The Confidence Game

The Oilers have got their swagger back, but they can't forget the lessons learned from their brutal start to the season
IMG_4922 2
Kris Knoblauch

No matter what you do for a living, you know how it goes. Some days, you wake up, and you’re super productive. You cross off things on the to-do list at a pace that surprises even you.

Then, there are those days where it takes you an hour to finish something that should only take a few minutes to complete. You lose yourself in social media. You find it exceptionally hard to focus.

Some days you have it, and some days you don’t. Sure, there are plenty of factors that play into our moods, but it’s safe to say that when you’re alert, confident and don’t feel overwhelmed, it’s easier to get from point A to B.

The same is true of professional hockey players. We can talk about advanced stats and the Xs and Os that the coaches draw up on their white boards, but, a lot of the time, the key to success is simply a change in a person’s — or a team’s — mental state.

That’s certainly true of the Edmonton Oilers, who have won six in a row and 14 of their last 17. The swagger is back.

When Kris Knoblauch replaced Jay Woodcroft as head coach on November 12, he inherited a team that was clearly broken. The dressing room tension was thick. There were a lot of one-word answers to reporters’ questions. And maybe the most lasting image is of Leon Draisaitl, with only eyes and nose visible through a tightly drawn-shut hoodie, desperately trying not to make eye contact with reporters when asked about his reaction to Woodcroft’s firing. This was a team that would get out to early leads and blow them; the 2-0 Oiler lead had almost become something you’d roll your eyes about, because you knew a pretty big shoe was about to drop. And, we had got used to the idea that the Oilers would almost double the opposition in shots on goal and A-grade scoring chances, but lose. And lose again.

On day one, Knoblauch understood the biggest thing needed was a change in attitude.

“I think the most important thing is that your players have to feel good about themselves in order to perform,” he said the day he was hired. “Right now, I see some guys who are beaten up. They are frustrated. They put so much pressure on themselves to perform, and it hasn’t been healthy for them.”

If there was any single example you could use to show how the Oilers’ mindset has changed since mid-November, we just have to look to the second period of Tuesday’s 5-2 win over Philadelphia.

The Oilers had jumped to a 2-0 lead. But, in the second period, some lapses gifted the Flyers a series of great scoring opportunities, and a game that the Oilers looked to have well in hand had been tied 2-2. This was a scenario we’d seen play out a lot through the October and November swoon, the Oilers would blow a lead, and never recover.

But, this time, the Oilers confidently righted the ship. A goal from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins restored the lead before the second intermission, and the Oilers dominated the third period. Sure, Connor McDavid had a five-point night, but we also need to look at the collective mental strength of the team, something which had abandoned them through the first month and a half of the season.

“It was a different situation when I came here,” Knoblauch said after the win over the Flyers. “You look at the standings, losing, there was a lot of frustration.”

But, this time, blowing a lead was just a day at the office, not a crisis.

“If you give up those two goals in the second period the way that we did, I’m sure we wouldn’t have handled it the same as we would have two months ago,” said Knoblauch. ‘Now, it’s ‘yeah me made some mistakes, we can’t do that again, let’s get back to work and play the right way.’ They’ve become unfazed. So, it’s nice to see them very mature on the bench.”

Zach Hyman, who leads the Oilers with 22 goals so far this season, said that the group can try and put the dark days of October and November behind them, but they can’t forget them, either.

“It’s in the rear-view mirror, but you still remember and you don’t want to get back to that point. So, you’ve got to keep doing it over and over and over and over again, and build that sense of confidence in the group and in yourself. I think we’re in a really good headspace right now.”