Oilers’ McLellan faces his former team, the Sharks
EDMONTON, Alberta — Todd McLellan was a fixture in San Jose. He coached the Sharks through 540 regular-season games and 62 playoff matches.
But, after he and the Sharks mutually agreed to part ways following the 2014-15 season, he was tasked with taking over the Oilers, a rebuilding team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2006. This season, McLellan’s second behind the bench in Edmonton, he led the Oilers to their first 100-point season in, gulp, 30 years.
So, of course the Oilers’ first playoff series of the McLellan Era would feature the San Jose Sharks as the opposition.
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Sports has a strange way of coming full circle on a guy.
The two teams open up their first-round, best-of-seven series Wednesday at Rogers Place.
The Oilers haven’t lost at home since March 12. They would be a handful even if they were facing a red-hot, healthy team. But the Sharks aren’t healthy and they aren’t hot. The Sharks won three out of four to close the season, but that came after a stretch that saw San Jose lose eight of nine and slide from first to third in the Pacific Division.
Veteran Joe Thornton missed the last week of the season with a knee issue, and after Tuesday’s practice said he feels confident, but he is still listed as day-to-day. Logan Couture, who had 52 points in 73 games, missed the last seven games of the regular season after suffering severe facial injuries from taking a puck to the mouth.
When asked by reporters if he’ll be ready to play Wednesday, Couture answered with a curt, “I don’t know.” When he was repeatedly asked how he felt, he repeatedly answered, “same as yesterday.”
Even if both play in Game 1, will they be close to 100 percent?
And, other stars were held out of the Sharks’ final game of the regular season, including defenseman Justin Braun, veteran forward Joel Ward and, most notably, captain Joe Pavelski, who tied for the team lead with 29 goals. Coach Peter DeBoer said that all of the players who missed the regular-season finale were dealing with day-to-day, nagging issues.
But what the Sharks do have is experience. They are the reigning Western Conference champs. Their roster is filled with veterans who have long playoffs resumes. For a lot of the key Oilers players, this will be their first playoff experience. But McLellan said their youth could be an advantage.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of fear in young players,” he said. “The approach we’re going to take is that we’re going to play game 83. It just happens that games 83 to 90, we’re going to play the same team. We’re not going to change a lot as a team. We’re going to continue to try and improve from night to night, you have to do that in the playoffs. Preparation is going to be a little more extensive than what it normally is, because the games come so fast.”
The Sharks will need to limit what is arguably the best one-two combination in hockey: Oilers center Connor McDavid led the NHL with 100 points, while right winger Leon Draisaitl scored 29 times and finished eighth in the scoring race.
“We’ve played them a lot this year, and we’ve played them a lot recently,” said McDavid. “We know their game pretty well, and they know ours pretty well. It doesn’t take a lot of getting used to off the start.”
“It will be very exciting,” said Draisaitl. “The crowd is going to be buzzing and loud. Everyone in this city is excited and so are we. We are looking forward to this and I think it is going to be a very fun series.”
Oiler defenseman Oscar Klefbom was named the NHL’s second star of the final week of the regular season; he has seven assists in his last four games. He’ll present another problem for the Sharks.
But Sharks defenseman Brent Burns, who tied for the team lead with 29 goals, said his team is used to adversity. After all, they still remember the pain of losing last year’s Stanley Cup final to the Penguins.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” said Burns. “It was great, it was fun. It was heartbreaking at the end, but those are experiences you don’t trade — and you hope to re-create it and get to the next step this year.”
Despite the Sharks’ slide down the standings in the spring, DeBoer spoke about the fact that, for much of the season, his team was at the top of the division. He knows the Sharks will need to recapture that form against the Oilers.
“We’ve played long stretches of real good hockey this year,” he said. “So, I think we’ll get healthy, get our guys back and they know the level that they have to play at when this time of year starts. I have no doubt we’ll be at that level.”