Craig MacTavish: Through some tough lessons, Oilers have learned how to win

Vancouver pushed the Oilers, but they didn’t break, and they grew a lot because of it

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As told to Jim Matheson

You see the improvement in the Oilers from year to year.

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You have Leon (Draisaitl) with a big block, Connor (McDavid) with a big block, (Ryan) Nugent-Hopkins with a big block. You have to do everything you can to stop the puck from getting to the net from the defence. You’ve have your elite players blocking shots and laying it on the line. They’ve learned that’s the only way to win and the only way to try to win.

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Nugent-Hopkins had the best game I’ve seen him play. For a guy who’s been here as long as he has, he sometimes gets questioned slightly, people love him, but man, he really laid it on the line. He won battles, he was strong on the stick, and when the goalie was out, he was spectacular. He really wanted that game and good for him.

Playoff hockey forces you to get better as a team or you get eliminated and Vancouver really forced the Oilers to grow as a group. If I was Dallas watching this, I would be saying we’ve got a much more difficult opponent than we had a week ago.

The city’s going crazy after this. It’s so much fun when the Oilers are going and you don’t want the city to die. My palms were sweating at the end and if mine were I can’t imagine what the fans were like. You’re kind of helpless and nervous as a fan.

It got really tight, nerve-wracking at the end, but it’s as old as time that style of hockey where you’re protecting a three-goal lead. It looks easy, then you give up a goal. When you’re on the Vancouver bench, and you’re down by three goals you don’t believe it. But you get a goal, the ice-tilts, and, all of a sudden, you’re skating downhill and it’s game on. And,  if you get the next one, it’s goalie out

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They were pretty deflated (down 3-0) but you get the one goal, you’re energized, the whole building gets energized, and the Oilers get a little bit defensive where you get into the three-quarter ice game. You are fighting as hard as you can just to flip it to the neutral zone, and they regroup and then you have to absorb the rush again.

Lots of people a lot brighter than me have tried to figure out how to stop that from happening but I don’t think too many have had success in doing it. The other team is ultra-aggressive, they’re on top of you and you’re just trying to get it out. It’s as old as the game is long, that scenario. The Oilers bent quite a bit at the end but didn’t break.

I thought through the first two periods, the Oilers were brilliant. They were doing so many things well, early. But I was worried in the first because (Arturs) Silovs was unbelieveable. Then, the Oilers took that four-minute penalty from (Ryan) McLeod’s high stick (on Elias Pettersson). And you think, ‘oh yeah, things are going too well, something bad is going to happen here.’ But the team did an incredible job killing those four minutes (no shots).

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(Assistant coach) Mark Stuart has done an amazing job wjth the penalty-kill (20 of 23 in the series). Great sticks, great pressure points, everybody moving. When one guy goes, everybody’s going on the penalty-kill to pressure them. As the Vancouver entries, the Oilers really stopped them from entering (the zone) with the puck. The team just loaded up the middle and they kept trying to come there and couldn’t do it.

Lots of fantastic efforts from guys who might not show up on the score sheet. Derek Ryan did a masterful job on the penalty kill face-offs against (J.T.) Miller to get the Oilers going in the right direction and forced them to break the puck out and enter. Amazing, he could beat a potentially stronger man. He must be strong as hell, to out-muscle, out-quick them.

The Oilers found the rhythm on their power play. What is amazing for me is how Bouchard plays that 85 feet of blueline. He’s an outlet for Draisaitl on the right side and for Nugent-Hopkins on the left on the power play. He so good at moving that 85 feet, back and forth at the top. He’s got that intellect to read the play and get over there (for the puck). They have an instinct, a chemistry, among the five of them, on the power play. That is rare.

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Another key was Kris (Knoblauch) was able to play all four lines and everybody can feel good about that. That’s so much more rewarding in the dressing room to have participated in the win rather than, you know, having the stars do it all. The fourth line gave them 45 seconds of cycle (before Zach Hyman’s tip of Bouchard’s shot).

I would like to talk about Cody Ceci, too. You know what? Good things happen to good people at critical times. He’s always been a warrior and a great teammate. I guess he’s the first Oiler defenceman to score two Game 7 goals. That’s quite an incredible stat. He’s got one over on Coff (Oiler defenceman Paul Coffey). I’m sure they’ll joke about it.

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