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Oilers, fans celebrate end of playoff drought

Young team has come long way in two years under coach Todd McLellan

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- With 10 minutes remaining in the Edmonton Oilers 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings that clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the fans decided they could hold it no longer.

Rogers Place erupted with the chant: "We want playoffs."

They could be forgiven for starting early. It had been 3,935 days -- nearly 11 years -- since the playoffs were a reality in Edmonton.

Since the end of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, a series the Oilers lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games, there have been too many quiet springs and a lot of hopes dashed.

"These fans have gone through a lot over the last little bit and they've done a great job to stick with us," Jordan Eberle said.

Eberle is the longest-serving member of the Oilers, making his NHL debut 2010-11.

As you might expect during such a long playoff drought, changes in places and faces have been substantial.

The Oilers said goodbye to their longtime home, Rexall Place, at the end of last season and now play in the city's glitzy new downtown arena, Rogers Place.

Video: The Edmonton Oilers make the playoffs in 2017

This season's Oilers have four players who played here prior to the 2014-15 season: Eberle, center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, left wing Matt Hendricks and defenseman Oscar Klefbom.

"It hasn't always been the easiest years but at this point right now you kind of forget about it," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Those years don't really matter come tonight."

Another change was the hiring of Todd McLellan, who had coached the San Jose Sharks for seven seasons.

McLellan's first season in Edmonton, 2015-16, resulted in more frustration. The Oilers finished with 70 points, 29th in the League.

"First thing was coming in [and] trying to establish boundaries and a work ethic," McLellan said. "The second thing we tried to do was work on the mental part of the team, staying in games longer and not folding your hand.

"Then we tried to reduce the gap between goals for and goals against, and while we were doing all of that we were changing things with our team. Peter (Chiarelli, Oilers GM) and his staff have done a tremendous job in retooling the team quite quickly.

There was progress on those issues this season.

The Oilers (42-25-9) have 93 points, tied with the San Jose Sharks for second in the Pacific Division. They locked down their spot by winning seven of the past eight games.

"Now we've accomplished another task, getting back into the playoffs," McLellan said. "Believe it or not, 10 years later, that's probably the easy job. The task gets tougher."

Video: Oilers beat Kings, 2-1, to clinch playoff spot

Three weeks ago, when the Oilers were 2-4-1 in a seven-game stretch, they were inconsistent and angst was present with the fans.

They'd seen plenty enough disappointment over the past 11 years.

"I don't think the angst ever got into our locker room, I'll tell you that," McLellan said. "There's structure, there's an expected work ethic from the group, and when we don't get that we don't win. It's pretty simple. So we just keep reminding guys and show them situations where they were doing things right, and maybe not so good, and they respond. We're at a good spot right now. We've got to continue that."

When the Oilers hit that rough patch late in the season, veteran forward Milan Lucic, who signed as a free agent July 1, stepped up to be the voice of reason and calm.

"You are going to have some adversity and rough patches throughout the season, but us overcoming a lot of them was a sign that we were giving ourselves the best chance to be in this position at this time of year," Lucic said. "Obviously it's a great feeling to clinch a spot here with six games left. It's a huge first step for our team and the organization."

Lucic continued to have his eye on the bigger picture.

"There are still a lot of uncertainties moving forward with who we are going to play and our focus has to be, like I talked about a couple of weeks ago, on our game and what we need to do for, I guess, our last six rehearsals before the real games start here," he said. "We have lots to play for and to look forward to and it is no better feeling."

With two weeks until the start of the playoffs that feeling will be savored in Edmonton. And then it's a whole new world for a team that doesn't have a great depth of postseason experience.

Against the Kings on Tuesday, the style was playoff-like -- tight checking with its emotional twists -- but Oilers captain Connor McDavid reminded all about this new horizon.

"People keep asking me that, but I've never played in the playoffs so I can't really say what that's like," McDavid said. "It definitely felt high-energy, high-intensity, but you can never really know what it feels like until you're there."

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