Oilers mentally preparing for playoffs as regular season winds down

EDMONTON — Home and cooled in second place in the North, and having now hammered home the final nail in the Calgary Flames coffin, the Edmonton Oilers are just about done with this regular season.

If the playoffs could start on Monday, they’d be all in.

“Knowing we can beat any team in the North, and if you do that anything can happen,” began the Renaissance Man, Mike Smith, a 39-year-old goalie who might just find his name on the Vezina ballot this season.

Smith had another stellar evening, warding off a spunky Calgary club in a 4-1 win (two empty-net goals). He made 29 saves to up his saves percentage to .924 with a 2.30 goals-against average, then spoke about the final two weeks of a season that will include five of their remaining seven games against the tired and troubled Vancouver Canucks.

“These games are mentally tough. You see the standings, and you want home-ice advantage, but mentally you kind of just want to get through these games … and let the real games begin,” Smith said. “There’s a feeling in the locker room where we want to be playing well going into the most important games, but we’re chomping at the bit to get into those games.”

Really, there are only two questions left on the Edmonton Oilers menu in the 2020-21 regular season:

Can Connor McDavid notch 13 points in the final seven games to reach 100 points in a 56-game season? (He had 1-2-3 Saturday, the fourth time in his last five games he’s had at least three points).

And, who will their playoff opponent be? Winnipeg, as it has seemed for weeks? Or Montreal, who are breathing down the necks of the struggling Jets?

On the first question, McDavid is a dud. He is all about the team, this superstar, whose three-point night against the Flames gave McDavid 556 points in his first 400 games, two more than Sidney Crosby had in his first 400.

“It’s been a pretty wild start to a career,” McDavid said. “Just another step in the road.”

Calgary kept McDavid off the score sheet on Thursday. On Saturday he had a goal and a primary assist before the game was eight minutes old.

“When he gets shut down one game, the next game he’s that much hungrier to help the team,” Smith marveled. “Everyone knows how incredible he is out on the ice, but I’ve seen a young man grow into a leader of this hockey club. Impressive to watch a young guy like that take this team on his shoulders. To do what he’s done this year, it’s an incredible feat.”

As for the second question, if you can get a professional hockey player to publicly state his preference of a playoff opponent, you are a finer hockey writer than I. On this team, as with most, it’s about how they’re playing, not who they’re playing.

This Oilers team is now 27-11-2 since their 3-6 start to the season. On their third game in four nights, they nearly rescued a point or two before losing Thursday. Two nights later a rested Oilers team weathered everything Calgary could throw at them — playing plenty of defensive minutes — but surrendered just a single goal.

That is a sign of a good team.

“In the playoffs you can’t lose two in a row. You’ve got to bounce back,” McDavid said. “Learning to play when it’s not really going your way is a big part of winning. Like tonight: we started great, and in the second period they kind of took over. When we do give up chances, Smitty and Kosky have been great back there.”

In a Battle of Alberta where Matthew Tkachuk has yet to look Darnell Nurse in the eye, McDavid gave Milan Lucic a poke in the chops after the two had some contact.

“He tried to finish on me in the neutral zone, and we were both skating back to the bench and I gave him a little bump. He says it was up high. I didn’t think so,” McDavid shrugged. “I’m not trying to stir up the big man. I don’t have a death wish.”

That stuff is incidental.

What matters now is how a team that has put together three months of .700 hockey plays when the chips are down. Because as we recall, the last time it didn’t go so well.

“We were playing some of our best hockey before the pause, and then you go into a bubble situation where … personally I was not mentally ready for that,” said Smith, whose Oilers lost in four games to Chicago in the Qualifying Round.

“We’ve come a long way mentally,” he continued. “Finding different ways to win, whether it was being up, coming back, holding leads… Just a lot of maturity, not just on the ice but off as well. How guys are handling themselves. What guys are talking about. It’s team first, and I’ve seen a lot of those kinds of things that maybe we didn’t have in the past.

“Guys are just really excited about playing important games.”

Only seven to go, and five against the Canucks.

This could drag on.

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