The best teams find ways to win even when things don’t go their way, and that’s exactly what the Edmonton Oilers did on the way to beating the Calgary Flames 3-2 Saturday. No, this one win doesn’t put them in the category of best teams because we know how fast things can swing, but it was a step in the right direction.
On the losing end of a three-game sweep at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs and outscored 13-1, I wouldn’t and didn’t bet one red cent on the Oilers beating the Flames. They came in revved up and ready to roll after coach Geoff Ward was fired and replaced by hard-ass Darryl Sutter, looking on from quarantine at home in Viking while Ryan Huska ran the bench.
Sure enough, the Oilers got blitzed early, outshot 11-1 in the first 10 minutes, and were down 1-0 on a goal by Johnny Gaudreau when the push-back came. First, Darnell Nurse dropped the gloves with Milan Lucic and then JAMES NEAL did likewise with Matthew Tkachuk. Even then, the Oilers were hanging on for dear life, but when Mike Smith got them to the first intermission down by just a goal with 20 saves, they at least had a chance.
The rest we know. With Connor McDavid, blanked in his previous three games, leading the way, the Oilers twice overcame one-goal deficits and won a game that could have ended up 3-0 or 4-0 the other way. McDavid won it with 3:45 to play and the Oilers got two points in one of those games players and coaches like to say they can build on. I’m not sure how that’ll play out when they face the Ottawa Senators Monday in the first of three straight games they should absolutely win, but we’ll find out.
FINDING A WAY
“When you’re sliding like we were, sometimes it’s tough to find a way out of it. I thought we did a great job, as an entire group, of just staying with it and holding on to that game even though we didn’t get off to our best start,” said McDavid, who had a three-point night. “We didn’t find a way the last three games. I thought Smitty did a great job of buying us time. We got our legs going and slowly took over the game. We did a great job responding.”
After giving up goals to Gaudreau and Noah Hanifin, Smith slammed the door shut, setting the stage for the 2-2 goal by Kailer Yamamoto and the winner by McDavid. Smith is the proverbial goaltending version of a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get – but he was at his stubborn best again. You expect that kind of battle level from him. Neal throwing down with Tkachuk not so much, but that played into things too.
“Anytime there is a coaching change, you know there is going to be emotion in the game, but we felt the same emotion was needed from our group even though it didn’t show in the first,” Smith said. “I thought, just to stick with the game, it’s not always easy, but it’s the way you finish the game off. It’s not how you start but how you finish, so it was nice to come out on the right side of that one and get a huge two points for the group.”
While coach Dave Tippett didn’t get the result he wanted against the Maple Leafs when he finally re-united Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with Leon Draisaitl and Yamamoto, putting Draisaitl and McDavid back together with Yamamoto last night jump-started the Oilers.
“We knew it was going to be a competitive game with their situation in changing their coach and our situation needing to get our game back in order,” Tippett said. “I thought we got better as the game went on. You knew they were going to push early.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
The script changes again Monday when the Senators come calling. The Oilers, 15-11-0 for 30 points, have won all four games they have played against Senators, who are in Calgary tonight. These are games the Oilers should and must win, at least if they expect top stay in the top-four mix. Different opponent, different dynamic coming in. These games are about taking nothing for granted, which is sometimes easier said than done.
There are lots of swings in momentum with the schedule being what it is this season and flipping the script like they did against the Flames is just one of them, a step in the right direction. Taking another against the Senators is a whole different challenge, but one that’s every bit as important.