We haven't heard the last of the Oilers

ByTal Pinchevsky ESPN logo
Friday, May 12, 2017

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Slouching slightly and clearly disappointed after a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of their second-round series, Connor McDavid didn't have much time to take stock of his first venture into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Attempting to assess a season that had ended mere minutes earlier, the 20-year-old Edmonton Oilers captain and inarguably the most dynamic player in the NHL said something prophetic.

It's unlikely that his intention was to send a warning to the rest of the National Hockey League. But with the Oilers eliminated from the playoffs and his season officially over -- while the Ducks move on to face theNashville Predatorsin the conference finals -- that's exactly what McDavid did.

"We'll be back," McDavid said. "Obviously, it's going to take some time to get over it, but I think there's a lot of positives we can take from this. We won't have to answer that experience question anymore, which is nice."

Entering the playoffs for the first time since an unexpected run to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, the Oilers defied modest expectations and the constant reminder that their roster was populated mostly by players with little to no playoff experience. By dispatching the defending Western Conference-champion San Jose Sharks before taking the battle-tested Ducks to seven games, the Oilers answered any questions about their playoff mettle.

"By far this is the most fun, the best year I've been a part of," said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who got his first taste of the postseason after five losing seasons in Edmonton. "The most frustrating part is we were right there. We knew in our group we could keep going and keep playing. That's the frustrating part."

Even with plenty of hope on the horizon, even with a remarkable 47-26-9 season in which McDavid inspired comparisons to the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers dynasty of the 1980s, there was a certain incredulousness that it was all over.

After opening the series with two wins in Anaheim and letting a three-goal lead slip through their fingers with less than four minutes remaining in regulation in Game 5, the Oilers knew this series could have turned out differently. With their season done, there was still a sense of missed opportunity and definitely residual frustration over what they felt was a missed goalie-interference call on Anaheim's last-minute tying goal in Game 5.

"It's disappointing. It shouldn't have even got to a Game 7," Oilers forward Milan Lucic said. "It sucks to lose that one. Got to find a way to get over it."

Regardless, there's little denying that the best is yet to come in Edmonton. With a 12-2-0 run to close out the regular season and an admirable postseason showing against two Western Conference teams loaded with playoff experience, the Oilers earned leaguewide respect. More than anything, it was the Oilers' effort as a team that put the NHL on notice.

All eyes were ultimately on McDavid, who led the league in scoring and was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy in his first full NHL season. Edmonton's star captain finished his first postseason with five goals and nine points in 13 games. When he didn't produce, a number of important role players filled in admirably.

"I think what we did in the second round is we solidified an identity of a pretty scrappy, resilient, never-die team," head coach Todd McLellan said. "Our team wasn't afraid of the stage. We were willing to come out and perform. For an inexperienced team right from Day 1, that's a good sign for us going forward."

His second season behind the Oilers' bench officially in the books, McLellan was quick to hail a team he admitted was just "trying to survive" when he took over. But he reserved his highest praise for his young captain. Though McDavid struggled at times and contributed five points in the seven-game series, McLellan saw a young star coming into his own.

"I thought he was tremendous. I thought he did everything he possibly could," McLellan said of his captain. "He was our leader. He did many, many things that you guys don't see."

When the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs come to an end, the Oilers will ultimately be seen as a footnote in the overall postseason bracket. But as the heart-wrenching loss that ended their season drifted just a bit further into the past, there was a general feeling of optimism that slowly permeated the Edmonton locker room. A notion that the Oilers would one day look back at this second-round series as the moment this team learned what it was capable of in the playoffs.

"The future is bright for this team. The guys should be looking around and seeing what an accomplishment we had this year," Oilers forward Patrick Maroon said. "I think we have some really good players in this room that are game-changers and can take this team to a Stanley Cup and win a Stanley Cup."

For the player expected to lead those future Stanley Cup runs, there was little else to do other than take the lessons learned from his first playoff run and get ready to go even further next year.

"I think you look at any team that has won and been good for all these years, they start with a disappointment. We've done that. We took a huge step forward," McDavid said. "If we told you [in September] that we were taking it to seven in the second series ... I don't think anyone would have believed us for a second. We managed to do that and hold our heads high about that."

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