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Photo Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

Running on empty…

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

Nov 27, 2018; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock watches a game against the Dallas Stars from the bench at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Previously by Robin Brownlee



  • El Cid

    You just can’t keep playing Connor,Drai and Nurse these amount of minutes, they will be burnt out or worse injured by the time if by a miracle they do make the playoffs.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    Connor stole 2 points for us last night. How long until Klefbom is back? If Talbot and/or Koskinen can steal another game or two for us, we might be able to hang in the race until Oscar’s back.

    • Stallions #35

      That’s a lot of pressure to put on Klef…he will probably need a few games to get back in the groove too. Whats the update on Sekera, is he in the AHL getting some games in yet?

  • JimmyV1965

    I didn’t think the team looked flat at all. They just don’t have skill. RNH is posting with two wingers who have six goals between them. These are the third and fourth best wingers on the team. The team looks flat because they lack skill.

  • Oiler Al

    The Top Guns are getting tired , because the depth is made up of slugs and limited talent guys.Khairi-2 goals, Lucic-2 ,Rattie-2, PJ-4,Brodz- 4Benning-1, Kass-2,Larsson-1.Reider-0… Most of these players are at 40 games + and their contribution anemic to say the least., and puts extreme pressure to score all the goals. This isn’t news, but the tiring uptop the line up will start costing them games is my point.

    • Stallions #35

      Seems like every year since Chia took over, we are praying that our pluggers can play above their level…and when they did, we made the playoffs… when they don’t ( when they are playing at their level…its not their fault) here we are…

  • Don't mind me

    The emotion that McDavid put into that celly when he tied it up was great… Personally I like to see that and would like to see it more from other Oilers.

  • Abagofpucks

    Complaining about this team at this point is futile, PC cant make this team better this year. If they somehow make it to the post season it will be pure luck, but sure it could happen. I’m just gonna watch Conner and Leon and dream about what we can be next year.

    • JasonY

      Next year? Are you serious? All those bad contracts are still on board..Manning, Spooner, Lucic. Not to mention, we have Brodziak and Kassian who don’t produce enough on a consistent basis. We are in so much cap hell we can’t make any significant change. Did I also tell you we have Sekera at $5.5M who one can safely assume that he at best will be 3rd line pairing given his age and haven’t played for almost 2 NHL seasons by then? What a disaster!

  • camdog

    There is a saying in NHL circles about “Scheduled loses”. When your star players are playing more minutes a game more than they should be due to a lack of NHL players on the roster, you end up with more “Scheduled loses” than other teams.

    • 18% body fat

      and while there is no accountability from the fans in edmonton, in that they will keep dishing out the money, and for every season ticket holder that leaves there will be another to take their place, you should never stop trying your best for your fans, clients or customers, or whatever you want to call them.

      Look at the Cab situation in Edmonton, years of bad, rude, non beneficial service, and than all of the sudden, uber shows up, and history is changed. If the players do not understand that they play for their fans first, their team second, and themselves lastly, than one day they will be regretting something.

    • KootenayDan

      I am sure the players appreciate the fan support and Oiler fans are a resilient bunch but players play for each other and everyone involved with the organization not the fans. My feelings are not hurt that they dont play for me and I will always be a fan win or lose.

      • Hockeytalkguy

        @ KootenayDan…..I concur, play hard for your team mates, play hard for you self respect, play hard cause you are playing a game making good money that any of us would have sold our soul for the opportunity.

    • Of course they play for the fans in the big picture, but when they’re in the heat of the game, in the dressing room, it’s the people who make up the team who are the focus. They play for each other first and foremost.

    • They looked flat to people in the building too — you must have missed the groaning as the PP struggled — and they were. Not even up to debate. Hitch added context by bringing the issue of fatigue, as he sees it, into the equation. I buy some of it but not all of it, but it’s smart — that’s the point of the item. Pretty straightforward, but thanks for taking time to comment.

    • Derian Hatcher

      I think Hitch is protecting his players by buffing up the story a bit. I think players will respect him for that and hopefully play harder for him and for each other. I doubt Hitch cares what the fans think but he knows if (when) it turns into a mob mentality – the players could well feel the damage, even though we all know who are at fault. The coach can do nothing about the incompetence that is above him in the organization.

  • FlamesFan27

    The top guys are running out of gas because they have to be overplayed. I went to the game last night, and even McDavid wasn’t “scary good” like he is some nights. I especially noticed that he didn’t carry the puck as much through the neutral zone with the speed that blows by everyone. It’s a testament to his skill and smarts when he still gets 3 points and didn’t really dominate (at least as much as he does sometimes).

    After the top 3 players, the rest just aren’t that good. And, they have no assets or cap space to do anything significant to help. I don’t know what Hitchcock is supposed to do other than to keep running with the top guys – it’s risky but really his only choice.

  • Hockeytalkguy

    Hitch has protected his players and to some extent the GM with his words but not his actions. I give you some examples:
    On the GM after acquiring Manning & Petrovic ” thank goodness Peter went out and acquired some NHL defencemen to fill the holes of Russell & Klef. Then proceeds to put Manning in the press box.
    On Ryan Spooner ” Spooners a top six guy that we are going to have to fit in and get him more ice time.” One game later press box.
    On Ty Rattie- ” Loved his game from the red line in but hated his game from the red line out. I’m going to have to work with him”. Game or two later press box.
    Don’t get me wrong I like Hitch as a coach, and there are times you have to say things the players and fans want to hear. However, actions speak louder than words. I totally agree with Hitch sitting Spooner & Manning, these 2 provide NO help. Personally, I don’t mind Ratties game BUT im not the coach.

  • Big Jacks Meat

    “We had Nothing ” interesting, and I despise the Flames like most of us , but I watch their games because I love hockey. They play and travel like the Oilers do and I have yet to see them lay an egg because “they had nothing”.
    There is no reason other than those 4-5 players at best should Have Nothing. How tired can you really be players 6 through what ever when you only play 10 minutes a night and don’t accomplish squat ? You are human I understand , but are conditioned extreme athletes and youthful. No excuses for you other than you are all underachieving and should feel guilty collecting that paycheque. We all know people whom work long hours day in and day out and come home and have to take kids out and do chores, get supper ready and so on. Don’t give me this crap about being tired when you have the best of the best from nutrition , advice , Trainers you name it , while the rest of us poor slugs pounding it for 5-6 days a week with money stress and beyond continue to be at our best. You should be ashamed for not showing up. Connor, Leon, Darnell , Nuge have an excuse. the rest of you ? Give me a break , tired ? you don’t really know what tired is.

    And Talbot and Mikko ? well sorry , while you are on the ice how much exertion is really happening , especially when one of you is on the bench for the game , or a portion of it as seems to be the norm of late.

    Get with it boys , just suck it up. It appears Calgary can and why can’t you ?

    with the exception of those noted and we all know whom they are.

    PS- Pete , you need to go. You have messed this thing up that will take until the end of Connors contract to fix. And quite frankly this ticks me off.

  • GK1980

    “We could use a few more participants, but we’ve got a lot of guys who worked real hard tonight.”

    He is being very nice with this comment. Until those “participants” start to actually contribute offensively the chances of making the playoffs is very grim. Grim indeed.

  • Arfguy

    With the exception of Connor, Leon, Nuge, and Nurse…most of these freeloaders do not have an excuse to being tired.

    This line-up is absolute trash. I actually had hope for Rieder. Thought his speed would help with some goal contribution. Well, jokes on me. I thought Spooner would be a better player than Strome, seeing as Strome looked slower than Lucic on some nights. Well, another joke on me. I thought Brodziak would be a veteran with enough experience to be able to step up when the team was faltering. Nada!

    As for Lucic…well, it’s a waste of time to even bring up Lucic anymore.

  • Stallions #35

    How long can they keep running with McDavid, Drai and Nuge in the front and Nurse in the back? 4 games in 6 nights playing over 25 minutes plus a night? FML lol….31 minutes for Nurse?

  • slats-west

    Drai Nuge larsson and Nurse get rhatbexcuae the others …. Nope not buying it – they certainly didn’t play those same minsutes …. so no free pass they should have had more and been better guys playing less than 10 mins of hockey per game.