Mackinnon: Oilers, Sabres fight the same battle
Both NHL teams are struggling while trying to build for the future
BUFFALO, N.Y. — On a weekend in which New York State bore witness to a pair of epic sporting events, the to-do attending Monday’s basement battle between the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres was appropriately subdued.
The NCAA men’s basketball game between Duke and Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on Saturday was an instant classic, and the Super Bowl across the river from Manhattan in New Jersey on Sunday night was, well ... awful.
In western New York on Monday, two NHL teams trying to construct a winning game on the ice and sustainable, successful cultures in the locker-room play for pride, for next year and, in many cases, for jobs.
Posterity is not holding its breath.
The 30th-place Sabres stumble into the game having gone 2-4-4 in their last 10 games, and having been thumped 7-1 by the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.
The 29th-place Oilers, 3-6-1 in their last 10, flew here Saturday evening on the heels of a 4-0 loss to the Bruins in Boston.
Something, as they say, has to give.
“They’re 30th, we’re 29th, (it’s a) game that both teams don’t want to lose,” said Oilers left winger Taylor Hall. “Any time you see a team in the standings that’s near you or below you, you want to beat them and validate yourself a little bit, for sure.”
What struck a visitor to the Sabres room on Sunday were the similarities between the two struggling franchises. In Edmonton, the locker-room messaging is all about never being “out of the fight,” about “chopping wood and carrying water.”
In the Sabres’ elegant locker-room, the word “excellence,” all-caps, underscores these key words: Belief, commitment, character, discipline, trust.
“We’re trying to teach culture here every single day,” said Steve Ott, Buffalo’s veteran disturber, one of a number of key Sabres slated to be unrestricted free agents (UFA) at season’s end.
“Right now, I think it’s huge that we’re trying to lay a foundation of the right way to play the game. As we continue to add pieces here, I think that’s where you elevate as an organization.”
Where have we heard that before?
Ott is one of a cluster of Sabres, including goalie Ryan Miller, sniper Matt Moulsen and defenceman Henrik Tallinder, whose names continue to come up in pre-deadline trade chatter.
In Edmonton, the usual trade deadline suspects — Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner, Ryan Smyth — rattle around the rumour mill.
In both places, the coaches try to assemble a consistently effective style of play, trying to do the best they can with the personnel on hand.
“It’s something that we’re hammering away to the players,” said Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins. “The simple reality is, if the other team doesn’t score, you’re not going to lose the game.
“We have to have that mentality here. It has been a process and it’s an ongoing process to get the players to totally understand that, totally buy into that and play that way.”
A swim coach would exhort his athletes to “win the race you’re in,” whether that’s a battle for the top of the podium or to avoid being dead last.
Was there something in that mentality about Monday’s game, Ott was asked.
“We’re looking at a lot of things,” Ott said. “There are nights we haven’t competed enough to win the battles and that translates into turnovers and turnovers translate into goals against.
“We’re preaching the right way to play. If you don’t play the right way, you’re going to be useless for a lot of years to come. That foundation is going to be the key here going forward and having that culture.”
Again, why does that assessment have such a grim ring of familiarity to it?
For both teams, players are auditioning for jobs, like Edmonton goalie Ben Scrivens and defenceman Mark Fraser.
In Buffalo, ex-Oilers forward Linus Omark is trying to showcase a game the Oilers did not see consistently enough — that of a scorer who can be hard on the puck and responsible defensively. As was the case in Edmonton, Omark has played some, sat some more, mostly been underwhelming.
What do the Sabres want to see from him?
“We want to see what everybody thought he was capable of doing when he was drafted and he came in this league,” said Sabres coach Ted Nolan. “He’s a highly skilled player, but as we know, skill can only get you so far.”
Still more echoes of similar messages.
If Omark is scoring, Nolan would cut him slack defensively. Since he is not producing — he has scored zero goals in 11 games with Buffalo, but has chipped in two assists — then Omark has to play a two-way game to justify his ice time.
Omark skated with Drew Stafford, who returns to the Sabres lineup after missing four games with an upper-body injury, and Edmonton native Tyler Ennis in practice on Sunday. Those two skilled players which could provide a solid opportunity for Omark.
“It looks like that, but I don’t know,” Omark said. “We’ll see (tonight).”
Omark, for one, wasn’t hiding the fact he is motivated to show the Oilers they made a mistake in cutting him loose.
“I would be lying if I said, ‘No,’ ” Omark said. “Of course, I know a lot of guys on that team, so it’s going to be a fun game.
“Hopefully, we can win.”
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Edmonton Oilers goalie Ben Scrivens makes a save with his skate as Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic try to get their stick on the rebound during Saturday’s National Hockey League game at the TD Garden in Boston. The Bruins won 4-0.
Photograph by: Mary Schwalm, AP