After teasing fans with the faint hope they still had an outside shot at contending for a playoff spot thanks to a tidy stretch of games, the Edmonton Oilers transitioned from hot streak to tire fire yet again in a 6-3 loss to the hopeless, hapless and injury-riddled New Jersey Devils at Rogers Place Wednesday. Hell yes, they did.
Whether you’re one of those who has had the golf clubs out for weeks already or you’ve been doggedly hanging on to the idea the Oilers still had a chance to salvage the season by grabbing a wildcard spot in the Western Conference with the roll to end all rolls, we can all agree it’s over now, no?
For me, the most disconcerting thing about what we saw against the Devils, who came in as the worst road team in the NHL, losers of seven straight and with a line-up shot clean through by injuries, isn’t that the Oilers lost. It’s how they lost. I’m not talking about how flawed they are in terms of depth, talent and experience – that’s why they’re on the outside looking in again, something fans will chew on for another off-season – I’m talking about the words out of Connor McDavid’s mouth after the deed was done.
“We took them lightly, took the game for granted,” said McDavid. “I don’t think we came to work. They are a good team. They work hard. They don’t have the veterans in the lineup, but whatever they lacked in experience, they made up for in effort.” Added coach Ken Hitchcock: “We didn’t respect the opponent enough, I don’t think. And it led to some careless defensive play and we got burned because of it.”
HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN?
For the Oilers to give themselves at least a chance to push for a playoff spot by putting together the kind of stretch they did leading up to Wednesday’s game and then pull a no-show against a team they absolutely, positively have to beat for fun every single time, shows a stunning lack of character. That’s a fatal flaw.
Character isn’t a substitute for talent. I’m not making that argument because the most talented teams win more games than less-talented teams do. “Playing for each other,” as Hitchcock likes to say, only goes so far. Character without talent and depth and balance doesn’t get it done against the best teams. The Devils, spanked 9-4 in Calgary Tuesday, don’t qualify as that. Not close.
If your goaltender has a bad game against a team like the Devils in a game this important, as Mikko Koskinen unquestionably did, you find a way to compensate. If your PK gives up a couple of goals, as it has too often this season, against a team like the Devils, you find a way to push back. If you’re down by a deuce after 40 minutes you get pissed off and dig in, knowing the Devils gave up six goals in the third period against the Flames. “We can do this, boys.” You fight like hell. I didn’t see nearly enough of that.
I couldn’t help but think of that when I saw former Oiler Mike Grier on the New Jersey bench. Rosie, an assistant coach, played on a lot of teams here that pushed beyond where they probably should have been based on talent because those teams didn’t just talk about playing for each other, they did it. Again, Grier’s teams ultimately didn’t beat superior opponents often enough – hello, Dallas – but they damn sure gave themselves a puncher’s chance.
THE WAY I SEE IT
The Devils showed that kind of fight against the Oilers last night, and it was no surprise to Matt Benning. “If that happened to us, we’d be pissed off,” Benning said. “We’re athletes, we’re competitive by nature, so anytime you lose a game, no matter what the score, you’re pissed off. If you’re not pissed off then maybe this is the wrong sport.”
Maybe it is. Outside of the epic scrap Milan Lucic had with Kurtis Gabriel, I didn’t see enough pissed off Oilers last night – pissed that they’re going to miss the playoffs again, pissed that they were being shown up in a must-win game by a team with nothing to play for, pissed about something. Take your pick.
Lack of character isn’t at the top of the list of all the things that are wrong with the Oilers, but it is a quality inter-twined with virtually everything that goes into building a team that wins more than it loses, that contends for more than a wildcard spot before settling on a lottery pick. It’s part of the pile of the many things the Oilers lack and need moving forward.