EDMONTON — The realization of leaving behind his wife, Autumn, to take the Oilers coaching job got Kris Knoblauch choked up Monday morning, nearly bringing him to tears.
Seeing her broadcast in the dressing room on a video screen from Hartford, Conn., after his first NHL victory and hearing her words of congratulations was a much better bookend to the day.
The Oilers defeated the New York Islanders 4-1 on the strength of four unanswered goals — three in the third period — to make the 45-year-old a winner in his debut as a full-time NHL coach.
“It feels amazing to get that first win,” Knoblauch said. “Being a head coach was a highlight. It’s much better when you win.”
The win was the second straight for the Oilers, the first time they’ve done that this season. Monday was their 14th game.
The performance perhaps wasn’t as sound or convincing as the identical 4-1 result in former coach Jay Woodcroft’s swan song against Seattle, but it was nonetheless impressive.
“It was everything we’ve been kind of missing,” captain Connor McDavid said.
Connor McDavid posted his 263rd career multi-point game, the most among all players since he entered the NHL in 2015-16. His @EdmontonOilers teammate, Leon Draisaitl, ranks second over that span with 212.#NHLStats: https://t.co/7kMtc6sR41 pic.twitter.com/UfLVWpWkrm
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) November 14, 2023
The only things that went wrong were the first 40 seconds when Mathew Barzal ripped a shot past Stuart Skinner and Dylan Holloway leaving the game in the second period with what looked like a lower-body injury. Knoblauch had no update on the sophomore winger.
Otherwise, all good in Edmonton.
It started with the first-unit power play, which won the Oilers a ton of games last season. It really hadn’t until Monday. That changed in a big way.
Woodcroft often said it was the power play’s ability to score key goals at the right times that was even more important than its historic 32.4 percent in 2022-23. That timeliness came through against the Islanders with two goals in quick succession late in the game.
“Our power play was not getting the timely goals,” winger Zach Hyman said. “For it to come through in the third period and to give us the lead, then ultimately the cushion to win, was huge.”
A whiffed one-timer by Leon Draisaitl went behind the net to McDavid, who flipped the puck in front to Hyman for an easy goal. That put the Oilers ahead for the first time at 7:35 of the third.
Two minutes later, with the Oilers on another man advantage, McDavid streaked down the left wing and squeaked a shot past Ilya Sorokin — a goal the netminder would love to have back.
A tie game quickly became a two-goal Edmonton lead.
“What I really liked was how hard they worked to recover pucks,” Knoblauch said. “That’s what we need.”
McDavid’s goal certainly wasn’t his prettiest effort, but he’ll gladly take it. It was his third goal of the season and first in nine games.
“It’s nice to see them go in,” McDavid said. “Offensive guys like to score goals, and I’m no different.”
McDavid wasn’t the only superstar to get back on track.
Draisaitl had perhaps his best performance of the early campaign. He scored in the first period — his second goal in 11 games — and assisted on the last three.
The penalty kill was perfect, killing all three Islanders opportunities.
Skinner built off a 17-save performance Saturday in Seattle by stopping 32 of 33 shots against the Islanders. With just one goal allowed in each of the last two games, the save percentage is slowly climbing. It’s now at .876.
The Oilers displayed a performance many would have expected maybe a dozen times by now. They’re 1-for-1 under Knoblauch.
“I don’t think it’s really about giving a good impression at this point,” veteran forward Derek Ryan said. “It’s about getting our game in order and trending in the right direction, and I saw that.”
If the Oilers had put forth more of these types of efforts, Woodcroft and former assistant coach Dave Manson would still have their jobs instead of getting fired Sunday.
The players felt like they let Woodcroft and Manson down. That tandem was a huge part of a coaching staff that had more playoff success than anyone in these parts since the franchise reached the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s really hard,” Ryan said. “It’s a sting.
“Those are great people that are great at their job, as well. It’s sad to see, and you just kind of deal with it, come in and put your head down and go to work, and also listen to the new information that was brought forward and the changes you can make.”
There are “two sides to the script,” as Hyman put it. There’s nothing that will bring Woodcroft or Manson back. That’s where the other side of that script comes in.
And so the story after Monday’s win was about the new head coach. Hyman joked that new rookie assistant coach Paul Coffey, a Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman with four Stanley Cup titles, has enough NHL wins to his credit.
“He was calm, came in and (was) his calm self,” McDavid said of Knoblauch. “He didn’t give us too much — just let guys go out and play. We’ll work through the details of his stuff as we go.
“He did a great job under the circumstances.”
The players were thrilled for Knoblauch and presented him with the game puck in the dressing room.
“It felt incredible. It’s going to be a souvenir,” Knoblauch said. “I had a game puck on my desk before the game started, and I was like, ‘I’ve only got one, but I’ve got two kids.’ Then we won, and I’ve got two, so now we can make everyone happy.”
After Knoblauch got his rubber memento, the Oilers had him turn to a screen to see and hear from his wife. The couple’s son, Marek, 16, and daughter, Emry, 13, were sound asleep. Naturally, they mean the world to him.
They’ll all stay in Connecticut, where Knoblauch was coaching the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, until the end of the season. It’s hard to be away from them, he said. But tears turned to smiles when Autumn’s face appeared after the biggest moment of his professional career.
McDavid, his former captain with the OHL’s Erie Otters back in 2014-15, was pleased to witness it all — from the win to the virtual spousal celebration.
“It’s been a long road for him,” McDavid said. “It’s well deserved.”
(Photo: Andy Devlin / NHLI via Getty Images)