As goofy as it seems to characterize the third game of an 82-game season a must-win game, that was very much the situation for the Edmonton Oilers in Saturday’s matinee at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. The two points from a 2-1 decision obviously matter, but just getting a taste of success means every bit as much. Probably more.
In terms of the actual standings, there’s no big difference between starting 0-3 and 1-2. In terms of the collective psyche of the team, though, anybody who has spent any time inside an NHL dressing room – or even played competitive sports at a high level – knows what a difference a little success can make. Rest assured, the flight back from New York after the game was far more enjoyable than it would have been after a third loss.
“We took a step forward,” said coach Todd McLellan, who was looking for a rebound from losses to New Jersey and Boston at MSG. “We’re obviously happy with the win. We needed one. It provided a little bit of relief and we’ll certainly enjoy the flight a little bit more than if the outcome was the other way.”
“We had a lot of pressure on our backs, even if it’s the third game,” Oscar Klefbom told Mark Spector of Sportsnet. “It felt more like a Game 3 of a playoff, when you’re down 2-0 in the series, versus Game 3 of the season,” added Milan Lucic, who had a game-high nine hits. “There was a lot of pressure on us, from top to bottom, to get a win here before we got back to Edmonton.”
Again, getting two points from the very beatable Rangers in the third game of a hellacious October schedule doesn’t mean that everything is fine, a corner has been turned and the Oilers are now ready to roll. It’s infinitely more subtle than that. What the win does is allow the Oilers to collectively exhale, at least a little bit, and gather themselves before what will be a tough game against the Jets in Winnipeg Tuesday.
While it’s probably a stretch to say beating the Rangers is any cause for confidence, doing so at least allows the players and the coaching staff to more calmly assess and adjust for what comes next — that’s almost impossible to do when you’re in all-out free-fall mode. It’s difficult to put into words, but I’ve seen things swing more times than I can remember when a team manages to find even a little bit of a mental foothold.
Jason Gregor touched on that very well here. Saturday’s win won’t magically address the deficits and depth issues with this team that are very real. For the time being at least, McLellan and his staff have a spark to work with, something positive to reinforce with a group of players that is, to say the least, fragile right now. One win doesn’t necessarily signal the beginning of a successful run, but I’ve seen the timing of one loss send a team the other way. This game could have done that.
The Oilers fly into Winnipeg Monday, face the Jets Tuesday then open at home Thursday against the Bruins, who spanked them 4-1 the first time around. That came on the heels of a 5-2 loss to the Devils — if the second period of that game wasn’t the most hopeless I’ve seen from the Oilers in a decade, it was too close for comfort.
Fans, rightfully so, will be in a show-me state of mind for the foreseeable future, but I like the Oilers’ chances of navigating their October schedule far more today than I did before the win Saturday. How that translates into wins and losses, we’ll see soon enough.
WHILE I’M AT IT . . .
- No surprise with young players, especially on a team where even veterans are struggling, that Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto didn’t get much traction in New York and look a little bit lost right now. I thought that Evan Bouchard looked steady paired with Jason Garrison, although he was guilty of a bad giveaway in the third period.
- Connor McDavid’s power-play winner and his assist on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins goal means he’s been in on all five goals the Oilers have scored (he’s 2-3-5). That much we know. When the right side is going to get something done, I don’t know — Ty Rattie is the only RW with a point (an assist).