ANAHEIM — Even before the puck was dropped for Game 1 of their second-round series against the Anaheim Ducks, Connor McDavid was touting the resilience of his Edmonton Oilers team. At the time, his club was fresh off back-to-back wins to close out its first-round series against the defending Western Conference-champion San Jose Sharks.
Those two big wins came immediately after a 7-0 drubbing in Game 4 that was easily the most lopsided loss of Edmonton’s season. “We lose 7-0, everyone has us down and out, and we come back and win two in a row. I don’t think anyone had us doing that after that kind of game,” McDavid said before Game 1 in Anaheim. “I feel like in a playoff series, momentum isn’t game to game.”
After the Oilers’ humbling 6-3 loss to the Ducks in Game 3 on Sunday — Edmonton’s first in the series, which it now leads two games to one — McDavid has an opportunity to prove his playoff momentum theory in Game 4 on Wednesday at home at Rogers Place.
McDavid’s confidence in his team’s resilience isn’t unfounded. The Oilers haven’t lost consecutive games since March 12, when the Montreal Canadiens handed Edmonton its third straight loss. The Oilers’ 21 wins in one-goal games tied the Ottawa Senators for the sixth in the league. They also went 29-2-1 during the regular season when leading after two periods. That .906 win percentage in such situations was fifth. Edmonton also won seven games during the regular season when trailing after 40 minutes; only three teams bested that number.
So even with a 20-year-old captain and a roster featuring numerous players with little to no playoff experience, the Oilers have set a precedent all season for bouncing back from difficult losses. And Game 3 was certainly a tough one. After trailing 3-0 early, McDavid tied the game with a remarkable wrist shot in the second period, only to see Ducks center Chris Wagner score the eventual winning goal just 48 seconds later.
“It showed the character in the room. We knew we could come back against a really good hockey team,” Oilers forward Patrick Maroon said on Monday. “I thought we did a good job of doing that. Those are some good signs, those are some positives.”
If the Stanley Cup playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that a team’s ability to bounce back from tough losses ultimately rests with its leadership group. In Edmonton, that core happens to be anchored by a superstar who was still a teenager just four months ago. But despite his lack of NHL experience, McDavid hasn’t lacked for confidence when discussing his team.
“He seems to be a pretty mature player out there on the ice,” said former NHL player Joe Mullen. “I’m sure he’s been in a lot of big games and international games, and probably drew from other leaders that he played with.”
Mullen isn’t a novice when it comes to judging a player’s capacity for leadership. During his playing career, Mullen won the Stanley Cup three times alongside some of the great leaders in hockey history, including Lanny McDonald, Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis. As an assistant coach, he helped guide the Philadelphia Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, where they relied heavily on defenseman Chris Pronger, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015.
“A lot has to do with the leaders on your team and how they can pull everybody together and say, ‘Hey, look, [it’s] one bad loss. We’ve just got to go out there and play the way we’ve been playing all year,'” said Mullen. “It all starts with your leadership group.”
But there’s something more to the Oilers’ confidence in their ability to rebound from losses: an urgency, almost a desperation, to avoid returning to the lean years that plagued this franchise before this season. The leadership core of this team is made up in large part by a number of players who were on the wrong end of countless defeats and lost seasons that resulted in one high draft pick after another.
Almost six years after being taken first overall in the draft, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is coming off his first winning season as a pro. Long a foundational piece of the perpetual rebuild that took place in Edmonton, Jordan Eberle — the Oilers’ first-round pick in 2008 — is enjoying his first playoff run. They’re just some of the players who have already lost a lot of games in Edmonton and have no intention of going back to being losers.
“You didn’t like [losing] the first time and you sure as heck don’t want to do it again,” said former NHL player and coach Craig Ramsay. “They’ve seen the bad side, now they’re on the good side, and they really want to build on that and enjoy that moment. They’ve experienced that and they’re going to be feeling really good about this opportunity.”
Ramsay was an assistant coach on the Oilers team that finished 24-44-14 in 2014-15 — another difficult season that will forever be remembered as the lost season that allowed the Oilers to win the draft lottery and select McDavid first overall.
“They’ve faced a lot of losses in their early careers. Having another one is not that big a deal,” Ramsay said. “They’ll respond in a positive way. I have no doubt about it.”
After all those losses in seasons past, the Oilers believe they can come back from a Game 3 defeat in which they never appeared to find any traction against Anaheim. With a leadership group that appears to be growing more confident with each game and a rabid fan base looking forward to the biggest home game in 11 years, there are plenty of believers in the Oilers’ room.
“We’ve got to play with the confidence we’ve been playing with all year and find ways to bounce back again,” said Maroon. “We’ve been a good bounce-back team all year. This is a good time to do that in Game 4.”