Bouncing back has been part of the Oilers’ playoff DNA, but this climb will be steeper

DENVER  — The Edmonton Oilers don’t barge into a series, like the great Chris Farley storming into a bit on Saturday Night Live. 

They tiptoe around the plot, the way your 10-year-old bears the news of the window she broke playing road hockey. Like a guy dropping into a 105-degree Fahrenheit hot tub, they ease in to each new round with a deep breath and a long exhale. 

This is your team, Oilers fan.  

Love them for who they are. 

“I don’t think it’s who we are,” countered Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, an expected response by a proud Oiler. 

But before he’d finished his thought, however, he was saying this: “Game 1’s haven’t been our thing, for sure, there’s no question about that.” 

Head coach Jay Woodcroft is known for bending a negative question the way Marty McSorley once curved a Koho, slinging back a positive answer to a query that might have taken him down a road he doesn’t want to travel. 

But even a coach who once called a loss a “non-win” couldn’t conjure up the necessary spin to bypass the question: “Is this just part of your team’s DNA?” 

“Well, this team has lost three game No. 1’s. I can’t tell you that we haven’t done that,” he said. “That’s a fact.” 

Having established the pattern, it’s incumbent on us to move on to Game 2’s, where Edmonton has been money. In a game of adjustments, the Oilers have out-schemed their opponents in Game 2, turning the series back their way. 

And so they dusted off the old Game 2 script on the off-day here Wednesday. 

“We have our meeting coming up soon here,” Cody Ceci said around 11 a.m. Wednesday, “and I think it’s going to be pretty similar, unfortunately. We had some chances late, but we gave up way too many goals to win that game.” 

The beauty of a good team playing poorly is that they tend to bounce back. And Edmonton’s bounce-back game has been strong, a card Woodcroft played with the media and, no doubt, later on with his players. 

“In all three of those games, they were tied or within one goal,” Woodcroft explained. “So did we play perfectly? We didn’t play perfectly. We know we can be better just like we could be better after Game 1 versus L.A., just like we could be better after Game 1 versus Calgary.” 

In the playoffs, as often as not, a team’s success can be found in the numbers posted by its goaltender. 

In five career Game 1’s as an Oiler, Mike Smith’s numbers are heinous: a 0-3 record, a 6.77 goals-against average and an .823 saves percentage. He has been pulled three times (twice this spring). 

But in Game 2’s he is 2-1 with a 1.30 GAA, a .962 SV% and one shutout. He has allowed just four goals on 106 shots.

Woodcroft, in classic playoff subterfuge, wouldn’t name Smith as his starter on Thursday. We would declare that the odds of a Mikko Koskinen start are about as good Connor McDavid being a healthy scratch. 

Because Smith personifies what this team has become. Obstinate, proud, a memory like the average husband (i.e. perilously short), Smith is the backbone of the bounce-back. 

“When we’re down, we’re not out of the fight,” promised Smith. “(We) continue to battle right to the end, and play for each other.” 

Here’s the problem: That hill that the Oilers have climbed has been elevated. What was a pitcher’s mound in Round 1 against the third best team in the NHL’s fourth best Division, is now a K2-sized mountain.

Colorado is the cream of the Western Conference crop. Sure, Edmonton proved they could play with the Avs when they took them to overtime twice before beating Colorado 6-3 in their final meeting. But those games were all played in the season’s final six weeks, when Colorado had it on cruise control. 

“They locked up a spot pretty early and kind of cruised into playoffs. They had some injuries and whatnot,” admitted Edmonton defenceman Cody Ceci. “Right now they’re healthy and they’re really playing the right way. They’re a good hockey team, but I think we’re a good hockey team as well. 

“Last night showed the game got away from us, but we still battled back. It was a closer game than it seemed.” 

That’s what the Oilers will cling to. That “it was a closer game than it seemed,” and that they’ve been here before and got their split. 

So far this spring, the Edmonton Oilers are two-for-two on soft starts and scrappy Game 2’s. 

For their sake, let hope it’s in their DNA after all.