When you’ve been the designated free space on the Bingo card for as long as the Edmonton Oilers have, you cannot expect to return to contention and respectability in one fell swoop. It’s more often an evolution rather than a revolution. It’s one step at a time.
The Oilers took another step, a big one, Wednesday by beating the Arizona Coyotes 3-2 at Gila River Arena to end a 25-game winless streak against the Coyotes. It’s not that the Oilers won the game – let’s face it, the Coyotes have been a bad team with a ridiculously good record (21-0-4) against the Oilers in recent years.
It’s how the Oilers won this game, with players like Zack Kassian, Matt Hendricks, Mark Letestu and Eric Gryba stepping to the forefront and sending a message that’s been woefully lacking for far too many years when push came to shove. Call it a pack mentality, all-for-one-and-one-for-all, whatever you want, but the bottom line is this group of players is willing to play for each other.
This edition of the Oilers doesn’t meekly turn the other cheek when the going gets tough, like it did against the Coyotes. If you take on one of them, you will have to take on all of them. These Oilers aren’t fun to play against anymore, and, really, when’s the last time you could say that?
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) December 22, 2016
“That’s been something we’ve harped on, and with the new management and coaching staff coming in, we want to be a big, heavy team,” said Hendricks, who contributed a goal and an assist, crushed Jakob Chychrun with a big hit and was in the middle of a third-period rhubarb.
“It’s no secret to anyone in the league that’s what we’re trying to create in Edmonton, and we’re taking the right steps. We’re a proud group, we play hard for each other, we stand up for each other and we want to be a team that doesn’t get pushed around.”
When Oliver Ekman-Larsson pounded Hendricks into the boards in the third period, Kassian, who chipped in a couple of assists and had yet another goal waved off, responded with a cross-check and then poked Anthony Duclair in the mouth, just for good measure. Letestu, who had a goal and two assists, got into things in another fracas. Then there was Gryba, who scrapped with Luke Schenn, who didn’t like a hit he’d laid on Chychrun.
“Sometimes those guys are stars in their own right, too,” coach Todd McLellan said of the Hendricks-Letestu-Kassian line. “The way they grind it out, the way they penalty kill. You have to have a whole bunch of different types of ingredients to come out with wins in this league and as the year drags on games get heavier and harder, those guys become even more important.”
There’s no way to say with any certainty what a game like Wednesday means in the bigger picture because being willing to answer the bell physically and stand up for each other is just one aspect of what successful teams tend to do. I can’t put numbers to it. You still win games by scoring more goals than the other team and, most nights, skilled players like Connor McDavid are going to have a bigger impact on who wins and who loses.
What my old eyes have told me while watching and writing about hockey over the years, though, is that what we saw from “lesser lights” like Hendricks, Letestu, Kassian and Gryba against the Coyotes is one of the essential building blocks and an aspect that allows the men higher up on the marque to better do what they do. It matters.
Mix the kind of skill the Oilers possess with a heaping helping of stubbornness and willingness to stand up for one another and you get what we have here – the Oilers are now 18-12-5 for 41 points 35 games into the season and look like playoff contenders at long last. They aren’t there yet, but Wednesday was another one of the steps the Oilers must take along the way – a big one.
It’s a no-shortcuts journey down the road to contention and success this team hasn’t travelled in a very, very long time. Make that trek together, truly together from the top of the roster to the bottom, and this edition of the Oilers will get there.
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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