There was no noose around their neck.
That was the first thing you noticed about the Edmonton Oilers when they came to the rink yesterday.
No noose. Loose as a goose.
It was like a mass jail break.
The upside of being in the playoffs is not having to deal with the downside.
"The last thing you want to be doing is walking around @#$%& Edmonton in May when you've missed the playoffs,'' said coach Craig MacTavish.
"I have pretty thick skin, but I don't like walking down @#$%& Jasper Avenue in May after missing the playoffs.''
Yesterday, with his Edmonton Oilers having qualified for their 46th Stanley Cup playoff series, MacTavish could laugh at it.
Asked what he was thinking when his best player, his 30-minute-a-game horse Chris Pronger, lay crumpled on the ice in the third period, MacTavish laughed.
"I was thinking 'I hope he's cut - I hope he's bleeding.' ''
HEMSKY TO RESCUE
He was. Four-minute penalty instead of two. But the Oilers didn't score. It wasn't until 33.3 seconds remained in Game 81 when Ales Hemsky put everybody out of their misery and scored the goal which put the Oilers in their 228th, 229th, 230th and 231st playoff games.
Now, all of a sudden, MacTavish has a chance to coach a different hockey team instead of the one that was playing gag tag with the Vancouver Canucks. Now he gets to coach a team filled with excitement about being in the Stanley Cup playoffs instead of the one in need of Heimlich manoeuvers.
But it still isn't May yet. And walking down Jasper Avenue after being swept in a first-round playoff series is about as much fun as missing the playoffs.
"I've been down that road,'' said MacTavish. "You struggle to get into the playoffs, feel great, and before you know it you're down 2-0 and in the same situation in the playoffs you were in the playoff race. It's not like if you lose a playoff game you tell yourself 'Well, at least we got in.' ''
MacTavish says making the playoffs the hard way like the Oilers did delivers the message to every one of them.
"It shows them how tough it is to have success. A lot of our young guys have had no idea how tough it is to have success.''
How tough is it to make the playoffs? This will be the first time since 1991 that both the Oilers and Calgary Flames will be in the playoffs at the same time.
As a coach, MacTavish knows the way it works in his business.
"The proof is in the winning. A favourable video review and you're a great strategist,'' he said with obvious reference to the travesty in Minnesota 10 days ago.
He also knows another thing.
"This isn't success. Getting into the playoffs isn't being successful.
"Lots of things are at stake in getting into the playoffs. But this is a long way from having success.''
MacTavish says the players have a couple days to feel like they've had success before they hit them with the reality.
"It's a weird time right now. It's kind of a transition period for the next couple of days,'' he said.
But things do change now.
"We have time to coach now. We have practice time. Some players can play at a high level without it, but some really need it. The third and fourth lines need quality practice time. They need to be handling the puck.''
BOUGHT SOME TIME
Making it into the playoffs goes a long way toward the development of all the talented young players on this team who haven't experienced the Stanley Cup playoffs. And getting into the playoffs, especially if there's some success in the playoffs, buys a lot more time for both Kevin Lowe and MacTavish to finish the job they started here - to win Stanley Cups as Oiler players and Edmonton GM and coach.
Instead of the fans calling for their jobs during the first losing skid next season ...
"Fans? Who leads that parade?'' laughed MacTavish when I opened that line of discussion yesterday.
Aw, come on. I'd hate to lead that parade for the league's most quotable coach. Who'd want to lead the parade for a guy who will stand there and tell you he was hoping his best player was bleeding?