All Connor McDavid wants to do after establishing himself as the best hockey player in the world is win the Stanley Cup. He knows he can't do that in October, when the NHL playoffs feel like they are a lifetime away.
“There’s 82 full games before you can get back to the same position,” Edmonton's captain said. “This is a marathon."
This next march to the playoffs that begins Oct. 10 could be much different than last year, when the Boston Bruins broke the record for the best regular season and lost in the first round. The Stanley Cup resides in Sin City for now after the Vegas Golden Knights went through McDavid's Oilers and the Florida Panthers who vanquished Boston to win it all — and they will have a host of hungry challengers.
Matthew Tkachuk, the heart and soul of the Panthers who played with a broken sternum in the final, doesn't buy what he called the “myth” that the regular season doesn't matter. After all, only 16 of 32 teams get to keep playing beyond mid-April.
“You’ve got to get in the playoffs,” Tkachuk said. “But I think what’s more important than that is you’ve got to be playing your best hockey at the right time.”
That was the prevailing lesson after the banged-up Bruins fell “woefully short” of their goal, in the words of their general manager, Don Sweeney, and the Panthers came just three wins short of the Cup after losing 28 of their first 41 games and being the last team to qualify in the Eastern Conference.
Florida's experience isn't an endorsement of slacking at the start of the year, something the Washington Capitals learned from their playoff streak ending. And coaches and players are still focused on starting strong with an eye on the long, twisting road to the postseason.
“You’ve got to build your game,” Oilers star Leon Draisaitl said. “You got to get off to a good start and build your game from there on in segments or in months — however you you shape it ... and continue to get better throughout the year.”
Look no further than Vegas for that blueprint. Despite needing five different goaltenders and 30 skaters during the season, the Golden Knights finished atop the Western Conference to shore up home-ice advantage when it mattered most.
They went 9-3 on The Strip in the first title run in franchise history and again look like top contenders, armed with experience and with the vast majority of their roster back to try to repeat.
“That would be my goal every year, to go into the year with the expectation to be competing for the Stanley Cup,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “That’s our first goal: to keeping building games to give ourselves a chance to get there. Once you’re there, I don’t want to say wide open, but to a certain extent, it is wide open.”
The Colorado Avalanche, coming off a seven-game, first-round loss to Seattle, are actually favored to win the Cup for the second time in three years. Top center Nathan MacKinnon said he and his teammates just didn't have it last season but expects a quick turnaround, even without injured captain Gabriel Landeskog.
“You have to be pretty near perfect to get the job done,” MacKinnon said. “We’re all very motivated this year to kind of get our standard back to where we need it to be to win."
The way MacKinnon talked about his hunger to win before the Avalanche got the job done in 2022 is now being echoed by McDavid and Draisaitl. They've answered years of questions about what it'll take to take to get over the hump.
The Oilers won't call this season “Cup or bust.” Draisaitl thinks that's too dramatic. But all eyes are trained on Edmonton, which hasn't been Stanley's home since 1990.
“We’re ready to win. We’re ready to do whatever it takes to win, more importantly,” Draisaitl said. “We’re definitely not far away. I certainly feel that way. I think we all do. I think the entire league feels that way about us.”
Still, Draisaitl acknowledged 31 other teams — well, probably about a dozen, realistically, this season — are trying to accomplish the same goal. The key to doing so, from those who have won it all, is maintaining some consistency through the inevitable streaks and struggles of a season.
“There’s going to be times where it feels like you can’t lose and times where it feels like it’s really hard to win, but that comes with 82 games and six months of a regular season,” said Capitals defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, who hoisted the Cup in 2015 with Chicago. “It’s going to go like that in a game like this where the margins are so small, so you just got to kind of not get too high or too low and just obviously bring that effort every night.”
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York and AP Sports Writers Mark Anderson in Las Vegas and Pat Graham in Denver contributed.
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press