Edmonton Oilers better equipped to handle bad bounces this time around

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Bad bounces are going to happen.

It’s the playoffs, after all.

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And the Edmonton Oilers have certainly felt their fair share over the past month.

Then again, this is a club that not so long ago spent a decade not knowing a bad bounce in the playoffs unless they saw it on TV.

Times changed over the past few years and the Oilers’ run of missing out on playoffs stopped. But the bad breaks didn’t.

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And they wasted no time letting their effects be known as the Oilers opened the post-season against the Los Angeles Kings, who caught a couple breaks to lessen the sting in a 7-4 loss that should have ended in an all-out rout.

The Kings used that momentum, and another lucky bounce in overtime, to win Game 2 before being swept the rest of the series.

While the Oilers of old might have allowed some bad luck like that early on to set the tone, this year’s crew has done the yeoman’s work when it comes to quickly putting things behind them, be it a bad bounce, bad penalty, bad goal or even a bad game.

“I think it’s something you’ve got to be prepared for and you’ve got to know how to work through it,” said Oilers defenceman Brett Kulak. “And I think we’ve been through a lot in the regular season, which has helped lead us to this time.

“And it helps when you’ve got a good group, too. Everyone supports everybody and if guys are not on their game that night, there’s many other guys who know how to step up and pull together for the team. So, I think it’s been a mix of those things.”

Like in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, when the Stars fought back from a 2-0 deficit to force double overtime thanks to a whiff on a pass in front of the Oilers net by Kulak, and then a puck that glanced off the skate of fellow Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse to give Stars forward Tyler Seguin back-to-back goals.

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Or when Oilers captain Connor McDavid drew blood with a high stick to start overtime, and ended up in the penalty box for a double minor instead of getting away with it scot-free, like in the Vancouver series.

Instead of handing Game 1 to the Stars, the Oilers pushed the pedal to the metal on their high-octane penalty kill to give McDavid a chance to make his own amends with the game winner.

It’s a mindset that seems to take impossible situations and make them possible.

Then again, the Oilers learned early on this season to never say die, having sat 31st overall in a 32-team league before a regime change began turning their fortunes around.

Yes, it’s going to get hard sometimes. Relentlessly difficult, even. Especially facing the Western Conference champs once again. And they all know how that turned out the past two playoffs.

But each bad bounce brings along a decision: They can let it fester, or they can use it as a rally point to find a renewed focus and get past it.

“I think it’s just a desire to win and learning what it takes to win,” said forward Zach Hyman, who leads the league with 12 playoff goals in 13 games. “The three years I’ve been here, we’ve progressed and gotten better every year. We made the Western Conference finals the first year and then, last year, lost to Vegas in the second round. And this year, obviously, we’re here now.”

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“I think every year, you learn what it takes and what you’re not doing as well, probably. I think offensively, we’ve always been pretty good, but I think defensively as a group everybody’s kind of taking that next step. Kind of that whatever-it-takes mentality.”

Offence and defence are only part of the puzzle, however. In a one-goal game — and the Oilers have had their fair share of those in these playoffs, too — where every single save was needed, Stuart Skinner cast aside his previous struggles and stood tall in the crease, putting on a performance every bit the equal to the Stars standout netminder Jake Oettinger.

“I thought a big important part for us what Stu and how well he played,” Kulak said of Skinner’s 31 saves. “Any time you have a goalie and you’re really confident in him that he’s making those initial stops, it kind of spreads through the whole group and makes everyone feel comfortable.”

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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