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Bottom feeders in November, Oilers sit one win away from Stanley Cup final

Kris Knoblauch arrived to find a locker room in turmoil.

The Edmonton Oilers — among the Stanley Cup favourites when training camp opened — had got off to a disastrous start to the NHL season.

The club was in a tailspin, languishing near the bottom of the standings despite a roster led by superstar forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

There were plenty of questions, and not many answers, when Knoblauch took over for the fired Jay Woodcroft in November with the Oilers sitting a stunning 3-9-1 through 13 mostly cringeworthy games.

“I saw a team that was very hard on themselves, a team that was very frustrated,” said Knoblauch, a rookie bench bossed hired away from the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack. “Things hadn’t been going their way … a team that was trying probably too hard. You just get so caught up and you’re not thinking straight.

“When you try to do too much or are trying to do everything, ultimately you’re doing other people’s jobs, and then you’re not doing your job as well. Everything’s disconnected.”

Knoblauch went to work. He boiled the season down into segments. He laid out a path forward. The climb back wouldn’t be easy or straightforward, but it was there.

“We don’t have to win a bunch of games and be perfect,” he said of his message. “Just started playing hockey. I think that was a big part of our season.”

A season, seven months later, that has Oilers within one victory of a berth in title series.

Edmonton can clinch a spot Sunday at what will no doubt be a rocking and well-lubricated Rogers Place after reeling off consecutive victories against the Dallas Stars to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference final.

The Oilers trailed the Stars 2-1 following Game 3 at home and gave up two early goals in Game 4. Dallas, it appeared, was rolling.

But in a series of wild momentum swings, Edmonton responded over the next five periods. The Oilers battled back from that 2-0 deficit in Game 4 to register a 5-2 victory before a stifling 3-1 road triumph Friday in Game 5.

Edmonton winger Zach Hyman said an ability to embrace tough moments was forged in those early days under Knoblauch.

It has served them well in the playoffs. The Oilers, who lost out in the playoffs the last two springs to the eventual Cup champs, trailed the Vancouver Canucks 2-1 and 3-2 in the second round before falling behind Dallas after Game 3.

And when things looked bleak early in Game 4, Edmonton just kept going.

“I’ve often found a team reflects its coach’s demeanour,” said Hyman, who scored 54 goals in the regular season and leads the playoffs with 13 more. “Kris is always even-keel no matter what’s happening. Whether we’re up or down in the game, up or down in the series, you know exactly how he responds.

“That calming presence helped us early on when things were shaky.”

Draisaitl said the foundational trust that the Oilers had what it took to get to this point, even in those difficult times, was always there for a franchise that hasn’t made the final since 2006 and last raised hockey’s holy grail in 1990.

“Deep down we all knew how good we can be,” he said Saturday before his team headed back to the Alberta capital. “The belief in each other is really high.”

The group also had to trust a new voice with just two seasons of NHL experience as an assistant.

“The best players want to be coached,” said Knoblauch, 45. “They want to get better. They’ve been very open to any criticism, any corrections that I’ve provided. It’s been pretty easy having a bunch of players as coachable as they have been.

“It’s been pretty much a dream job.”

Before he arrived in town, the Oilers were in the midst of a nightmare.

“Been a heck of a year,” Hyman said. “Some very down points. We had extremely high expectations and then hit rock bottom, had a coaching change — going through things that, going into the year if you told us, we wouldn’t have probably believed.

“We’ve always been our best when we face adversity. We faced ours early and then were comfortable in those situations.”

The Oilers will face a desperate Dallas outfit, one that made last season’s conference final, looking to extend its season Sunday.

“They’ll be making corrections,” Knoblauch said. “They’ll be fired up and we’re gonna have to be prepared. But for our team, playing the way we need to play, I have a lot of confidence.”

As he should with a club resurrected under his watch — and now five wins from Edmonton’s sixth Cup.

“Incredible to be in this position,” Knoblauch said. “I’ve been enjoying it. Hopefully I can enjoy it for a few more games.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2024 

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