Why Oilers shouldn’t be affected by missing out on a Pacific Division title

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Why Oilers shouldn’t be affected by missing out on a Pacific Division title

EDMONTON — Forget the division. It’s time to start focusing on the playoffs.

That’s the mindset of the Edmonton Oilers after losing to the Vancouver Canucks 3-1 on Saturday.

The defeat put the Oilers 5 points behind the Canucks with three games remaining — essentially squashing their chances for a Pacific Division crown.

“We lost it. It doesn’t really matter as long as we’re in the playoffs,” defenceman Vincent Desharnais said. “These types of games will get us ready for the playoffs.”

Edmonton was swept in the four-game season series in the process, which is of little concern for a possible second-round series.

“(It’s a) different game in the playoffs,” Oilers winger Zach Hyman said.

Hyman has a point.

The first three matchups between the two teams occurred within the Oilers’ first 11 games of the season. The Oilers were demolished by the Canucks by a cumulative score of 14-3 in the two contests in Vancouver. Coach Jay Woodcroft was fired two games after the second beatdown.

The Oilers were 46-16-5 since then before Saturday’s game. It was such ancient history that Woodcroft’s replacement Kris Knoblauch saw no use in reviewing footage from those three defeats.

As for Saturday, though the Oilers had some lapses and struggled to contain the Canucks’ speed at times, this was essentially a toss-up. And that’s without Connor McDavid in the lineup for the third straight game because of a lower-body injury sustained late in a victory in Calgary one week earlier.

“It was good in a sense to realize playing that team game,” winger Warren Foegele said. “Adding Connor back makes us a much (more) dangerous team.”

After laying waste to the Golden Knights on Wednesday, the Oilers have looked a lot more ordinary without their captain in the last two contests.

The likely-on-the-move Arizona Coyotes shouldn’t have represented a trap game between two high-end divisional opponents because of how much better a win would have positioned the Oilers ahead of Saturday’s game. It turned out to be. The Oilers played almost an indifferent brand of hockey Friday and lost in overtime.

There were too many one-and-done offensive sequences, and their power play lacked polish against the Canucks and backup goaltender Casey DeSmith.

The Oilers fell to 1-3-1 without McDavid this season. They dropped two of those McDavid-less contests in late October during their swoon. The last two defeats aren’t the same.

The Oilers remain the NHL’s top team since American Thanksgiving — and by a wide margin. There’s no use getting carried away by a couple of iffy performances without the perennial MVP candidate.

“There’s a reason why he’s the best player in the league and the impact that he has with this team,” Knoblauch said.

“We played three games without him, and obviously, we are a better team (with him) and we score goals easier, but I don’t think (it’s a) cause for worry.”

The Oilers played Friday night, whereas the Canucks were already in the city waiting for them. The Canucks hadn’t played since Wednesday.

The Oilers are amid a strenuous part of the schedule having finished off a stretch of three games in four nights. It’ll be six in nine by the time they complete their final regular-season matchup Thursday in Denver. They’ve looked worse for wear.

“There’s no excuses during an 82-game season. You just try to work hard,” Foegele said. “Certainly not ideal.”

“The schedule maker made it a little harder on us toward the end of the year,” Hyman said. “Having said that, considering where we were at the start of the year, to be locked into a playoff spot and have home-ice secured, I think we would have taken that.

“We’re in a great spot.”

The division title would have guaranteed the Oilers home-ice advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Oilers have been much better when playing in Edmonton compared to elsewhere, even with losses in their last two games. They’re 27-9-4 at home and 21-16-2 on the road this season.

“At some point, you’re going to have to win games on the road,” Hyman said.

Matchups are more important than anything else.

The Oilers are now all but locked into second place in the Pacific. Another date with the Los Angeles Kings is the most likely outcome, though there’s still a chance they face Vegas. The Oilers have beaten the Kings in six of the last seven games dating to Game 4 of last year’s playoff series. They’ve also knocked the Kings out in the last two first rounds.

The Kings won’t be walkovers, but they’re not a team that should scare the Oilers.

Vegas would be a tougher matchup. The Golden Knights did send the Oilers packing in May, of course. But the Oilers are 8-2-1 in regular-season play since the start of the 2021-22 season. They saw the series as being there for the taking.

They will tell you they think they can overcome any opponent that stands in their way.

“I think we’re the best team in the whole league,” Desharnais said. “I think we proved it at times this season.”

All that’s left to do now is put themselves in the best position to succeed once the more important games begin next weekend.

McDavid’s health is paramount, and he won’t play until he’s good and ready, which is exactly what should happen. Top defence prospect Philip Broberg could get a recall next week, Knoblauch said. He also suggested youngster Dylan Holloway will get an extended audition as he vies for a spot in the playoff lineup and that some players could get some rest.

Those who play must play to their fullest.

“You can’t just lollygag your way into the playoffs,” Hyman said. “You have to be on your game.”

The Oilers now have nothing to play for when it comes to the standings. Too bad. Oh well. A first division title since 1987 will have to wait another year.

There are bigger things to play for around here, though. With their place in the Pacific all but set in stone, that’s all that matters now.

“These next three games, you want to build — playing the right way — heading into playoffs,” Foegele said.

(Photo of the Oilers’ Ryan McLeod jumping to avoid a hit from Vancouver’s Nikita Zadorov: Perry Nelson-USA Today)