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Connor McDavid, Cam Talbot key Oilers' surprising run

Captain, goalie drive Edmonton to first playoff berth since 2006

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- When the Edmonton Oilers finished 29th in the NHL with 70 points last season, the distance back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs seemed great.

When the Oilers won their seventh game in the past eight with a 2-1 victory against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, the great distance had been covered in seemingly no time.

By defeating the Kings the Oilers reached 93 points (42-25-9) and clinched a playoff berth, their first in 11 years.

The improvement from last season was swift, though some considered it an interminable wait, given that the Oilers' last postseason game was Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

The sudden leap in the quality of Edmonton's game has come from a great many things falling into place.

"We're a better team," right wing Jordan Eberle said. "We play better defensively. We have a little more depth, as far as scoring. Our special teams have been really good. We've improved in a lot of areas and that will translate into a better team and wins."

Video: The Edmonton Oilers make the playoffs in 2017

The Oilers are 20-13-5 on the road this season, gutting out some difficult stretches.

Their record in their new home, Rogers Place, is 22-12-4 and has been improving steadily with a home-heavy month of March.

"We've found our rhythm here at home and at the start we kind of struggled, but we figured out how to play in our building and we're looking good at home," captain Connor McDavid said. "That will be really important down the stretch trying to get that home-ice advantage."

Here are five reasons the Oilers clinched:

 

1. Functioning defense

The Oilers have no all-stars on their defense but have a group that spends far less time in its own zone.

The additions of Adam Larsson, in a trade with the New Jersey Devils for left wing Taylor Hall on June 29, and veteran free agent Kris Russell have given the Oilers a solid top four (Larsson with Oscar Klefbom and Russell with Andrej Sekera) that can defend and move the puck.

The proof is in the numbers.

Edmonton was fourth-worst in the League last season with 2.95 goals allowed per game. Its goals-for, goals-against differential was minus-43.

Fast forward to this season and the Oilers are No. 7 with 2.51 goals allowed per game. Most importantly, the goal differential is plus-29.

Video: MIN@EDM: Larsson buries long shot from the point

 

2. McDavid's wow factor

McDavid, in his second NHL season, leads the League's scoring race with 89 points (27 goals, 62 assists) and will merit strong consideration for the Hart Trophy.

He has made some highlight-reel rushes, stickhandled his way into abundant scoring opportunities and set the table for linemates Patrick Maroon (25 goals) and Leon Draisaitl (71 points) to reach personal NHL bests.

McDavid has not gone more than two games without a point all season and has embraced the role as captain.

"He's a team-first guy," veteran forward Matt Hendricks said. "He's putting the team on his back along with a lot of other guys, but he's carried the brunt of it most of the time.

"He's preaching the right things in the room with his teammates. He's saying what the coaches are saying and he understands the way we have to play to be successful, for the entire team to be successful, not just individuals. Our team has flourished from that."

Video: EDM@ANA: McDavid shows off speed, nets nifty backhand

 

3. A No. 1 goalie

In his second season as the Oilers' No. 1 goalie, Cam Talbot has made the most starts (68), most saves (1,829) and played the most minutes (3,992:50) in the League this season while winning 38 games, a total bettered by Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets (41) and Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals (40).

A favorable schedule with one back-to-back game in March has allowed Talbot to continue his workhorse pace and remain consistent and effective. Talbot (2.37 goals-against average, .920 save percentage) is the only NHL goalie that could (and probably will) make 70 starts this season.

"Cam's been our backbone all season there," Hendricks said. "When we haven't been playing well, he's brought his 'A' game and won us a lot of games that we actually, probably didn't deserve to win."

Video: LAK@EDM: Talbot makes two key late saves on Martinez

 

4. Culture change

General manager Peter Chiarelli made significant moves last summer, trading the popular Hall to the Devils for Larsson. He also signed two important free agents, left wing Milan Lucic and Russell, introducing players that helped stabilize the Oilers, on and off the ice.

Just as important, coach Todd McLellan laid much of the groundwork last season, chastising players publicly when things looked too much like the efforts that resulted in poor results in past seasons.

In doing so, McLellan helped raise the bar for what's acceptable and what's not so that the demand for a new standard -- one far beyond what the Oilers were accustomed to in recent seasons -- was less of a shock this season.

"The main thing that separates this team and the teams in the past that I played against [in Edmonton], is the ability to trust in the system and trust in the game plan, and having the belief in it," Lucic said. "I think that has what has helped us come out on top in these types of situations where in the past this team normally is not coming out on top."

Video: EDM@COL: Lucic taps goal into wide-open net

 

5. Good start brings belief

The mental tug-of-war early in the season was real.

The Oilers were moving into Rogers Place with a real sense of optimism.

But that past … let's just say that 10 seasons without qualifying for the playoffs was no small anchor.

The new atmosphere prevailed; the Oilers started 7-1-0.

Edmonton slipped to 9-8-1 on Nov. 17, but is 33-17-8 since then.

"Our goal was to get off to a good start -- and we did -- and then just see what happened," Eberle said. "From Day 1, we kind of put aside what's happened in the last little bit as far as losing. We had a new team and we figured if we got off to a good start, we'd get confidence that we were a good club and we could win hockey games and we did that.

"I think maybe having a new building helped a little bit. We built a new team around it."

Video: LAK@EDM: McDavid tallies off deflected pass attempt

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