EDMONTON â€” The Edmonton Oilers return to the NHL playoffs Wednesday against the battled-hardened Western Conference-champion San Jose Sharks in a series expected to turn on experience â€”and injuries.
Centres Joe Thornton and Logan Couture are day-to-day with injuries for the Sharks, who ended the last three weeks of the regular season in freefall.
“They’re missing a couple of key guys and they make a world of difference,” said centre Connor McDavid after Edmonton wrapped up its regular season second in the Pacific Division.
Couture has been skating but is still in pain after being drilled in the face by a redirected Brent Burns slapshot March 25. Thornton injured his left knee in a collision a week ago against the Vancouver Canucks.
Couture is a critical piece as he would be tasked with shadowing and shutting down McDavid, the NHL’s fleet-footed scoring champion. McDavid will lead a cast of newbies on to the ice Wednesday at Rogers Place for the opening game of the first-round series.
The Oilers have not been in the post-season since 2006 when they made a miracle march that ended with a loss in the Stanley Cup final to the Carolina Hurricanes. Along the way, they beat the Sharks in six games, the only time the two squads have hooked up in the playoffs.
Key forwards like McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and defencemen Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse will play their first NHL playoff games.
Other players such as Benoit Pouliot, Patrick Maroon, David Desharnais, and Mark Letestu have some experience in the post-season. And then there’s Milan Lucic, a veteran of 101 playoff games and a Stanley Cup in Boston.
Lucic say when a veteran team like the Sharks gets close to the Stanley Cup, it’s addictive.
“I know what they’re feeling,” said Lucic. “I’ve been a part of teams that have gone to the final and the next year once you get to that 50-, 60-, 70-game mark you can’t wait for the playoffs to start again.
“You know they’re confident. You know they passed up on an opportunity (to win it all) last year and they’re going to try to do whatever they can to not pass up on it this year.”
Eberle said the Oilers won’t be wide-eyed when the puck drops.
“We have enough experience in this locker room to handle the playoffs,” he said.
Eberle is especially looking forward to the tournament. He’s now in his seventh NHL season, all with Edmonton, and has yet to play for the big prize.
“It’s been frustrating. This is usually the last day (of the season) for me,” said Eberle. “It’s what you play hockey for, to get into the post-season and I have a chance to do that finally.”
The numbers favour the Oilers.
Edmonton finished second in the Pacific Division with 103 points. The Sharks appeared to have the division locked up in mid-March, only to lose nine of their last 13 to tumble to third with 99 points.
The Oilers beat the Sharks three out of five games, including twice in the last two weeks.
Another factor is Oilers head coach Todd McLellan and assistants Jay Woodcroft and Jim Johnson. All three parted ways with the Sharks two years ago and are now back in the playoffs facing their former team.
“Our coaches probably know that team better than anybody in the league, so it will help,” said Eberle. “But we’ve played them enough during the season that we know how they play.
“We know their key guys and what they want to do. It’s just a matter of out-working and out-playing them.”
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press