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Oilers’ Game 7 loss was the growing pains for a team on the rise

Coach Todd McLellan said his Oilers got a "college degree" in the playoffs, and the lessons learned can be exactly what propels Edmonton forward in the future.

In the immediate aftermath of the Oilers’ Game 7 defeat at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks, there was bound to be heartbreak in Edmonton. That’s inevitable whenever a team loses a series, and the disappointment was evident in the comments from some of the Oilers’ top players. Connor McDavid, for instance, said it would take some time to get over the loss, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins called it frustrating to be so close only to watch the series slip away.

But even in defeat there’s reason for hope among the Oilers, something that almost every player, to a person, seemed to realize as the series loss set in. 

Speaking with media post-game, goaltender Cam Talbot talked about the steps forward several players had taken in the playoffs. Patrick Maroon envisioned a brighter future for the club. McDavid, the team’s captain and the youngest player to wear the ‘C’ in league history, brought up the fact that most teams that have won it all — the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, for example — have had to deal with playoff disappointment before the joy of hoisting the Stanley Cup. And when he sat taking questions from media post-game, coach Todd McLellan compared the Oilers’ playoff run to an education.

“Our (entrance) into the playoffs was about as good as we could ask — the type of teams we played, the series that we played in, the ups and the downs,” McLellan said. “We basically got a college degree in a month when it comes to the playoffs, and that experience for us moving forward is going to be very, very helpful.”

McLellan couldn’t be more right, either. For the past decade, the Oilers have been mired in the NHL’s basement, learning everything but how to win. Over the past month, however, Edmonton has defeated the San Jose Sharks, a veteran team that knew exactly what it takes to get to the Stanley Cup final and had been there just one year prior, and dragged the Ducks, a battle-tested playoff club, to seven games in the second round. So, the defeat may have been a tough pill to swallow for the Oilers as they skated down the handshake line and flew back to Edmonton to clean out their lockers, but the learning experience of the past month stands to go along way.

And it may very well be McDavid who learns the most. Over the past 13 games, McDavid has had arguably the toughest experience of his brief NHL career. The Oilers’ phenom dominated the regular season, was the only player to reach 100 points, captured the Art Ross Trophy and is in the running for some additional hardware when the NHL hands out its end-of-season awards. Even with all those accolades, though, he learned quickly how the post-season can be a different animal.

He was shadowed, stride for stride, by San Jose’s Joe Pavelski in the first round, being held to two goals and four points. It was enough to lead all Oilers’ scorers in the series, but it was far from the production many expected from McDavid in his first go-round in the playoffs. Life didn’t get any easier in the second round, either. His tough ride continued as he was followed in lockstep by Ryan Kesler, the two looking like mirror images of each other at times during Game 7. It worked, too. Kesler shut down the Oilers’ star. McDavid managed only one shot in nearly 25 minutes of ice time in Game 7 and he netted three goals and five points as the series went in Anaheim’s favor.

But after a season where McDavid showed offensive production comes easy for him even in the big league, realizing that he needs to learn how to shake the tight checking of the playoffs gives him something to work on. That should strike fear into the Oilers’ future playoff opponents, because it means one of the league’s brightest stars has already found his next way room to improve and show there’s another next level for his game. And with what we’ve seen from McDavid throughout his career in major junior and during his two seasons in the NHL, it’d be safe to assume McDavid will have his playoff breakthrough the next time he has the chance. The Oilers aren’t McDavid alone, though, and the lessons go beyond their superstar center.

Throughout the post-season, it became clear that Leon Draisaitl was discovering what McDavid had figured out during the regular season — a way to put the Oilers on his back. With McDavid shut down, Draisaitl stepped up. Even excluding his monster five-point Game 6, Draisaitl put up 11 points in 12 outings this post-season. For him to fill that role and step out of McDavid’s shadow shows the Oilers have an undoubted one-two punch. That creates a nucleus for Edmonton to build around for years to come as they pursue a title.

Between the pipes, Talbot learned he has what it takes to be a top guy in the post-season, as well. After spending two years as Henrik Lundqvist’s understudy and his first season in Edmonton on the outside of the playoffs looking in, Talbot showed every bit the promise of a goaltender who can backstop a team to a Stanley Cup at some point in his career. He pitched two shutouts in 13 games this post-season and, upon exiting in the second round, boasts a .924 save percentage. That is only slightly behind the marks of playoff veterans Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Maybe the most important lesson, however, was the one that came in Game 5’s heartbreaking defeat. Leading by three goals with 3:16 left, the Oilers watched what appeared to be a sure win and 3-2 series lead slip away as the Ducks scored not once, not twice but three times to tie up the contest before Corey Perry ended the game in overtime. But that’s the kind of game a team loses once. It won’t happen again, and the next time the Oilers find themselves in the post-season, they’ll be a team that better understands how to protect those leads and how costly letting one slip away can be.

So, yes, there’s bound to be some sadness and disappointment in Edmonton on Thursday. For some, including a few players in the Oilers’ dressing room, that feeling is going to hang in the air for days or even weeks. But, as McDavid said, this is the bump in the road that often comes for teams with championship aspirations, and the refrain often repeated by teams who’ve climbed the playoff mountain is they had to lose first to learn how to win. That education is why McLellan called this post-season run a college degree, and it sure doesn’t feel as though it’s going to be all that long before the Oilers are celebrating their graduation day.

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