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McDavid says Oilers’ locker-room ‘feels like it’s in a good place’ ahead of Game 1 vs. Kings

Hours before the puck was set to drop at Rogers Place for Game 1 of the NHL playoff series between Edmonton and Los Angeles, Oilers captain Connor McDavid spoke to reporters about the atmosphere he’s seen in the team’s locker-room ever since the regular season ended.

“(It) just feels like it’s in a good place,” he said Monday morning. “There’s not too much anxiety or nervousness or anything like that. There’s excitement and a sense of calm that you need.

“I feel like our room is in a good spot.”

With makeshift Oilers-themed oil derricks popping up in various parts of Alberta’s capital and Oilers flags seen waving from vehicles’ windows on the city’s major thoroughfares, playoff fever has clearly returned to Edmonton. Those familiar signals that the post-season has arrived have come with two newer traditions that continue this spring: the Oilers’ opening-round opponents are the L.A. Kings and the expectations from the hockey world are high.

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Oilers forward Zach Hyman, who surpassed the 50-goal plateau for the first time this season, said Monday there is “an inner confidence in the group.”

“We’re comfortable in facing adversity, … uncomfortable situations,” he said.

Hyman added that while the Kings may have become a familiar playoff opponent over the past three seasons, “each team is different from year to year.”

“(They’re) a different team. We’re a different team.”

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Veteran Oilers forward Corey Perry is known for delivering strong performances in the playoffs every year. He has been to multiple Stanley Cup finals throughout his career, and even won the Stanley Cup in 2007 when he was a member of the Anaheim Ducks.

When asked about what he sees in Edmonton’s locker-room, he told reporters “we’re just composed.”

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“I’m excited to see where this team can go and what we can do.”

With the Oilers and Kings being two of the last NHL teams to begin their post-season, McDavid said he is eager for the puck to drop for Game 1 at Rogers Place.

“It’s fun to watch playoff hockey but it’s even better to play it,” he said. “There’s not going to be any surprises here between both teams. They know what they want to do, we know what we want to do.

“It’s going to be about who does it better for longer. It’s going to be tight all the way through.”

The sense of anticipation was also evident for Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch, for whom Monday night will mark his first playoff game as an NHL head coach.

“I can’t believe we’ve got nine hours to wait,” he told reporters Monday morning. “I’m sure it’ll be very similar to my first time stepping on the bench the first game (for the Oilers earlier this season), … just where you’re overwhelmed by a lot of emotions, excited. But once that puck drops, it’s like every other game.”

Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch speaks to reporters in Edmonton on April 22, 2024. Global News

It was on Nov. 12 that Knoblauch replaced Jay Woodcroft on the Oilers’ bench. Woodcroft was fired after the Oilers got off to a horrendous start, managing just three wins in the club’s first 13 games. Since then, the Oilers have been one of the best teams in the NHL, and managed to turn their season around and finish in second place in the Pacific Division.

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“(At) the start of the year the sky was falling and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and we were able to dig ourselves out of it,” Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse said. “There’s going to be highs and lows that come throughout the game, throughout the series and the playoffs.

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“Teams that handle it the best usually play the longest.”

McDavid spoke about how the excitement for the playoffs remains the same the older he gets. But he spoke about how more playoff experience has had an impact on him since the first time he played in an NHL playoff game in 2017.

“I’m just calmer,” he explained. “I think it’s all about going through the process. We’ve talked about it before. We’ve had failures in the playoffs — and learning from those.

Forward Dylan Holloway, who is just 22 years old, is expected to be in the Oilers’ starting lineup on Monday night. Game 1 against the Kings will mark just the second playoff game he has played in his young NHL career.

Perry said the advice he has given Holloway about the playoffs in recent days is centred around “just keeping it simple.”

“Everything is magnified in the playoffs,” Perry said he told Holloway. “What I’ve said to him is just keep the puck going forward. … It’s just the little things.”

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Oilers forward Corey Perry speaks to reporters in Edmonton on April 22, 2024. Global News

Nurse said he thinks it is important to “try to take a little bit of the emotion out of it and have fun out there.”

Knoblauch expressed his confidence in Holloway.

“Every young player has to go through it to get it,” he said, referring to playoff experience. “(Holloway is) playing a simple direct game with a lot of tenacity, physicality. … Right now he’s making some good decisions, keeping the game simple.”

‘A pretty stingy team’

Given that they play in the same division and are playing one another for the third-straight NHL post-season, the Oilers have become very familiar with the Kings’ well-known strategy of defensive play that centres on trying to clog up the neutral zone.

“When you play against a pretty stingy team, you’ve just got to take what you’re given,” he said.

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Nurse noted the Oilers have had “82 dress rehearsal games for this time of season.”

McDavid suggested he believes a key to the Oilers’ success will be partly based on how they manage momentum in the playoffs: “holding it when you have it and wrestling it back when you don’t — and eliminating the mistakes … (that) give it away.”

Among the Kings’ most respected defenders is blueliner Drew Doughty, whose average ice time per game this regular season was 25 minutes and 48 seconds, the second-most among all NHL players.

“(He is) one of the best shutdown d-men in the world,” McDavid noted. “He has been for a long time and he makes it hard on you every single night.

“It’s a great challenge. I love going up against him (because) it’s always a battle. It’s great to test yourself against guys like that — I’m looking forward to it.”

Perry noted he is friends with Doughty but that he plans to “put that aside until after this series.”

“He’s a heck of a competitor.”

Knoblauch said the Kings boast a very strong lineup and that “any given night one line can be more dangerous than another.”

For that reason and other considerations, he said he does not expect to be overly obsessed with line matchups.

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“We have an idea of what we want but it’s not going to be a strict plan,” Knoblauch said.

Knoblauch said he expects forwards Evander Kane and Mattias Janmark, who have both been battling injuries, will be in the Oilers’ lineup on Monday night, but said the team will have a couple of extra forwards take part in warmup ahead of the game as a precaution if one of the forwards cannot play.

“We believe everyone’s fine and healthy to play,” he said.

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Stuart Skinner, who emerged as the Oilers’ clear-cut No. 1 goaltender this season, is expected to start in goal for Edmonton on Monday, something Knoblauch said fans can expect to see a lot of, noting it is not clear when or if backup netminder Calvin Pickard will play.

“Stuart is our guy,” the coach said when asked about how much Skinner will play in the playoffs. “For him to go four rounds and not use Picks (Pickard), I’m not sure that’s going to happen. But certainly we don’t have a plan on saying there’s a rotation.

“We’ll play it day by day but, … the plan is for him (Skinner) to play hopefully all of them.”

‘Everyone will be flying around for the first little while’

The Oilers were asked Monday about what is expected to be an energized crowd at Rogers Place on Monday.

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“It’s always fun to get back into playoff hockey and see the building so excited,” McDavid said.

“I think everyone will be flying around for the first little while.”

“There’s just a different feel in the air when the playoffs approach,” Perry said. “You can feel it in the dressing room and you can feel it just talking to everybody. Everybody’s excited.

“It’s always exciting but you do have to control your emotions. … There’s going to be ups and downs, there’s going to be momentum swings and you try to stay even-keeled as much as you can, but that part’s hard sometimes.”

“The atmosphere inside our arena is always amazing this time of year,” Nurse said of Oilers fans. “The games are so important.”

When asked about how he would describe his Oilers team ahead of the playoffs Monday, Knoblauch said “composed, mature, competitive.”

“Competitive is probably the most important one.”

He also noted how tight-knit this group of Oilers is.

“(They) want to do this together,” he said. “They’ve gone through some ups and downs and it’s just made them stronger.”

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