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'Learning moment:' Embarrassing loss to Flames was catalyst for Oilers' playoff push

Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith, left, lets in a goal from Calgary Flames' Matthew Tkachuk during second period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Saturday, March 26, 2022.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — It was not the Edmonton Oilers’ finest hour, but a big loss to their Battle of Alberta archrivals might have been instrumental to their playoff push.

The Calgary Flames pumped nine goals past the Oilers, in what could have been Edmonton’s most embarrassing outing of the season, when the teams last met on March 26.

Yet the Oilers went on a 13-2-1 tear after that game to close the regular season, and then rallied to beat the Kings in seven games in the first round of the playoffs. 

The Calgary blowout was a look-in-the-mirror moment. Their rivals might have actually done the Oilers a favour.

“It allowed the coaching staff to use it as a learning moment for our group,” said Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft.  “For us, it was an opportunity to focus our group on the type of game we needed to play in order to have some success. And here we are.”

The Flames and Oilers split the four-game regular-season series, but Calgary won both games on Saddledome ice, where the two teams will start Wednesday.

“We played them at different times in the season, and our season has been a little different than most years,” said Oilers winger Zach Hyman, who scored twice and added a couple of helpers in the series win over Los Angeles. “We were a different team earlier on in the year. And, later on in the year, they caught us a couple of times. But I think they helped us grow as a team, to face adversity.”

Winger Zack Kassian, who had a goal and an assist in the first round, admitted that there were some red faces in Oilers jerseys after the nine-goal bonanza at the Saddledome.

“Whenever you get spanked, no matter who it’s against, you want to have a bounce-back game," he said. "We got embarrassed, and we bounced back. I think we showed perseverance all year; if we had a bad game, we came back with an even stronger effort.”

The 9-5 score from March 26 was a throwback to the glory days of the Battle of Alberta of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the likes of Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, McDonald, Fleury and MacInnis used to fill the scoresheets. 

Hyman suggested several times during his time at the podium that this series, in contrast, would be tight-checking and a battle of wills. In fact, playing against a Kings team that liked to clog up the neutral zone should prepare the Oilers well for the Flames' big defensive unit. 

“We learned a lot from the L.A. series,” Hyman said. “We understood where we had the most success. When we got caught and were turning the puck over in the neutral zone, that’s when we were having trouble.”

Hyman said the Oilers would need to get pucks deep, get into the corners and work the cycle despite the physicality the Flames will bring to the games. He said the Oilers will need to “play heavy.”

“It’s different than the regular season, it doesn’t matter what happened in the regular season or what the record was… the playoffs are a different game. It’s a different style of play. It’s tighter, it’s harder to play, there’s more emotion.”

To illustrate Hyman's point, the Oilers swept the Winnipeg Jets over the course of the regular season in 2020-21, only to be swept by the Jets in the first round of the playoffs.

“I don’t read too much into the regular season, to be honest,” Kassian said. “As you guys can see, the hockey is completely different than it was in the regular season. There’s so much more going on."

Oilers 55-goal man Leon Draisaitl, who is labouring through a lower-body injury suffered in a Game 6 scrum in L.A., was not on the ice for practice Tuesday.

Also absent were forwards Evander Kane and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Woodcroft was vague when it came to accounting for their absences and talked about the players who were there, rather than addressing the big names who were away. 

“I thought we had a really good practice today. I thought some of the people who might not be in the everyday lineup provided a little bit of a boost and a little energy… We’re well-prepared heading into Game 1.”

Oilers general manager Ken Holland said on Edmonton radio station 630 CHED that Draisaitl, Kane and Nugent-Hopkins would play Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2022.

Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press

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