on Wednesday to play Game 1 of their second-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Anaheim Ducks, Connor McDavid was telling anyone who would listen that he was done talking about his team’s glaring lack of postseason experience.
After knocking off the defending Western Conference-champion San Jose Sharks in the first round, McDavid and his teammates feel they’ve adequately answered all those nagging questions about not having been there before. And here again, as they did against San Jose, they find themselves facing a veteran team that boasts all kinds of big-game experience.
“Everyone has talked about experience heading into the first round and the playoffs. We don’t have a ton of it,” McDavid said after Edmonton’s morning skate on Wednesday. “But, like I keep saying, we have a little bit more than people give us credit for. We’re comfortable in this position, and we understand that they’ve been here before and have played in these games. So they might have a little bit more experience, but it’s not a big deal.”
It turns out the Oilers’ young star might not have been bluffing. Just three months removed from his 20th birthday and surrounded by several teammates with little-to-no postseason experience, McDavid and the Oilers seized home-ice advantage from the Ducks in their best-of-seven series with a gutsy 5-3 Game 1 win in which a team many predicted would be out of its postseason depth showed impressive resilience. Edmonton fought back from a 1-0 deficit and then kept its composure after coughing up a 3-1 third-period lead.
Despite his team’s apparent lack of big-game bona fides, the kid captain says his team is uniquely built for this moment.
“We’ve dealt with these kind of situations all year long. People are hard on us. We don’t have that experience; we haven’t been here,” McDavid said after collecting an assist in Game 1. “But now I think everyone in this room is so comfortable in these types of situations. We can handle the ups and downs.”
That’s not to say that the Oilers didn’t learn a few things along the way in eliminating San Jose in six games. Four of the team’s top five scorers during the regular season entered the playoffs without a lick of playoff ice time. So the series would have been educational regardless of its outcome.
“We didn’t panic or anything. We learned a lot during the last series,” said defenseman Adam Larsson, who scored two goals in Game 1, including the winner with 4:40 remaining in regulation. “We have some experienced guys, we have some unexperienced guys. We have come together as a team real well and that kind of carried over.”
This might be the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 11 years, but Edmonton has faced adversity already this spring. The Oilers were tested when they were rocked in Game 4 of the first round by the Sharks, who evened the series with a resounding 7-0 win. Any momentum the Oilers might have gained in taking a 2-1 series lead appeared lost. That’s when McDavid learned a lesson that should serve him well the rest of his career.
“[There’s] not a lot of momentum, I feel, in a playoff series. Momentum switches and changes in the game, but I don’t feel it changes from game to game very much,” McDavid said. “That was a good lesson for us.”
The Oilers certainly didn’t let the momentum limit them, winning Games 5 and 6 against San Jose to advance.
It’s a lesson that came in handy for the Oilers on Wednesday night in Anaheim. After the Ducks’ Patrick Eaves and Jakob Silfverberg each scored 85 seconds apart to erase Edmonton’s two-goal lead, the Oilers showed the kind of poise few expected they would be capable of this postseason. Sure, maybe they would be ready to rebound like that in a road playoff game in a couple of years after they’d taken some playoff lumps. But this soon?
By doing so, they might have silenced the ongoing discussions about how far this “inexperienced” group can go — especially with the rest of the Western Conference bracket made up of teams that have logged plenty of big games the past few seasons.
But the Oilers don’t care about their opponents’ playoff pedigrees. Larsson, Zack Kassian and Mark Letestu, who scored twice on the power play on Wednesday night, have all stepped up as unlikely postseason heroes.
“Everyone thinks we’re this young team, but we’ve got some veteran guys in here who have over 500 games,” said forward Patrick Maroon. “Just because they don’t have a playoff game doesn’t mean they don’t have experience.”
They didn’t look young or out of place while knocking the defending Western Conference champions out of the playoffs in Round 1. And they certainly didn’t seem overwhelmed while opening a series against a Ducks team replete with Cup-winners, All-Stars, Olympians and world champions. So maybe, just maybe, McDavid knows what he’s talking about when he says this team is built for this stage.
One thing is for sure: The kid captain will keep sticking up for his team regardless of its collective playoff experience. Even with the youngest captain in N.H.L. history and a roster packed with players who entered the playoffs with little to no postseason experience, these Oilers don’t care how many late-season battles their opponents have waged.
Just give these playoff neophytes a chance, and they just might shock the world.
“We’re a very deep team. I keep saying that. You guys will believe me one day,” McDavid said. “We’re a very deep team, and we can have a new guy each and every night.”