MacKinnon: Oilers learning on the fly, entertaining, but not yet a playoff team
Edmonton desperate to stack up victories at home before hellish nine-game road trip, time to dial up killer instinct because post-season race is on now — like it or not
EDMONTON - Here’s a scary thought:
The Edmonton Oilers are not at the halfway point of this truncated, 48-game season just yet, but they can all see that juncture just up ahead. It’s not a vague, distant concept, barely visible on the far horizon.
No, Game 24 of the NHL season happens in Nashville on March 8, just nine games after Tuesday night’s tough 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, seven games into that hellish nine-game road trip the club must endure during the 2013 Tim Hortons Brier.
So, it may soon become clear whether the journey of discovery and development that head coach Ralph Krueger is leading his young, talented team on will be successful one, meaning a playoff season, or at least meaningful games in April.
But no pressure.
The Oilers have won back-to-back games this season only once, back on Jan. 28 and 30, a home victory over Colorado followed by a road win against the Phoenix Coyotes.
The 6-6-3, 11th-place Oilers have been precisely what their middling record says they are: a sub-. 500 team showing flashes of brilliance, learning on the fly, entertaining as all get out some nights. Still learning how to be a playoff-contending team.
You want to say that it’s early. But that’s the point, it’s not early anymore, and not too late. But the clock is ticking.
On Tuesday night against the Kings, the Oilers battled back from an early 1-0 deficit, tied the game on a Sam Gagner goal late in the second period.
For the most part, they carried the play in the third period, also. They just couldn’t close.
“They just played better than us tonight,” said winger Taylor Hall, who skated miles, as usual, drawing an assist on Gagner’s goal and creating chances. “They were a heavier team, harder on pucks, they won a lot more battles.
“They just got pucks deep and made us play a lot in our own end — exactly what we want to do to other teams. We just didn’t do it, myself included.”
As has happened not infrequently this season, the Oilers were victims of bad luck. On the game-winning goal, a tip-in by Jeff Carter of a point shot from Trevor Lewis, Hall’s progress in the Kings zone had been halted not by an opponent, but by a linesman.
That mishap started the transition the other way for the Kings. Seconds later, Carter’s tip-in slid through Nikolai Khabibulin’s legs to make it 2-1 Kings at 19:10 of the third period.
An empty-net goal by former Oilers Jarret Stoll was not so much insurance as insult to self-inflicted injury, though.
A well-rested Oilers team started the game with some snap, but sagged noticeably in the middle period, which was redeemed only by Gagner’s late goal.
The Oilers found a way to lose this one, which is why, for them, getting on a roll remains an unchecked item on the master list. They now are 1-2 on a five-game homestand they had hoped would be a launching pad for their upcoming road swing.
“Going on the road for nine more, you want to be over .500,” Hall said. “It puts us in a tough spot to win our last two games against good teams (Minnesota and Phoenix).
“We’re going to have to show up every night. We play two good games and then we have a stinker in this one. We’re going to have to play better and stop leaning on our goalie so much.”
The good-game, bad-game rhythm is something Krueger desperately wants to break. It’s a process. It takes time.
Krueger acknowledged Tuesday that the “players are more attentive after losses,” that coachable moments are more often preceded by failure than success.
“We go hard at our losses,” Krueger said, meaning the video breakdown, the post-game analysis, the recalibration of positional play, on and on, is a given after a loss.
But how to keep the competitive edge, the attention to detail, the intensity level up after a victory and apply it to the next effort.
“We just come out flat sometimes,” Hall said. “Guys that play a lot of minutes, like myself, show some habits out there that guys don’t feed off well.
“When you don’t get pucks in and you don’t go play in their end and you try to dipsy-doodle ... stuff that we got away from in our last two games and we did well with, we start doing (again).
“It’s really tough. We’re going to have to figure out our own game. The good thing is we’re one game removed from playing that well and playing the way we want to. We’ve just got to get back to that.”
Check out my blog at edmontonjournal.com/Sweatsoxjmackinnon@edmontonjournal.com
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