With a 14-10-4 record for 32 points through 28 games, the Edmonton Oilers are off to their best start in a decade, since they got out of the gate at a 16-10-2 clip for 34 points in 2006-07. So why is there so much angst and consternation in Oiler Country?
That’s easy. The Oilers are up and down more often than a toilet seat in a public washroom, the latest example coming in Tuesday’s 4-3 OT loss to the Buffalo Sabres. The way that loss unfolded aside – the Oilers were awful early, battled back and then gave up a goal with 29 seconds left in regulation before Rasmus Ristolainen hammered a slapshot past Cam Talbot – it was the kind of all-over-the-place dog’s breakfast fans have seen too often.
How does a team that has looked so good against top-shelf competition at times – a 3-1 win over St. Louis, a 4-2 victory over Washington, a 2-1 win over Detroit and a 5-0 waxing of the Chicago Blackhawks – look so bad against what seems to be inferior competition other nights?
The Oilers have lost twice to the Sabres. They’ve picked up just one loser point in two games against Arizona. They’ve been beaten twice by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sure, the 32 points the Oilers have now are in the bank and they still add up to a better start than most people expected going into the season, but this life-is-like-a-box-of-chocolates approach will tie you in knots.
THEY’RE NOT ROBOTS
There’s no question the Oilers are a better team this season, but any ground they gain in taking points from the top dogs around the NHL is lost when they give away points to teams like Buffalo, Arizona and Toronto. The Oilers are going to need those points in April if they want to put an end to this decade of defeat, and fans, rightfully, will be screaming like hell if points they’ve pissed away come back to bite them.
Unlike previous seasons when the bar was set remarkably low, this Oiler team should expect, and must expect, to beat teams below them in the standings now that there actually are some. The C-word, consistency, applies here and Jason Gregor wrote about it yesterday when taking a look at how tightly teams are packed and what the projected point totals are.
Coach Todd McLellan fielded questions about the Buffalo game and consistency in general from travelling media after the team took a brief skate in Philadelphia on Wednesday. I can’t say I’m buying all of what he was selling, but, then again, a coach has to pick his spots, so my take is there was a little soft-sell here.
“Well, we’re not a lot different than any other team in the league,” McLellan said when asked about another slow start against the Sabres and being prepared when the first puck drops. “I think we can do a better job of it, and that’s maturity and being ready to go, but we’re human beings.
“I think we all have to think about what it’s like to go to work on a Wednesday if we’re not a hockey player. Sometimes it’s tough to get the engines going. If your opponent or a co-worker has got a little more jump or a little more skip in his stride, he’s probably going to perform better that day, but they’re human beings and we have to think about that sometimes.
“They’re not machines. They’re not robots. They have good days when they feel great and other days when they don’t feel that good. We need to improve in that area and we’ll work towards it.”
WHAT’S IT GOING TO BE?
As for the bigger picture – playing well and getting good results against better teams while leaving points on the table against weaker opposition, McLellan offered this:
“First of all, I’ve read some to the articles and I think there’s a bit of disrespect for some of the teams that aren’t at or near the top of the points standings,” McLellan said. “Those teams are hard to play against. They’re well-coached and they’ve got a lot of talent. They get in the way sometimes and they’re allowed to win games and play well, too.
“The league is as tight as it’s ever been. Winning with your B-game doesn’t exist anymore no matter who you play. After that, when you do beat the upper echelon or the top teams in the league, that’s very rewarding, but if you give it back on a night where you should be able to come out with a victory, they all even out and it becomes a balancing act. Again, we need to improve in that area.”
Yes, they do. The trick, to use McLellan’s own words, is to up the count of good days and eliminate as many days when “they don’t feel that good” as possible. I know, it’s easier said from an armchair or a laptop than done out on the ice against an opponent that’s trying to win as well. That’s a given. The best teams, the teams that are truly contenders, find a way to do that more nights than not. That’s the challenge facing this edition of the Oilers.
This group of players can either raise the bar or crawl under it as so many lesser teams here have done.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.
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