April 04 2012 07:27PM
I'm not sure if what I saw on the ice at Rexall Place today was an exhibition of frustration or a sign there's still some fight left in the Edmonton Oilers, or maybe both, but I didn't mind the display of nastiness a bit.
With two meaningless games remaining to play out the string in a season that'll see the Oilers miss the playoffs for the sixth straight year (again by a $5 cab ride), and team going through its paces under Tom Renney, Darcy Hordichuk and Ryan Whitney got after each other and Andy Sutton took a nasty swipe at Linus Omark. One, I'm guessing, that left a welt.
First, Hordichuk pounded Whitney into the side boards during a one-on-one drill with a hit he clearly didn't appreciate. Whitney picked himself up off his pants and launched himself at Hordichuk with everything he could muster. Hordichuk dropped his shoulder and buried him again for good measure. Whitney hasn`t been hit that hard in a real game this season.
Later, Omark got under Sutton's considerably bigger skin – I'm not exactly sure how because I saw only the end of the exchange – prompting the big blueliner to deliver a two-handed chop to the back of his leg. Omark didn't look back, perhaps for fear of another, but Renney immediately went over to Sutton and gave him a WTF?
I hope the Oilers have some of that left for the Anaheim Ducks Thursday in their final home game of 2011-12, and for the Vancouver Canucks, against whom they close out the season at Rogers Arena Saturday.
Where was this piss and vinegar in, say, December?
About the only thing as bad as losing as often as the Oilers have the past three seasons is becoming a loser, and there's a difference. Indifference often means acceptance, and I wasn't seeing any of that on the ice today or hearing it with the players I talked to.
While it's cold consolation for fans who've been sold a rebuild and bought into it in the absence of success on the ice or something as novel as playoff contention in February, March or April, the players I'm talking to aren't shrugging off the defeat and ineptitude we've watched. Not a substitute for actually winning now and again, but better than the alternative.
"Everyone in here is a competitor. That's why we made it to the NHL," said Jordan Eberle. "As hockey players, you want to win. A winning attitude is huge for us.
"You can't let a losing mentality creep into your game because that's when it really starts to hurt. For the most part, we've kept that out. With inconsistent play and injuries, we haven't had the season we wanted. We've definitely made progress, but we have a lot of work to do."
While the Oilers are 11 points ahead of the 62 they managed the past two seasons and there are indications of improvement, what fans don't want is talk about the process of rebuilding to become a crutch. That's fair ball. Improvements in points and goal-differential and all the other silver lining stuff you can find if you look hard enough doesn't make all the losing OK. The players I talked to seem acutely aware of that. Again, a good sign.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs and that's it, really," said Sam Gagner, who hates losing as much as anybody on this roster I've talked to, which is understandable since he hasn't had a playoff sniff in five years here. "You can talk about improvement or different things like that, but, at the end of the day, that has to be our focus. You have to have that fire that, you know?"
Sure, fire is a good place to start. You also need leadership, skill, depth, chemistry, a little size and a lot of luck, although good teams seem to make their own far more readily than teams like the Oilers do. This edition of the Oilers doesn't have any of the above in sufficient quantities, and that's the work in progress GM Steve Tambellini is charged with.
Like I said off the top, Hordichuk knocking Whitney on his backside twice and Sutton giving Omark the business end of his lumber doesn't change the reality of what's been a disappointing season for the Oilers and or serve to mask some obvious shortcomings. There's no sure way of saying it'll be any type of catalyst for success down the road. But it is an ingredient.
A bit of fight and frustration long-suffering Oilers fans can relate to, and a sight I was happy to see.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.