Why the Oilers’ path to a Stanley Cup Final has never been more obvious

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EDMONTON — With the Edmonton Oilers yet again eyeing championship contention, the path toward it has never looked clearer.

Though there are slight imperfections with the roster, the Oilers are more primed than ever in the Connor McDavid era to win the Stanley Cup this season. What’s as important is their side of the Western Conference bracket is filled with neophytes and/or underachievers in Vancouver, Nashville and Los Angeles — their first-round opponent yet again.

Quite frankly, they must capitalize on the situation before them or they’ll forever rue that they didn’t.

Let’s start with the Kings.

The Oilers have knocked them out of the playoffs in each of the last two years. It’s not like those series haven’t been hairy. They were down 3-2 in 2022 and 2-1 with a three-goal deficit after the first period of Game 4 last April.

But the Oilers came back in that contest, culminating with a Zach Hyman overtime goal, and won the next two games to take the series in six. They’ve won six of the last seven times these two teams have faced off — including three of the four games this season.

The Kings’ 1-3-1 system is boring and annoys the Oilers, but they know how to beat it. The gap between the two teams appears wider than ever over the last 24 months.

There’s no reason why the Oilers shouldn’t move on.

If the Predators topple the Canucks, the Oilers will have home-ice advantage again in the second round. Their recent track record against the Predators is outstanding.

The Oilers have an 11-1-2 mark against Nashville in the last 14 head-to-head games. Leon Draisaitl has torched them to the tune of 23 goals and 37 points over that span. All but the last three of those contests were when the Preds had Mattias Ekholm in the fold, too. He’s now arguably the best defenceman on the Oilers.

The Predators haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Getting past the Canucks would represent a major accomplishment for a team that GM Barry Trotz was retooling coming into the season.

It’s the Canucks who would represent the biggest issue for the Oilers.

Though the season series was a 4-0 sweep in Vancouver’s favour, it’s hard to read too much into that. The Oilers were a mess when they faced the Canucks three times within their first 11 games. They dropped the two in Vancouver in convincing fashion.

The last time they faced each other, last Saturday, the Oilers were without McDavid. (Yes, the Canucks were sans Thatcher Demko, too.) The Canucks’ speed did give the Oilers fits.

But this is just the second playoff appearance for the Canucks since 2015 — when McDavid entered the league. That one outlier was in 2020 when they reached the second round in the Edmonton bubble – as bizarre a playoff tournament as there ever was.

If experience is supposed to count for something — and if the Oilers have learned all these lessons they say they have from past failures — they’ll find a way to dispatch the Canucks.

Let’s not get things twisted here: An Oilers loss in a series to any of these teams wouldn’t be shocking or embarrassing. But make no mistake, such a defeat would represent the greatest disappointment in the McDavid era. For as upsetting as losing to Vegas was last year, this wouldn’t be close.

Not only are the Oilers battle-tested in the playoffs, but they’ve also been the best team in the NHL since Kris Knoblauch replaced Jay Woodcroft behind the bench. The sample — 69 games — shows they’re plenty good enough.

A little good fortune heading into the playoffs could — and should — serve them well.

Let’s just say, April 18 became the best day of the year once again for the Oilers.

It was nine years ago they won the draft lottery with the third-best odds, gaining the right to select the truly generational star, McDavid. Somehow, he’s been even better than advertised, winning the Hart Trophy three times and the Art Ross Trophy five times. Coming third in the scoring race this season was his lowest placing since his rookie season. Even in a so-called down year this season, he recorded 100 assists.

The only thing missing from McDavid’s Oilers tenure is the Cup. But that road theoretically got a little smoother Thursday night when an unlikely yet ideal scenario unfolded after Edmonton’s B squad was finished getting demolished in a game with little on the line in Denver.

The Vegas Golden Knights needed a win to secure third in the Pacific Division and a first-round series with the Oilers, a matchup that — if last May was any indication – would have been contentious, taxing and challenging for both sides. Instead, Vegas lost at home to the lowly Anaheim Ducks.

As that was wrapping up, Los Angeles, which now required just a single point for the third seed, was in the process of blowing a two-goal, third-period lead to Chicago — the NHL’s second-worst team. Chicago scored three times in the first 13:32 of the frame.

Despite a surprising loss by Vegas, it looked like nothing was going to change in the standings because of the Kings’ self-destruction. That changed when Viktor Arvidsson scored the equalizer with 1:21 left in regulation on a six-on-four advantage to force overtime.

And with that, the Oilers’ path to a long playoff run just got a whole lot easier.

It’s not that the Oilers couldn’t have beaten the Golden Knights — they felt they were the better team last year — but the Kings are a more favourable opponent.

The Golden Knights and Dallas Stars are the two Western Conference squads that should be considered deeper and at least as skilled at forward and defence — even if they can’t match the Oilers’ high-end firepower.

Now the Oilers avoid one of them in the opening round — and, because the Golden Knights and Stars are foes, one of them will be out in a couple of weeks.

The Western Conference is as deep as ever and there are tons of roadblocks for the Oilers. But they’ve avoided some of the biggest ones for now — and maybe completely.

The Oilers will have only themselves to blame for not getting to at least the Western Conference final barring a catastrophic injury or an opposing goaltender turning into the second coming of Dominik Hasek. Really, they should get further than that, too.

The time to win is now — and it’s fully within their control.

(Photo: Perry Nelson / USA Today)

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