Recapping a roller-coaster of a regular season by the Edmonton Oilers

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And with that, another regular season is in the books for the Edmonton Oilers as the full focus officially shifts to the upcoming playoffs.

Sure, they extended their North American major pro sports rut of going without a division title to a 36th-straight season.

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And Connor McDavid wasn’t able to win a fourth-straight (and sixth overall) Art Ross trophy for his ever-cluttered mantle.

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Right up to the end, they gave themselves a chance to earn 50 wins for the second season in a row — a milestone marker reached just four previous times in franchise history.

And they had to wait past the 11th hour of the schedule to find out who their playoff opponent was even going to be.

But none of that matters anymore.

All told, it wasn’t a season for the faint of heart in Edmonton, to say the least.

Especially with the way things began, all pumped up on hopes of their fan base and expectations of many pundits that this would finally be the Oilers team to challenge for the Stanley Cup, which made their tumultuous stumble into the regular season all the more painful to witness.

Starting out 3-9-1 led to the dishonourable discharge of then-head coach Jay Woodcroft, who couldn’t seem to catch a break between a couple of early injuries and goaltending that was suspect, at best.

They were sent reeling out of the gates by an entirely unexpected 8-1 beat down on opening night by a Vancouver Canucks squad that finished a full dozen points out of the wild-card race a season earlier, only to skip the typical hangover expected with the arrival of a new head coach in Rick Tocchet, who defeated the Oilers early and often, winning their first three bouts against Woodcroft before all but sealing the Pacific Division title with a 3-1 win against Knoblauch on Saturday to sweep the season series 4-0.

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“I’m just happy we won the division. The guys did a hell of a job all year,” Tocchet said. “Obviously, nobody really faced us to win the division so you’ve got to give the players a lot of credit.”

Credit that was initially supposed to go to Connor & Co., if you listened to the hype in the airwaves and headlines heading into the regular season.

But to Edmonton’s own credit, they managed to scrape and claw their way out of the basement of the division standings, thanks to turnaround runs of eight- and 16-straight wins, putting them in position to challenge for the division’s top spot in the final week of the regular season.

And a big part of that had to do with a resurgence from McDavid that saw his own statistics shoot up from being tied for 107th overall in points, to finishing in the top three behind the Colorado Avalanche’s Nate MacKinnon, in second, and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov.

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Amazingly, both McDavid and Kucherov both managed to hit triple digits in assists on the season, which is something that hasn’t happened since 1991, and had only been accomplished by three previous players in NHL history: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr.

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Zach Hyman skyrocketed himself into the stratosphere of 50-goal scorers. Not one, not two, but three defencemen scored double-digit goals. And the typical tragedy that was secondary scoring in past seasons became the least of their concerns this year, next to what ended up transforming itself into a solid and reliable — if not entirely surprising — goaltending tandem.

But for all the offensive firepower that has become synonymous with the Edmonton Oilers, it was the puck-prevention side of things that took the biggest developmental steps this season.

While the goals-for didn’t come near to reaching the 325 from last year, hearkening back to the overtly offensive ’80s, a concerted Paul Coffey-led effort to cut down their goals-against saw the team finish with noticeably fewer this time around. Beyond the numbers, there is an almost tangible feeling inside the dressing room that this group has become more well-rounded than the high-octane roster from a season ago that was simply shrugged off as Two Guys and a Power Play, and lacked the necessary depth for any sort of considerable playoff run.

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And now here they are, back in the starters blocks awaiting the gun shot signalling the playoffs, where the Oilers will show once and for all whether they are, indeed, on track for a date with destiny in the Stanley Cup Final, as predicted back in the summer.

Anything short of a finals appearance by a roster featuring not only a McDavid in his prime, but also fellow pillars in Leon Draisaitl, Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm, can only be considered missing the mark.

A winning percentage of over .700 by their rookie head coach, tasked with turning around one of the most inexplicable starts on record, as impressive as it is, will all be for naught, getting dumped into the dust bin labelled ‘Next Year, Maybe?’

After all, for as bright a future Knoblauch has with the Oilers, winning alone wasn’t able to save his predecessor’s job in the end. All that matters is if he can find a way for his team to do its winning at the right time.

Game on.

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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