Oilers on the verge of victory after pulling it back from the brink

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If the Edmonton Oilers are going to close out the Western Conference Final against the Dallas Stars in Game 6 on Sunday at Rogers Place, they will indeed have pulled victory from the jaws of defeat.

Just two games ago, trailing 2-1 in the series and falling behind by two quick goals before even registering a single shot on goal, the Oilers’ entire season was on the brink of collapse. Another loss in Game 4 would most assuredly put things out of reach, facing almost impossible odds of climbing out of a 3-1 series deficit by having to somehow string together three straight wins.

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Then again, that whole scenario is a microcosm of the regular season, which saw the Oilers get off to a franchise-worst 2-9-1 start on the way to having then-head coach Jay Woodcroft unceremoniously deposed in mid-November, paving the way for a turnaround unlike anything the franchise has seen before.

Kris Knoblauch was ushered in along with a new assistant, Paul Coffey, to sort through the mess. All they did was lead the way to an eight-game winning streak by the time they were one month into the job, before eclipsing that with a 16-game tear to go from staring down the edge of the proverbial cliff to climbing right back into the playoff picture.

Whatever they did not only worked on the big picture of the season but also while staring into the void early in Game 4.

Since then, the Oilers outscored the Stars 8-1 on the way to consecutive victories to set up Sunday’s elimination game with a chance to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2006.

So, what changed?

“That’s a good question,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who leads the league with 29 playoff points (four goals, 25 assists) in 17 games. “We’ve just been playing our best hockey. We’ve been forechecking well, we haven’t been giving up too much, which is good.

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“They’re a really good rush team, we’ve been doing a great job of limiting that and limiting their chances as a whole. So, yeah, we’ve just been playing good hockey.”

They needed to do better, so they did.

The team that makes it into the final round is usually the one that is performing at its best when it matters most.

But as simple as it sounds, there must be some sort of explanation for such a shift in the series.

“We were down, we kind of just stuck to it,” defenceman Darnell Nurse said of the pivotal Game 4. “Stuck to the game plan, stuck to the belief in our group and started to take the game over from there.

“And I think the way that game started, that we easily could have gotten down and let it pile on, but we just kept playing, put our ears back and felt like we had nothing to lose out there. Just play.”

The Stars, meanwhile, face the unenviable position of having everything to lose. And not just once, but twice, as they would need to win Sunday in Edmonton and then a Game 7 decider Tuesday back in Dallas.

“We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen again tonight,” Stars head coach Pete DeBoer said. “We’re comfortable on the road. You look back through the series, Game 1 we hit a post in the first overtime where maybe we’re up 3-2 (in the series).

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“That’s playoff hockey this time of year, so we’ve got to come and do what we’ve done all year and all playoffs, is win a road game.”

The Oilers are fully aware of how well a team can play when their backs are against the wall, having come out of a similar situation the Stars are now facing, one round ago when they won back-to-back in Games 6 and 7 to get past the Vancouver Canucks.

“Dallas plays a little bit of a different game,” McDavid said. “They play maybe a little bit of a longer game than we’ve seen, just in terms of stretching wingers out high, and they rim a lot of pucks, they punt a lot of pucks out into the neutral zone. So, you’ve got to adapt to that.

“I felt like early on in the series, they were maybe catching us in between and getting some looks off the rush, but since then I think we’ve done a good job of understanding what they’re trying to do and limiting that.”

E-mail: [email protected]

On X: @GerryModdejonge

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