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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Closing the Deal

Connor McDavid’s frustration was obvious during his post-game availability with reporters Thursday in the wake of the Edmonton Oilers blowing a 2-0 lead on the way to a 3-2 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. That’s as it should be.

After doing much the same thing against the New York Rangers in their previous game, getting two points despite turning a 6-0 lead into a 7-5 nail-biter with a sloppy third period, the Oilers inability to close the deal against the Sabres cost them a point they needed when Jack Eichel scored on a penalty shot in overtime. There was absolutely no consolation in that.

After a stretch of games in December in which the Oilers fell behind early and ended up chasing games without success, they came out ready to roll against the Sabres, just as they had against the Rangers, to open a five-game road trip. They spent the rest of the game playing on their heels, coughing up pucks and making defensive mistakes. Lead gone. Point gone.

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“It’s kind of the same story,” McDavid, who was held off the scoresheet, said in a terse 30-second post-game interview. “We’re up 6-1 and we give up four goals last game. We’ve got to find a way to defend a lead better. It’s frustrating. We didn’t get two points tonight, but there are lots of games left.”

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ONE THING OR ANOTHER

Jan 2, 2020; Buffalo, New York, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) takes a shot as Buffalo Sabres cednter Jack Eichel (9) looks on in the first period at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers were up 2-0 on the scoreboard on goals by Riley Sheahan and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and it was 9-1 on the shot clock through seven minutes. Then, they folded their cards. When Curtis Lazar tapped a puck behind Mike Smith from the blue paint on a play that started with Jujhar Khaira dithering with the puck on the boards, the momentum swung.

Sam Reinhart made it 2-2 in the third period when he camped in front untouched between Darnell Nurse and Kris Russell — both of whom had forgettable nights — and deflected Zach Bogosian’s lazy wrist shot past Smith. The Oilers managed to get to overtime, but never did touch the puck before Eichel broke in alone, was hooked on the hands by Oscar Klefbom and was awarded a penalty shot. When Eichel buried it, the Oilers had been outshot 25-18 after that RNH goal to make it 2-0.

On the play that led to the penalty shot – it was a good call by the letter of the rulebook but a call that McDavid seldom gets when he’s leaving opponents in his jet stream – Klefbom got caught scrambling to catch Eichel and Leon Draisaitl did little more than wave at him as he went by. Arm goes up. Puck goes in. Oilers head for Boston with a loser’s point. They’re 21-17-5 for 47 points.

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“I liked that we played a strong first period,” coach Dave Tippett said. “I knew we were going to have to raise our level the rest of the game. And we just didn’t. The game just kind of went along and we just didn’t grab it. We gave up two goals where we got outcompeted in front of the net. Our coverage in front of the net wasn’t adequate tonight.” His full interview is here.

NOT GOOD ENOUGH

There is no blueprint for playing with a lead, at least not with this team as it’s constructed now because, outside of the first eight games this season, the Oilers don’t have any record of success to build on. That said, it doesn’t take a vast intellect to figure out you can’t play on your heels and let other teams come at you while trying to protect a lead.

That’s over-simplifying things, of course, but the Oilers spent most of Thursday’s game after building that 2-0 lead playing like they were trying not to lose as opposed to trying to win. Against the Rangers, they didn’t tighten up, they relaxed, perhaps thinking the New Year’s Eve party was on and they could take it easy. Either way, they squandered solid starts. They got a point, but gave up one they desperately needed. Playoff teams don’t do that.

Previously by Robin Brownlee