On July 1, Milan Lucic stood on the top level of a parking garage a few blocks away from the bustling cranes and construction equipment that buzzed over a soon-to-be-completed Rogers Place. As he met with the media, the NHL veteran spoke of his decision to join an Oilers organization beleaguered by its decade-long playoff drought.
When asked to give his outsider diagnosis, the free-agent signing said the Oilers would need to develop a new mentality.
"It's a long season and you've got to find spurts in the season when you have winning streaks, and when you go on a losing streak you have to have that hunger to get out of it as quick as possible," he said that day. "Having that attitude that you don't accept losing and things like that is important, and the ability to do it as a team."
Flash forward to October 26. Rogers Place is complete, although the bustling equipment around the downtown core continues to raise Ice District from the ground up, and the hockey season is in full swing. The Oilers? They beat Washington 4-1 on Wednesday, and have won six of their first seven games for the first time since the 1985-86 season. Back then, Wayne Gretzky was holding court in the locker room and "Saving all my love for you" by Whitney Houston was at the top of the music charts.
The Oilers are 6-1-0, and have beaten two teams who could be considered among the League's best in St, Louis (3-1, on October 20) and the Capitals. Lucic, who diagnosed a need for a mental shift in Edmonton back when he arrived, is seeing it come to fruition.
"We talked about just changing our mindset and coming to work and taking it one day at a time," Lucic said, following the team's win over Washington. "Coming in with a confident mindset, coming to the rink expecting to win. That mindset, when you come scared of the other team, you're almost defeated before you even get out there. We talked a lot about changing that and it's great we've gotten off to a great start."
Now the Oilers in the locker room are talking about belief, and winning and staying focused on preparation. It's something that really took off after a disappointing 6-2 loss to the visiting Buffalo Sabres on October 16. It was a game in which Edmonton felt they didn't leave it all on the ice.
"I think that Buffalo game was a bit of a blessing in disguise, having an early chance to break out of a poor effort like that has definitely helped us with our mental approach to the upcoming games and knowing that no matter whether you win or lose you've got to turn the page and keep it even and not get too high or too low," said Lucic. "I think that's something you've got to build throughout the course of the season and it's nice that we've started to build that early on."
"We had a bad game against Buffalo and we were able to shut that down right away," said Oilers Captain Connor McDavid. "Even in games, we've had a couple bad shifts, they score a goal and we can bounce back. I think that goes to show the resiliency in our group and that's a good sign."
With Edmonton leading 2-0 against the Capitals, Alex Ovechkin scored nine seconds into the third frame. That's a moment that could have signalled a "here we go again" response from the Oilers in the past. It's something forward Patrick Maroon saw last season when he first arrived in Oil Country via trade from Anaheim. Instead, Maroon scored moments later to make it a two-goal game again and keep his team in the driver's seat against a quality opponent.
"It says a lot. It says we don't deflate on the bench when a team scores," said Maroon. "Even though we had the lead, sometimes - comparing last year - we could say 'here we go again.' This year, it's different. They scored and everyone started talking on the bench, everyone has positive vibes and we scored a minute later. That's always a really good thing to see."
The Oilers are a team pieced together with players of size and skill. They looked to find an identity out of camp and have been spurred to success by electric offence and superb goaltending by Cam Talbot - .970 save percentage in last four starts, all regulation wins. They're a group that's starting to see they can now compete against the big dogs.
"They should believe that if they do things right and they give each other an honest effort," said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. "We have an opportunity to beat any team in the League, but you have to bring your game to the rink. I think they're believing now in their game, and thus feeling more confident about it. It's each individual showing up with his tool kit and ready to go to work.
"That's where the confidence comes from, that's where the swagger comes from, that's where the wins come from. They just don't happen by accident. If you keep doing that, your belief system keeps going up and you believe you can come from behind or you play well with leads. That's what we're working toward."
The Oilers players are starting to believe in themselves, in the system and one another. They're also starting to believe that if they do have a letdown, like the Buffalo game, they have the right ingredients to bounce back. With all that being said, it's early in the season. Six of the Oilers next seven games are on the road, and the challenge will be to keep the run going. If the team stumbles, they'll look for a quick turnaround. Trophies aren't won in October, and Edmonton is just focused on the next game, which happens to be a date with a divisional opponent - the Canucks in Vancouver on Friday.
"We're seven games in. We're 6-1 and that's a good start, but that's all it is," said McDavid. "Obviously, it's a good feeling in the room right now and we're going to keep talking about keep plugging and get going here. The race isn't to seven games. It's a long season."