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Oilers-Kings NHL playoff showdown signals spring in Alberta

There are a few sure signs of spring in Alberta. The snow turns to slush, the Canada geese return to the ponds, lakes and streams, and the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings face each other in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs.

The two rivals will meet in the first round for the third season in a row, with the Oilers looking to make it a hat trick of victories.

The Oilers rebounded from a 3-2 series deficit to win a seven-game thriller two seasons ago. In 2023, the Oilers beat the Kings in six.

“It could only be you,” the Kings social-media team posted on X just minutes after Los Angeles beat Chicago 5-4 in overtime Thursday night, clinching third spot in the Pacific on the final day of the season.

The victory saw the Kings leapfrog the Vegas Golden Knights for third in the Pacific Division, and the right to play the second-place Oilers in Round 1.

The series starts at Edmonton’s Rogers Place, with Game 1 scheduled for Monday.

“There’s definitely been a lot of lessons learned,” said Kings forward Quinton Byfield. “We had a younger group coming in a couple of years ago. For myself, I got more playoff experience. A lot of guys in [our] room got more playoff experience. We know they’re a really good team, they have some star players. It’s going to be a really hard series, but hopefully it’s our time, now.”

While the foes are familiar with each other, the two head coaches are not. Both the Kings and Oilers made coaching changes this season, predicated by long slumps. For the Oilers, Jay Woodcroft was ousted after the team got off to a shocking 3-9-1 start.

The Oilers then went a blistering 46-18-5 under rookie head coach Kris Knoblauch, including a midseason 16-game winning streak that was just one shy of the NHL record.

“It’s been a wild ride, starting real low, then having a real high there in the middle with that win streak and getting ourselves back into it,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid. “And here we are, about to host a playoff series. It’s hard to think from where we’ve come, it’s a credit to everybody in this room and the resiliency of this group.”

The Kings fired Todd McLellan after a 17-game midseason stretch which saw the team win just three times. Jim Hiller was brought in to steady the team, and the Kings finished with a 44-27-11 mark.

While Hiller is a new voice behind the bench, the Kings’ playing style hasn’t changed. They still employ the 1-3-1 system that clogs up the neutral zone, and limits their opponent’s ability to break out on the rush.

The 1-3-1 system, which has yet to beat the Oilers in the playoffs, serves as a necessary evil, bridging the significant firepower gap between the teams.

Adrian Kempe topped the Kings with 75 points, while McDavid ranked third in NHL scoring with 132 points, Draisaitl seventh at 106, and Hyman, a standout with 54 goals, solidified his role as a premier net-front presence in the league.

The “playoffs are a new season” will be a cliché we’ll all hear hundreds of times over the next few days. But Kempe, who got an assist on the game-tying goal and scored the overtime winner in the season finale over Chicago, hopes the post-season will see the Kings carry over the momentum from a season-ending stretch that saw them win six of their last eight.

“It doesn’t matter who you play, you have to win four rounds to make it all the way,” said Kempe, who on Thursday was named the team MVP for 2023-24. “It’s kind of a new season. But, obviously, we’ve worked so hard all year to be here. And, all those things we’ve done well and the things we haven’t done as well, we bring that with us into the playoffs.”

Meanwhile, the Oilers have been managing their minutes. McDavid, Hyman, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the top defence pairing of Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm were all rested for the team’s final game in Colorado. Forward Evander Kane, meanwhile, sat out a third straight game.

The Oilers played 10 times between April 1 and 18. So, with rest and rotation being the priority, there wasn’t much to take away from the team’s two losses to end the season, at Arizona and Colorado.

Knoblauch says his team is ready for the grind.

“We’re going into the playoffs coming off quite a few games in April,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s played more games than we have (in the last three weeks).”

TALE OF THE TAPE:

Regular-season series: Oilers 3-1-0; Kings 1-2-1

Goals per game: Edmonton, 3.59 (4th); Los Angeles, 3.12 (T16th).

Top scores: Edmonton, Connor McDavid, 132; Los Angeles, Adrian Kempe, 75.

Starting goaltender: Edmonton, Stuart Skinner, 36-16-5, 2.62 GAA, .905 save percentage; Los Angeles, Cam Talbot, 27-20-6, 2.50 GAA, 913 save percentage

Power play percentage: Edmonton — 26.3 (4th); Los Angeles Kings — 22.6 (12th).

Penalty kill percentage: Edmonton — 79.5 (15th); Los Angeles Kings — 84.6 (2nd).

The Big Stat: Trevor Moore led the Kings with 31 goals this season. That total would place him fourth on the Oilers behind Hyman (54), Draisaitl (41) and McDavid (32)

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2024 

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