When the Edmonton Oilers lost their first four games heading into back-to-back outings on the road against Calgary and Vancouver on the weekend, I had them marked down for a 0-6 start. They don’t beat the Flames. They don’t beat the Canucks. That was the book on them.
After a 5-2 victory in Calgary Saturday and a 2-1 overtime win over the Canucks Sunday, it’s time to turn that page. A seven-game losing streak against the Flames? Done. A five-game sweep at the hands of the Canucks last season? A memory. So is the 12-0 career record Ryan Miller took into the game against the Oilers last night.
Those first four losses, despite all the consternation around here, do not a season make. Likewise, these two straight wins. It’s six games, although in saying that I’ll resist the urge to trot out the obligatory “relax everybody” bit because it’s understandable why Oiler fans have a hair-trigger when it comes to frustration.
What we have here, at the very least, through six games, are two wins and four points in the standings the Oilers of last season and the year before probably weren’t going to get. Whether you’re prone to read too much into that or are still casting a cynical glance at the Oilers because 2-4-0 hardly amounts to playoffs-here-we-come stuff, it’s a start.
Those points, which remain the bottom line no matter how many numbers you want to throw around, are in the bank. Better Todd McLellan and the Oilers move forward working at improving the many aspects of their game that have to get better with them than without them. A little bit of reason to believe, however modest, is better than no reason at all.
WORK IN PROGRESS
The Oilers, to state the obvious, remain a work in progress. There will be steps forward, like watching Connor McDavid fly around as the Oilers took it to the Flames in Calgary. There will be steps back, like a stinker in Dallas or leaning too heavily on goaltender Anders Nilsson in getting the better of the Canucks on a goal by Lauri Korpikoski, of all people.
What we’ll get at Rexall Place against Detroit Wednesday, Washington Friday and Los Angeles Sunday is anybody’s guess. I don’t know, do you? I’m not sure the players were nearly as down and out as many fans were after that 0-4 start. Some? Sure, but there are a lot of new faces in that dressing room, including the guy with his hand on the controls, McLellan. They have not been here for nine seasons of failure like the fans have. There was a lot more here-we-go-again outside the team than within it.
Still, wins like these first two, positive reinforcement, don’t hurt in helping get across what McLellan and his coaching staff are preaching. If the hole gets too deep, it doesn’t matter if it’s Scotty Bowman drawing it up on the white board. Confidence wanes. Doubt creeps in, especially for core guys like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who’ve been kicked in the teeth plenty already. As for the fans, well, they don’t have any teeth left.
That’s just the way it is around here. Again, understandably so. I’d like to think what we saw in Calgary is the kind of performance fans can count on from the Oilers more often this season, but I don’t know it to be so. I’d like to think what we’re seeing from the tandem of Cam Talbot and Nilsson is the kind of goaltending they’ll deliver more times than not. We’ll see. I vividly recall Nikolai Khabibulin channeling Dominik Hasek early one season.
“It can only help. It’s not going to hurt us at all,” McLellan said post-game when asked about confidence built with the two wins. Where that takes this team over the next week and the next month and after that is anybody’s guess. We have been convinced before corners have been turned. There’s more road to navigate before we know.
WHILE I’M AT IT
Is McDavid the hard-to-find match Nail Yakupov has been waiting for? Yak City residents think so, and it looks like there’s enough there to warrant a longer look from McLellan. More evidence against the Canucks as McDavid teed one up in the slot for Yakupov, who buried a one-timer on the power play to put the Oilers up 1-0.
If McDavid and Yakupov find a fit, McLellan could have two pretty good lines on his hands once Jordan Eberle returns from his shoulder injury. Eberle drops in alongside Hall and Nugent Hopkins with the linemates he prefers while Yak sticks on right wing with McDavid and Benoit Pouliot. People around here have had that drawn up for a while. We’ll see how the transition from paper to ice goes.
- I’m not the first to make the point, but McDavid is at his best when he doesn’t defer to linemates, when he commands the puck and looks to drive the play, rather than simply be a part of it. While it’s natural for an 18-year-old to feel his way into things as he makes his way into the best league on the planet, McDavid seems to have figured out rather quickly the skills that got him here will translate just fine.
- Early numbers of note: McDavid has three goals on 12 shots (25 per cent) and Nilsson is seventh in the league with a .953 save percentage.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.