Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Tough Lessons

Not all losses are created equal. For three consecutive games, the Toronto Maple Leafs schooled the Edmonton Oilers by scores of 4-0, 3-0 and 6-1. It was an ugly 98 and a half hour stretch from 5 p.m. on Saturday night to the final whistle at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday night.

Toronto scored more goals. They made more saves. They won more battles. Edmonton was the lesser team in every aspect. And as painful as those three games were to watch, and likely more painful to play, it is only three games.

It was the 146th time in franchise history the Oilers have lost three or more games in a row, but it was the first time they lost three regular season games in a row to the same team, and that has the focus on these games amplified.

Edmonton has been outclassed three games in a row multiple times before, but I think for many fans it stings a bit because it was the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their national hype train will pick up speed and they will get applauded for their efforts, as they should, because they played great, but I believe that adds to the frustration in Edmonton. Emotions are higher because of it, and that is what makes sports so great: the passion and it pulls out of us. I’ve always found it interesting how often the focus on tough losses is amplified more than big wins.

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Prior to these three losses, the Oilers had won 11 of their previous 13 games. They’d only ever done that four times in franchise history, but the jubilation and excitement about that hot streak was nothing compared to the anger and angst after losing three consecutive games for the 77th time in franchise history. It would be fascinating to do a psychological study on why losses bother us so much than wins make us happy. That is a topic for another day.

Even the great Oilers teams of the past suffered some tough losing streaks.

During their first Stanley Cup season (1983-1984), the Oilers lost five games in a row. They were outscored 33-9 in those five games. They got crushed. And the fifth game was the worst loss in franchise history. An ugly 11-0 loss to the Hartford Whalers.

Was that loss a turning point in their season? I’ve spoke to many former Oilers about that game, and they all have vivid memories of it. My favourite was from Kevin McClelland. He took a five-minute elbowing major at 8:29 of the second period when the score was 4-0. The Whalers scored four goals on the ensuing five-minute powerplay. “I had to hear that damn song (Brass Bonanza) the entire time I was in the penalty box. I’ve hated it ever since,” he said when I interviewed him two years ago.

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“It was the last game of a five-game road trip,” said Kevin Lowe. “We were embarrassed. Guys were very mad. It helped us. Getting embarrassed can be a great learning tool and it was for us,” Kevin Lowe said a few years ago when I asked him about that stretch of games.

The team responded. They won their next eight games, and won 18 of their final 22 games before going 15-4 in the playoff on the way to their first Stanley Cup win.

Of course, this Oilers team isn’t as good as the 1984 team, but my point is even great teams can have crushing defeats, or a string of bad play.

You can’t sugarcoat the past three games. Nothing about them was good for the Oilers.

Their star players didn’t produce. McDavid didn’t have one point. Draisaitl had one.
Their bottom six forwards didn’t chip in or add the necessary energy and defensive awareness required to win.
The blueline didn’t defend well enough.
The goalies weren’t good enough.

Maybe getting swept will benefit them more than if they had won a sloppy 3-2 game last night. We won’t know until we see how they respond moving forward.

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The powerplay didn’t score a goal, and in two of the three games the Oilers didn’t even generate one powerplay opportunity. The penalty kill allowed four goals on 10 kills. Nothing went well.

“We just didn’t win any battles,” said Leon Draisaitl. “There are so many little scrums and we never seemed to get the puck out of it. If you don’t get the puck out of those battles it is tough to draw penalties. They played really well for three games, but we didn’t push back enough.”

It was a complete thrashing by the Maple Leafs.

Edmonton can’t change the past, but they need to learn from it.

“We can’t just forget about it, but it is three games,” said Draisaitl. “They are good team. Obviously we didn’t plan on losing three games in a row the way we did, but things like that happen in a season. It is up and down, and we are down right now and have to find a way to get out it.”

I don’t think Edmonton is as bad as they showed the past three games, but clearly they have to improve to match the Maple Leafs. When they play well they can compete with Toronto, and they showed that by beating them twice in their first four meetings. But the past three games showed where they need to improve.

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Draisaitl was very accurate in his assessment of losing battles. That is a mindset and a willingness. Winning regularly is very difficult, because you have to be committed to doing the small things each and every shift. Of course you need skill to win. Edmonton has enough skill not to get outclassed in the fashion they did the past three games, and working consistently and playing smart is a skill.

Toronto played very composed for all three games. They embraced the challenge of slowing down Draisaitl and McDavid, but also the entire team, which when these three games began was the highest scoring team in the league. Toronto rose to the occasion and they deserve credit.

The good news for the Oilers is these games occurred in the first week of March, not the second and third weeks of May. They have two months to ensure they don’t get dominated like that in a three-game stretch against the same team.

I think Oilersnation is more frustrated by these losses because it was Toronto. They get loads of national attention, and these three wins will only amplify that. You might not want to hear and read about it, but the Leafs are good. They are really good, but as the 2019 Tampa Bay Lightning proved, being good in the regular season means nothing once the playoffs start.

That is why the NHL regular season can be more infuriating and exciting. A team can play well for the entire year, but an untimely injury, or a sudden stretch of sub-par play, and that team can be quickly dispatched from the playoffs.

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The 1982 Oilers had it happen to them. They went 48-17-15 and finished with 111 points. They played eighth-place Los Angeles (24-41-15 for 63 points) in the first round and lost in five games.
The 2006 Detroit Red Wings were an amazing 58-16-8, but lost in the first round to the 41-28-13 Edmonton Oilers in six games.
The 2019 Lightning were an incredible 62-16-4, but got swept in the first round by the eighth-seed Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Oilers should be upset with how they played these past three games. It wasn’t close to good enough. Oilers fans can be upset as well, but the season isn’t over.

These games won’t define the Oilers, if they choose not to let them. They need to use this embarrassment as motivation to improve.

McDavid can play better. Draisaitl can play better. So can Darnell Nurse, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Tyson Barrie, Jesse Puljujarvi, Adam Larsson, Mike Smith, Mikko Koskinen and the entire supporting cast.

The Oilers have a simple choice.

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To quote Andy Dufresne: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

I’m looking forward to see how they respond on Saturday against the Calgary Flames.

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