Nothing spawns clichés like the world of sports, and “playing for the next guy” ranks right up there with all the dressing room gems we’ve heard over the years. Seeing that talk actually take the form of action isn’t as common, but that’s what we are witnessing with the Edmonton Oilers now.
Call it what you will – a pack mentality, playing for the next guy – the Oilers have leaned heavily on the all-for-one approach we’ve seen these last several weeks. While it’s fair to debate exactly what impact that’s had in a stretch that’s seen the Oilers go 8-1-2 as they get ready to face the Arizona Coyotes, there’s no question we’ve seen this team come together.
While you can’t put a number to it like you can the heaters Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have been on, goaltending that has provided a chance to win most nights and much-needed depth scoring, it’s there. Whether it’s RNH dropping his gloves against Sean Monahan, Sam Gagner igniting a brawl by digging for a puck under Cam Talbot or MIKE SMITH teeing off on Talbot for taking his blocker to Gagner, it’s there.
Then, there’s rookie Kailer Yamamoto, who has not only been a revelation with his dogged pursuit of pucks and his offensive contribution, but his buy-in to a BOA that is relevant again. “We hate each other. Hatred is real. And hopefully it keeps going that way,” he told Scott Oake in an intermission interview Saturday with the Oilers on the way to drubbing the Flames 8-3.
PART OF THE MIX
It doesn’t matter how tight a team is, they aren’t going to win if they don’t have enough talent, if they can’t score enough goals, keep the puck out of their own net and if they can’t execute. There is no substitute for those dimensions. But take a team like the Oilers, who not only boast the best two players in the world in Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, but a coach in Dave Tippett with a history of getting the most out of his roster, and add the cohesion we’re seeing and you’ve got something.
I saw that at play more than once during my years on the beat and I’m seeing it now from afar. I believe it makes a difference and can provide the kind of bump we’re seeing. Of course, what you and I think doesn’t matter even a little bit. When the players believe it, when they’ve bought in, then you get what we’ve got here.
“The energy was unlike anything we’ve seen this year from this group,” said Smith after filling in Talbot. “There are things you can take out of games and there is a lot we can take out of that one. We stuck together. We got a big win against a good hockey team and kept moving up in the standings. That can only make us stronger and better as a team.”
“This is hopefully one of those games that can define your season,” Gagner said. “I think it brings your group together. You want to know that your teammates are in the fight with you. You want to get in there with them. Those are the type of games, when you see everyone sticking up for each other, everyone staying in the fight, those are the best games to be a part of as a teammate.”
DOWN THE STRETCH
I heard much the same thing from players like Jason Smith and Kelly Buchberger and Ethan Moreau over the years when the Oilers were rolling and finding ways to win. It’s easy to believe when things are going well, as they are now with the Coyotes up next. It’s a feeling that’ll get tested along the way with 30 games to play. It’s a feeling that guarantees nothing if aspects of your game slip, if you stop doing the things that got you there. There’s some chicken-and-egg at play.
Right now, though, we’re seeing a lot of fight in this group, a lot of willingness to step outside comfort zones and play for the next guy. We’re seeing a pack mentality. We’ve got a rookie like Yamamoto who already hates the players wearing the flaming C on the front of their jerseys down the road, for crying out loud. Once you’ve felt what this group of players is experiencing now, you get damn stubborn about letting it go.
Carry on, men. Carry on.
THE HAIR MASSACURE
Hair Massacure is taking over Edmonton this winter to support the fight against childhood cancer and grant wishes to some extraordinary young patients. On February 21, 2020 thousands of heads will be shaved, once again, in honour of the journey of sick children losing their hair due to chemotherapy. All funds raised go to Children’s Wish Foundation and Terry Fox PROFYLE. You can help. Go to www.hairmassacure.com to learn more.