Tears and cheers: Circle of life continues for Edmonton Oilers coaches

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The first game after getting a coach fired is always a mixed bag of emotions.

Wrestling with the sadness and guilt of what just happened while also trying to draw on the energy of a fresh new voice in the room is like holding a funeral and a christening at the same time.

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Fortunately for the Edmonton Oilers, they have plenty of experience with this. Monday night against the New York Islanders is a path they’ve taken many times before.

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Less than two years ago they were mourning Dave Tippett and welcoming Jay Woodcroft into the family for his first ever head-coaching stint. And on Monday they were mourning Woodcroft and Dave Manson and pushing hard for Kris Knoblauch’s first win as a full-time NHL head coach.

In Woodcroft’s first game, the Oilers rose up and beat the Islanders 3-1. On Monday, the Oilers rose up and beat the Islanders 4-1 with an empty netter.

The circle of life continues in Oil Country.

“It’s really hard, it stings,” said Oilers forward Derek Ryan. “Those are great people who are great at their jobs so it’s sad to see. You just deal with it and come in and try and put your head down and go to work and also listen to the new information being brought forward and the changes you can make. It’s hard for everyone.”

So what is Knoblauch like as a coach?

“We just met him,” laughed Zach Hyman, who had a hat-trick in Woodcroft’s last game and added another goal in Knoblauch’s debut. “It’s his first day on the job.”

Fair enough. This is going to take some time, which is something the 15th place team in the West doesn’t have much of, but right now they’ll settle for the New Coach Bump.

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“I would say his one trait that always sticks out to me is his calm presence,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who snapped an eight-game goal-scoring drought and a three-game points drought with a goal and an assist Monday.

“I think you guys are going to see that as you get to know him. He is a calming voice and I think that could be good in an environment like this.

“He came in and didn’t give us too much. It was kind of like ‘Guys, go out and play. We will work through the details of his system as we go.’ I thought he did a great job under the circumstances.”

Knoblauch didn’t want to overload the players with too much information in what had already been an emotional couple of days. He just introduced himself and let them know where he wanted to take things.

“I addressed the team, talked about what my expectations were and we talked about some system stuff — breakouts, defensive zone, nothing major, just little changes and my message of how I want the team to play.

“We do a pre-scout and right before we hit the ice I might say a few words. That was about it.”

One of Knoblauch’s goals here is to round the Oilers into more of a complete, four-line team rather than one that relies too heavily on two guys and a power play. After a sluggish start and the score 1-1 midway through the third period, he held the lines together, kept everyone involved and let the Oilers play their way out of it.

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“No, I didn’t know that it was going to get us there, but I do believe that we need some stability, players need to have their role,” he said.

“We want guys to contribute. When we have success we want it because of the team and not just a few individuals. The only way to do that is to play everybody.

“That being said, you often win when your best players are your best players and they have to have the flow of playing regularly. It will be different each time.”

So game one is in the books and the 4-9-1 Oilers are beginning, they hope, the long road back.

The circle of life continues in Oil Country.

“It was a tough day for everyone,” said Hyman. “I think the group feels like we let (Woodcroft and Manson) down and it’s not a fun feeling. We have great personal relationships with them outside of hockey.

“We still believed in them. That’s really hard as a player. You’re not a machine — you have emotions and feelings and that part of the game is the hardest part.

“At the same time you have somebody who is coming in for their first opportunity and their dream to coach in the NHL. There are two sides to the script. It was a really special moment for Kris to come in and get that.”

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