Edmonton Oilers hoping this is only the halfway point of playoff path

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Exactly one month had passed from the opening of the NHL playoffs to when the Edmonton Oilers opened the Western Conference finals against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night.

And for as long a journey as it’s been to reach that point, if all goes well, they know they have only just crossed the midway mark.

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“I think the more times you get into playoffs, the more you just get used to playing at this time of year,” Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “I think a couple years ago, you played two rounds and it’s, like, ‘Holy smokes, it’s a lot of hockey. A lot more hockey.’ But I don’t think that’s the feeling in this room.

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“We have a lot more work left to be done and we want to keep playing as much as we can.”

And can you blame him?

Especially Nugent-Hopkins, given the fact he’s the longest-serving continuous member of the Oilers dressing room, who didn’t get a whiff of post-season play for the first five years since being drafted first overall in 2011.

That was smack dab in the middle of the Decade of Darkness, a period that didn’t see the Oilers qualify for playoffs from the time they went to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final, through to Connor McDavid’s rookie year in 2015-16.

Sprinkle in another three years since where they failed to reach playoffs-proper, and it becomes pretty apparent that any deep run into the post-season is just making up for lost time, as far as Nugent-Hopkins is concerned.

This is only the second time in Nugent-Hopkins’ 13-year pro career, all spent with the Oilers, that he’s reached the conference-final round. And they both happened in the last three years.

Of course, the first time around wound up being less than memorable, getting swept 4-0 at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.

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“It takes a lot to get to this point and we’re definitely excited for the opportunity,” Nugent-Hopkins said following Thursday’s morning skate at American Airlines Center. “A little bit more experience, since we did go through it two years ago.

“It didn’t go the way we wanted, so we’re definitely hungry for it. But just excited to be in this position.”

With the Oilers core group returning to the third round after falling, once again, to the eventual champs last year in a 4-2 series loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round, fans in Edmonton can be forgiven for feeling so close, yet so far away at this point, as their team faces the Western Conference top dogs in Dallas.

“Definitely a little more experience, a little more comfortable but we know we’re going up against a very good hockey team and it’s going to take a lot of work,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “We’re excited for the opportunity to push them every night and see what happens.”

Prior to playoffs, what happened during their last trip to American Airlines Centre resulted in something the Oilers would rather keep out of sight, out of mind right now, having been shut out 5-0 by the Stars down the playoff stretch.

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“That definitely was not the way that we wanted to play,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “They came out quick, we didn’t respond fast enough and they kind of took the game over.

“And there were some rush opportunities against and just some easy opportunities that we gave them, and that’s something that you can’t give a good team. We’re excited for a chance here to respond to that, but it’s the conference finals, so we’re fired up.”

Nugent-Hopkins is hardly alone in his hunger to play as much hockey in the spring as possible.

“I got here nine years ago and have been in the playoffs the last, what, five years,” Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse said. “And at some points, when you first get here it was, like, ‘Are we ever going to even play in the playoffs?’ And now, over the last few years, to be a team that’s competing at this time of year it’s just a testament to, obviously, ownership and management of where they want this team to grow and get to.

“So, it’s kind of cool to be here talking to you today.”

At the same time, the groundwork has been laid for the next up-and-coming Oilers stars.

“For me, I got drafted and it was already a good team,” said forward Dylan Holloway, who was taken 14th overall in 2020. “It wasn’t so much missing the playoffs, they were already going on runs. So, it was just cool to be a part of.

“I just worked my way and tried to have an impact on the lineup.”

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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