Ten-game run has Edmonton Oilers back in Stanley Cup conversation

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Like presidential candidates using dramatic, historically-significant locations to announce their run for America’s highest office, the Edmonton Oilers found the perfect stage for their own declaration Saturday.

The Oilers used one of the most storied locations in sports — Hockey Night in Canada at the Bell Centre in Montreal — to win a franchise-record 10th straight game and announce their bid for a Stanley Cup in 2024.

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It’s official. With 18 wins in their last 21 games, with their goaltending situation back on track, with their team defence shored up and with their impact players making an impact, the Oilers have shaken off whatever it was that had them playing like pretenders in October and are legitimate contenders again.

When you’re listing off the six or seven serious threats to win a championship this year, Edmonton is back in the conversation. Near the top of it, even.

The Oilers will be the first to tell you that being one of the best teams in hockey at the 39-game mark is little more than a starting point. And being tied with Seattle for the final wildcard playoff spot in January is a long way from hoisting a Stanley Cup in June.

But the team is finally getting its house in order — playing the right way, winning the right kind of games — and has half a season left to reinforce the lessons and methods that are becoming the bedrock of who they are.

“When you’re winning games you have confidence, you don’t have to doubt yourself or feel you need to change your game,” said head coach Kris Knoblauch, who took a team that was nose diving into catastrophe and pulled them calmly back to cruising altitude.

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“There is a confidence that if we stick with it we’ll win hockey games. I’ve been very happy with our guys — they’ve been doing that, they’ve been talking about playing that way for a couple of months.”

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More than just talk, they put together eight- and 10-game win streaks, relying heavily on the things that were killing them earlier in the season.

Their last four wins have been by scores of 3-1, 2-1, 3-2 and 3-1, hardly the kind of patient, tight-checking, goalie-heavy recipe they’ve been known for in the past. But it’s who they are becoming now, and it’s exactly what it takes to win in the spring.

“I’m a huge believer in that,” said defenceman Mattias Ekholm. “In the playoffs, it’s tough to score six goals. It’s usually these kind of wins where you just grind it, you grind it, you grind it a little more and you win 2-1 or 1-0 or 3-2.

“This week resembled that a lot. It’s good on us, and give some credit to Stuart Skinner and Calvin Pickard, too, who’ve been standing in there for us to help us stay in games. That’s what you need as well. It’s been a complete team effort.”

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In Edmonton’s last two wins they couldn’t score a goal in the first 40 minutes. Instead of forcing things, cheating for offence and falling further behind on transition goals, they stuck to the plan and waited until the other teams blinked first.

“It’s a great trend,” said Leon Draisaitl. “It shows that we’re resilient and sticking with our game plan for 60 minutes. We’d like to capitalize on some chances early on and put ourselves in a better spot in the third, but we have to find a way to win any type of game.

“It’s being resilient, sticking with it, playing very mature hockey. Teams are playing us hard every night. Lots of credit to those teams, but lots of credit to the group in here for battling though it and eventually getting the wins.

“We stuck with it, we know that eventually we’ll find one, or two.”

And if these stark improvements in Edmonton’s goaltending, defence, puck management, patience and structure means they only need one or two goals, it’s a pretty safe bet that a team with this much natural firepower will find a way to score them.

It’s a pretty solid formula.

There is still half a season to go, plenty of time for things to go sideways from time to time, maybe even as early as Tuesday night when the Toronto Maple Leafs roll into town to try and snap Edmonton’s 10-game streak, but the Oilers seem to have found their way. If they stay on this path, they’re as good as anyone in the game.

“I think we’re playing the right way consistently,” said 26-goal man Zach Hyman. “We’re just building on our confidence, playing as a team and working at both ends of the ice.

“During the first stretch of the season everything that could go wrong did go wrong. That was the most drastic side of our team that you will ever see. Now, we’re gravitating more to the norm of how we know we can play and what we’re capable of. There’s more room for growth but it’s been really good of late.”

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