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Photo Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

Tippett Has Instilled A Winning Attitude

The Oilers faced the league’s best team, the Boston Bruins, last night without Connor McDavid, Oscar Klefbom, James Neal, Zack Kassian, Kris Russell and Joakim Nygard.

Those aren’t just depth injuries. It is the Oilers’ top defenceman, their best centre, their third and fifth leading goal scorers, a veteran D-man who logs the eighth most minutes on the team and a speedy depth forward. But despite a decimated lineup, the Oilers took the top team in the NHL to overtime.

How did they do it? They worked hard and their coaching staff has pounded home a strong inner belief.

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In the post-game scrums, there were no moral victories. While most media and fans felt it was a really good effort, the Oilers players and coaches wanted the win.

“We are a good team too,” said Dave Tippett. We just won two games in a row. Why can’t we keep winning? It is a mindset. You have to go out and play and believe in yourself.”

Tippett challenged his players from the opening of training camp to work harder. Be more consistent, take pride in your role. And to their credit, the players have responded.

Tippett makes all the players feel important, regardless of their role on the team or the minutes they play. He instills confidence in his players by not sheltering them all the time.

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Only 5:24 into the game last night, on a defensive zone faceoff when Tippett had last change, the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were on the ice. The Oilers’ fourth line of Jujhar Khaira, Colby Cave and Patrick Russell were out against them. Cave won the faceoff and the fourth line didn’t give up a shot or a scoring chance.

You need confidence to succeed in the NHL, and when your head coach puts the fourth line out for a defensive zone faceoff against arguably the best line in the NHL, it shows them he believes in them. When someone believes in us, we usually do our best to not let them down. The players love playing for Tippett because he respects all of them. He knows how challenging the NHL can be, but he knows even more that if you play scared, tentative or without confidence, you can’t win. You won’t win battles by second guessing yourself.

SWAGGER…

Nov 24, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Tippett and the coaches have been preaching swagger for the past month. When Tippett and Jim Playfair called Caleb Jones into their office on Monday to tell him he’d be replacing Oscar Klefbom and be paired with Adam Larsson they told him directly: “Play with swagger.”

Jones walked out of the meeting believing he could do it. Kailer Yamamoto, Tyler Benson and other players have used the word swagger a lot the past few weeks. It is clear Tippett recognizes if they don’t think they can win they are beaten before the puck drops.

Last night they didn’t have a good first period. They were outshot 10-2, and the only real scoring chance was when Sam Gagner ripped one off the crossbar. But the Oilers didn’t sit back against the dangerous Bruins. Instead, they attacked and outshot them 18-9 in the second period.

“What we want to learn from that game is we need some swagger early on,” said Gagner post game. There is that word again. It is now part of the dialect within the Oilers dressing room. “Making plays under pressure and having confidence with the puck in the first period would have set us up better, but we clawed our way to a point,” continued Gagner.

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Darnell Nurse, who played a team-high 29:58, echoed those sentiments. “Our first period we didn’t play with much confidence,” said Nurse. We started to make a few plays, created more offence later. We know we can play with these teams, we just have to believe it. We know what we are capable of. We are over moral victories. We have to bring a full 60. That has to be our approach next game.”

Despite a rash of injuries there is no self pity among the players. The coach won’t allow it and the players proved in the final 40 minutes that when they work hard they can compete with the best teams in the league regardless of who is in the lineup.

That mentality will keep them in the playoff race until their injured and suspended players return.

Edmonton is 3-1-1 without McDavid. He didn’t skate with the team today, and he won’t play tomorrow. I’d be shocked if he plays Sunday in Los Angles either. It is best prepare yourself he won’t play in Anaheim or Vegas on Tuesday or Wednesday. If he does you will be pleasantly surprised, but the 29th at home against Winnipeg would seem the earliest return date.

Zack Kassian will for sure return that game as he has four games left on his suspension.

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Tippett won’t let his team focus on who isn’t in the lineup. Instead he keeps hammering home the message that the players who are playing are good enough to compete in the NHL.

Winning is a belief system as much as it is about talent. If your talent doesn’t work hard, or work smart, your chances of success diminish significantly. For years the Oilers weren’t very talented, but many nights they also didn’t work hard enough. There wasn’t a belief they could compete, and without that you have no chance of success.

Right now the Oilers believe. The coaches believe, and Tippett’s post game press conference was a prime example of how he won’t let them develop a losing attitude.

“They are good players, just get out there and play. We have to play with confidence if we are going to win.”

Movies like to show these pre-game or half-time/intermission highly inspirational and motivational speeches that rev up the team. That usually isn’t the case. It is more straight forward and direct messaging that grabs a players attention. It is also actions.

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Playing your fourth line against the other team’s best line five minutes into the game sends a message to the entire team not to be scared. It instills a belief and confidence.

Of course that doesn’t mean you will win every night, or even play well in every period, but the Oilers didn’t wilt after a tough first period. And they didn’t just battle back — for long stretches they controlled the game. They outshot the Bruins 27-24 over the final two periods and overtime, and in OT they had a two-on-one from their own blueline. They had a legitimate chance to win that game, but didn’t get a shot on goal on that rush.

Edmonton gave themselves a legitimate chance to win that game. I was really impressed by how hard they worked, how many good plays they made. Of course, they made some mistakes, that is the NHL, but I felt they made more good plays than bad against a really good team. I didn’t give them much chance before the game, and you might have felt the same.

But their desire and willingness to compete and the confidence to make plays really stood out. William Lagesson and Caleb Jones didn’t look out of place at all. Their top players logged huge minutes and performed admirably. Mike Smith gave them another solid performance and his puck handling skills was a major factor in eliminating some of the pressure from a good forechecking team.

When your team is plagued by injuries, two things can happen. The remaining players fold, or they become galvanized and become a stronger-knit group.

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I’m not sure even Tippett or Ken Holland knew how they would respond, but from my vantage point it seems pretty clear the injuries have brought out the best in this group.

The push to the playoffs should be entertaining, and while the Oilers might be overmatched in skill in some of the next few games, they’ve proven over the past nine days that they won’t get outworked.

QUICK HITS…

McDavid was on the ice with Oscar Klefbom, Kris Russell and Zack Kassian at 9:30 a.m. this morning. Then he joined the team for their regular practice at noon. Oilersnation can exhale knowing he is getting closer to a return. He likely won’t lay tomorrow, but he is going on the road trip so maybe he plays Sunday. That would be 15 days after his injury. If the wait until Tuesday that is 17 days and right in middle of the 2-3 original prognosis.

If Lagesson plays well again tomorrow and Sunday I think it will allow Holland to focus on adding a forward, rather than a veteran D-man while Russell and Klefbom heal. I don’t expect Holland to be overly busy, simply because the Oilers don’t have much cap space.

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He said today he’d like to make a move, but he won’t make one based on what other teams do.

“I did that early in my career, and I found it usually didn’t work. I will focus on us and what we need,” said Holland.

Injury updates:

We discussed McDavid.

Kassian has four more games on his suspension.

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Klefbom won’t return this month. But could be back as early as March 2nd according to Holland.

Neal is 2-3 weeks away.

Holland didn’t have a timeline for Russell. He said it looks like he is improving, but no set timeline. Concussions are hard to give an accurate timeline on.

Joakim Nygard gets pins out of his hand this week. Holland said he could return 2-3 weeks after pins come out.

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