“If we expect to win hockey games, we’re not going to do it on talent, we’re going to have to develop an atmosphere where we’re 100 per cent locked in playing for each other and not with each other. And there’s a big difference in those two words. We’ve got to get to that atmosphere as quickly as we can.” – Ken Hitchcock, Nov. 20.
Having laid out the foundation of what he believes it would take for the Edmonton Oilers to turn things around when he took over the bench from Todd McLellan, it’s little wonder Hitchcock was so exasperated after watching his team do the exact opposite and no-show from top to bottom in Saturday’s 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Hitchcock was mad as hell. Fans were mad as hell.
Less than 24 hours later, in what was a put-up-or-shut-up game against the Anaheim Ducks, the Oilers swung 180 degrees and put forth exactly the kind of effort the old coach has always used as his blueprint in a 4-0 win. It was far from a perfect game as the Ducks got far too many cracks at Cam Talbot, who held them in early, but the Oilers scrapped and battled, they stood up for each other when things got greasy. They hung together.
That, in itself, isn’t going to win games every night, but as hokey as it sometimes sounds, that all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality can mitigate a whole host of issues – lack of depth, not enough scoring, the inevitable rough patches teams experience during the course of an 82-game season and so on. It’s not all you need to win, but trying to win without it is a big ask. A day after having none of it, the Oilers played guilty and bought in.
IN IT TOGETHER
The win over the Ducks was no masterpiece, but after a collective shoulder shrug against the Kings, there wasn’t any question the Oilers were in it together down the road in Anaheim. There was Joe Gambardella, of all people, going after Hampus Lindholm after a dangerous crosscheck that sent Connor McDavid head-first into the boards went uncalled. Darnell Nurse, Milan Lucic and Zack Kassian were throwing people around.
Nobody punched out Ryan Kesler, but you can’t have everything. Nobody turned away from a hit. Nobody, except for the referees, stood around with their thumbs up their backsides and did nothing when McDavid got hacked and abused – if there’s not discipline from NHL Player Safety on Lindholm’s hit, penalty or not, something’s very wrong. We saw none of that in L.A.
“It was huge. That was a great response,” said rookie blueliner Caleb Jones, who has two assists. “Maybe not the prettiest of wins, you know we still have stuff we can obviously improve on, but at the end of the day, if you get the two points you’re pretty happy. We all put a really good effort in tonight and we should feel good about it.” The entire interview is here.
“This kind of performance was a long time coming for us,” said Talbot, who faced 39 shots to get the shutout and was outstanding in the first five minutes as the Ducks poured it on. “We haven’t played our best hockey as of late, so hopefully this is something we can build off moving forward and put ourselves right back in the thick of things.” The entire interview is here.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Having lost seven of their previous eight games, including a six-game losing streak before a win over Arizona and the hummer against the Kings, one game, no matter how spirited the effort, does not a turnaround make. But the Oilers got Kris Russell back last night, Jones continues to impress in his first NHL stint and Jesse Puljujarvi and Kyle Brodziak scored goals to back up goals by McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. On top of that, the win puts the Oilers within two points of the floundering Ducks, who equalled a franchise record with their eighth straight loss (0-6-2).
The Oilers still need to tighten up in front of Talbot and Mikko Koskinen. They need more of what we saw from Puljujarvi and Brodziak. They need more of the snarl we saw from Lucic, who did nothing against the Kings but started a scoring sequence with a hellacious hit on the forecheck. They need Oscar Klefbom back and they likely need some help from GM Peter Chiarelli, but they don’t control that.
What they do control is a commitment to play the way Hitchcock spelled out before his very first day behind the bench, the blueprint that’s played a big part in making him third in NHL career coaching wins. The Oilers will come up short on the power play or penalty kill some nights. They’ll play like they’re all thumbs on others. At times, they’ll be overmatched when it comes to talent or experience. That’s hockey.
But they can always play for the next guy. That’s a commitment and a matter of character and will they do control. The best teams lean on that, they insist that it be the foundation that everything else is built on – win or lose. That’s not too much for Hitchcock, or fans for that matter, to ask. Listen to the coach, men.