The Oilers learned a lot from their 2022 playoff series against Colorado, and now there’s a lot more ‘belief’ than ‘hope’ coming from the team

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When the Edmonton Oilers played the Colorado Avalanche in the 2022 Western Conference Final, the measuring stick felt more like a two-by-four after the Avs smacked the Oilers upside the head, winning the series in four, en route to their Stanley Cup win.

Now, as the two teams meet for the first time this season, Game 65 for the Oilers, with the two best players in the world on the Saturday playbill in Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, the home team’s belief system is a lot sturdier than it was two years ago.

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In part because Leon Draisaitl was playing on a leg and a prayer with a high ankle sprain then and Darnell Nurse was skating with a torn hip flexor, along with the fact Colorado was on a playoff mission with MacKinnon, Cale Makar and their captain Gabe Landeskog leading the charge.

Now, the Oilers are stronger, deeper. So…

“That series was the beginning of the foundation of confidence and faith,” said Oilers centre Derek Ryan, who might be watching Saturday’s game at Rogers Place with newcomer Sam Carrick getting the nod on the fourth line.

“We’ve won so many games here over the past two seasons and our faith is bigger now.”

No argument from Nurse.

“We went into that series with lots of hope (after knocking off Calgary in five) and came out of it saying we had a lot of work to do as a team, to get to a point where we could compete with teams like that on a nightly basis,” said Nurse.

“I thought we were very confident going into the series but it didn’t go the way we wanted it to…but you look around the room now and all the highs and lows (3-9-1 start when Knoblauch took over for Jay Woodcroft),” said Nurse.

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“We have a belief against any team on any night, now.”

Avalanche Oilers
Edmonton Oilers’ Warren Foegele (37) battles Colorado Avalanche’s Artturi Lehkonen (62) during first period of Game 4 of the NHL Western Conference Final action at Rogers Place in Edmonton, on Monday, June 6, 2022. Photo by File Photo /Postmedia

How is it different now than two springs ago?

Double-down from McDavid.

“Just being there, experiencing that for the first time, understanding the level you need to get to,” said the Oilers captain.

“Of course, they had already kind of knocked on the door a couple of years before. It was their time and they were playing really, really well. I think the experience alone has made us better.”

More belief, time for T-shirts saying that?

“For sure, but I think that belief is earned. We’ve done a lot of really good things over the course of a couple of years and we’ve earned that belief in our group, and that we can play against anybody,” said McDavid.

Chances are it won’t be 1-0 or 2-1 Saturday, not if there’s a lot of power plays.

Heck, the first game of the 2022 playoff was 8-6 for Colorado. Game 4 was 6-5.

It’s the Oilers, who had 109 points last season and currently at 83, solidly in second spot in the Pacific, with a 37-12-2 record under Knoblauch over the last four months against the Avalanche (89 points), in an arm-wrestle with Winnipeg and Dallas for top seed in the Central.

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“It’s (Saturday’s game) a great thing. Those guys are as good as anyone in the league, a good test for us to see where your team is at, where your game is at,” said McDavid, with the Oilers final game of regular-season April 18 in Denver, maybe with playoff seeding implications, or maybe just playing out the string.

McDavid MacKinnon
Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers fights for the puck against Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche during a regular season game. Photo by Matthew Stockman /Getty Images

This game Saturday is part of a crazy quilt schedule. Again, this will be game 65 and it’s the first time we’ve seen MacKinnon vs McDavid. The flip side of when the Oilers played Vancouver Canucks three times in the first 14 games and not again until game 79 on Apr. 13.

“This is a good opportunity for us to get into a rhythm and flow of playing in a situation where emotions are probably heightened a little bit… the game, too,” said Nurse.

This first meeting will feature the top point producer MacKinnon (113) and his first-line Avs’ sidekick Mikko Rantanen (90), who is fifth overall, against MacDavid (106, third) and Draisaitl (eighth, 86).

It’ll also be a battle on the blueline between Makar (73 points, 17 goals) against the Oilers’ Evan Bouchard (63 points, 16 goals), and winger Zach Hyman (46 goals, second in the NHL) as dessert.

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Colorado-Edmonton, McDavid vs MacKinnon, has become the better, more relevant, appointment viewing  than McDavid vs Crosby, because Sid has aged out. He’s still a very good player but he’s almost 10 years older than McDavid. MacKinnon (874 points) is 18 months older than McDavid (956), so contemporaries. It’s more like Gretzky vs Lemieux back in the 80s.

McDavid and MacKinnon are the fastest skaters in the world with the puck on their stick, tramping up the ice, especially on the power play.

“He’s just so powerful. He skates so well, he’s big and strong and assertive. Just a powerful player,” said McDavid, whose trophy chest is much larger, but without the one he wants most, the Stanley Cup, which MacKinnon can proudly boast.

The Oilers added Carrick, Adam Henrique and Troy Stetcher at this deadline and signed Corey Perry as a free-agent before that, so four additions.

Colorado traded for Casey Mittelstadt, Sean Walker, Brandon Duhaime and Yakov Trenin at the deadline, but they still don’t have Landeskog, who hasn’t played since the 2022 final against Tampa. He’s skating now but a long ways from playing after he had cartilage transplant surgery on his right knee, his fourth procedure on that limb.

We’ll leave the final word, to Ryan.

“Our roster is a lot better (now), our depth has gotten a lot better, our defensive core has gotten a lot better,” said Ryan.

“I think we play with more detail, and although the top guys carry a lot of our offensive play, we’ve gotten away from relying on them in key situations like D-zone face-offs (Draisaitl) and penalty-kill (McDavid and Draisaitl). Connor isn’t out thee as much as he was back then.”

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