For much of Thursday’s game against the Florida Panthers, the Edmonton Oilers were getting righteously ripped by media and fans alike. How could the Oilers look so flat in a game that meant so much? How could they no-show to open a seven-game stretch that’ll go a long way in deciding whether they make the playoffs or fade into also-ran status?
Even after the Oilers prevailed 4-3 in a shootout to pluck two critical points, it continued. It was ugly. They got lucky. If it wasn’t for Connor McDavid, who tied it in the dying seconds with his second goal of the game and then scored in the shootout, they’d be face-down at the bottom of the standings. Hold your nose and take the points. On and on until coach Ken Hitchcock took the podium, looked everyone in the eye and set things straight.
“We had nothing,” Hitchcock said straight-faced after the first game back from a four-game road swing. “These games can really help you going forward as a team because it’s damned impressive, what they did…we were exhausted. Everybody knew, halfway through the first period, we had nothing.
“They just helped each other through,” Hitchcock continued. “They stayed vocal on the bench. Any good thing that happened, guys were cheerleading each other, trying to help. It’s a hell of a sign for having absolutely zero in the tank. To come up with two points is, for me, really, really impressive.”
It was absolutely masterful.
HE’S GOT THEIR BACKS
At first glance, I didn’t see the game the way Hitchcock did. I saw a team flatter than piss on a plate, going through the motions without any jump or gusto for most of the first two periods — 40 minutes that produced just five shots on goal in the opening period and seven in the second against a team they had to beat. I hadn’t considered the Oilers were playing their fourth game in six nights. Running on empty were the Oilers, Hitch insisted. Hmm.
I’m not going to say Hitchcock is blowing smoke because that doesn’t do justice to the art of coaching and having your thumb on the pulse of the team, as all accomplished coaches do. There are going to be times between now and Game 82 when Hitchcock has to go to the whip — he did it on the road — but he decided last night was not one of those times, no matter what my eyes told me.
In trying to claw back into a wildcard playoff berth after six straight losses and a 2-8 stretch, Hitchcock has been playing the wheels of off of his main guys — McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse. Thursday, McDavid played 27:34, Draisaitl 28:34, Nugent-Hopkins 22:35 and Nurse 31:49. Without scoring depth and without Oscar Klefbom on the blueline, it’s been a challenge to stay in the fight, but in it they are.
“We’re leaning on guys heavy,” Hitchcock insisted. “We’re leaning on guys hard. We’ve got to make sure they get rest and days off — the practices until the break are irrelevant. We’re leaning heavy on our top guys. We could use a few more participants, but we’ve got a lot of guys who worked real hard tonight.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
I don’t have to buy all of what Hitchcock said and neither do you, but the players don’t play for us. They play for each other and for him. There is no doubt in the dressing room that, at least for public consumption, the old coach has their backs. That has currency with the players, and Hitchcock is going to need that in the times when he does have to go to the whip.
“You can take the positives,” said McDavid, who wasn’t at his very best against the Panthers, but sent the crowd into spasms when he backed out of traffic and tapped a Draisaitl goalmouth feed behind James Reimer at 19:52 to force overtime. “We found a way to win a game where maybe we didn’t deserve it. But we stuck with it. It was gritty.”
So, while I thought much of what I saw from the Oilers rhymed with gritty before Hitchcock set us straight, that matters not even a little bit beside what McDavid and his teammates believe. That’s the bottom line, and Hitchcock knows it well.