Why Oilers have Canucks partially to thank for Stanley Cup Final berth

The Vancouver Canucks may never have won a Stanley Cup, but in 2024 they could just be a surrogate parent to one.

As the Edmonton Oilers pack their bags for the flight to Florida on Thursday, every one of them will acknowledge the fact that a 2-9-1 start to their season was the first ingredient in a recipe that has taken them this far.

Of course, that start began with an 8-1 opening-night loss in Vancouver. It was a shellacking so thorough, that when the cameras and microphones arrived in Edmonton’s dressing room post-game, the only word defenceman Brett Kulak could find to describe it was, “S—–.”

“There are a lot of things wrong with what we just saw out there,” said then-head coach Jay Woodcroft, who would last another month at the helm. “You saw it. Our players saw it. The coaches saw it. Our managers saw it. Not good enough.

“We laid an egg.”

That’s OK. They’d get the Canucks three nights later, for sure.

Right … ?

Well, that home opener ended in a 4-3 loss to Casey DeSmith and the Canucks, and the Oilers were well on their way to the worst opening 12 games of any National Hockey League team ever to find itself in a Stanley Cup Final.

“You go into the year with the expectation that you’re one of the best teams in the league and you’re going to go to the Stanley Cup Final,” said Oilers winger Zach Hyman. “Then, all of a sudden, you’re 12 games into the season, you’re second-last in the league and it’s like, ‘What happened? What’s going on?’

“To be able to battle back from that spot, you build character. You build strength mentally, to be able to handle situations later in the year — whether you think at the time it will or not. It does.

“This year has felt like 10 years, to be honest.”

Thanks, Vancouver.

It’s one thing to trip and fall, then right yourself and go on your way. But when you’re falling flat on your face from as high a height as Edmonton did, it leaves a mark.

Right around that time, this clip caught on a Sportsnet broadcast during yet another ugly loss became a bit of a theme for what the Oilers were going through.

“(That start) has a lot to do with why we’re here right now,” said Oilers defenceman Mattias Ekholm, who took us back to the 2023 trade deadline when he arrived in Edmonton from Nashville. “We went on a run to finish the regular season and we didn’t really hit any adversity. When we hit adversity in the playoffs, it was like, ‘Oh, what’s this? We haven’t seen this for months.’

“This year, I truly feel like being down in the trenches — to hit rock bottom — you learn a lot about your teammates. You learn a lot about yourself and your team, lessons we’ve been able to apply.

“We’ve done a really good job at not being fragile in playoff series’,” Ekholm surmised. “We had an emotional, tough loss in Game 1 against Vancouver, but we didn’t let that linger. Those early lessons in the year help you with that.”

The Canucks steeled these Oilers, who were down 3-2 and forced by Vancouver to discover their best selves in Games 6 and 7. That Edmonton won Game 6 by a 5-1 score, and took a 3-0 lead into the final 10 minutes of Game 7 is testament to the fact they found its A game, and won five of the last six periods of that series to vanquish the pesky Canucks.

“Playing Vancouver in the second round, with all that hype, all that pressure — all the stuff going on, whether it was here or in Vancouver,” said Ekholm. “Winning a series like that calms everything down. That is pretty much as intense as it can get.

“I’m sure it’s going to get even more intense in the Final … but I do think we’ve built a calmness after that (Canucks series).”

The way Edmonton had to play to beat the Canucks translated to a Dallas series where, just like everyone is picking Florida to win this Final, very few in the hockey world thought the Oilers could conquer the deep and talented Stars.

“Everyone was talking about how (the Stars) had the better goaltending and they have the better depth,” Hyman said. “Well, the reason we won is because we had the better goaltending in the series, and we had the better depth.

“I think people underestimate the guys outside of the guys who everybody thinks are the superstars.”

Because two guys can’t win anything alone, and it takes a series like that Canucks series — where Connor McDavid went pointless in three of seven games, including Game 7 — to prove it to everyone outside the Oilers dressing room.

And perhaps, everyone inside it as well.

“Every playoff series you play, you gain experience,” said Hyman. “And then you’re able to play in moments like (Game 6 vs. Dallas), when we’re getting absolutely shelled, and it’s 2-1 with 10 minutes left.

“Maybe another year we crack and they score. But not this year.

“These are the games that we hadn’t win won in the past.”

Thanks, Vancouver.

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