A different kind of moral victory in Oilers’ rebuild

Friday's loss will be hard to swallow for the Edmonton Oilers as a game of inches would have the made difference. But the bounces didn't go their way.

Rebuilds are like snowflakes. Edmonton’s is different from Toronto’s, which is different from Calgary’s, which isn’t anything like Vancouver’s or Florida’s.

Oilers fans got the long play version. It was preceded by three seasons of utter futility, begun in earnest some time around 2010, and today has not borne even a the tiniest sprig of fruit.

If you had to describe Edmonton’s rebuild in two words, “total” and “disaster” would be sturdy candidates.

The gardeners have changed, and changed again, and today a brand new coach and GM can not allow themselves to show too much glee even when their young, injury-riddled team plays the Pittsburgh Penguins to a standstill in a 2-1 loss.

There has simply been too much losing in the 780 area code. Too many moral victories, lessons in losses, and games that gave fans everything except the two points.

“We thought we were there, we thought we had chances tonight,” said winger Matt Hendricks, an expanding welt under his right eye. “We just didn’t do it. It’s hard to swallow.

“The positivity is still there in this group, but we’ve got to win these games.”

It’s not the fault of the new coach and general manager who have begun the transformation of this club — but it surely is their problem. They must suffer for the sins of one the most inept management teams the game has ever seen, under an owner who placed his team in the hands of friends and former heroes for far too long.

On Friday night, fresh off of the loss of Connor McDavid, a red hot Pittsburgh team rolled in to town to engage in a tightly played physical battle that went down to the final ticks of the clock, ending in a 2-1 Penguins win.

In recent years during one of these 1-1 chess matches, you could set your watch on a five-star gaffe that would result in an easy Penguins goal. The Oilers would then gamble egregiously in an impatient attempt to catch up in one shift, and the lead would double, then eventually triple.

The Oilers would then quit, Pittsburgh would score a couple more, then roll down to Calgary with nary a bruise or having sweated a bead.

Laugh all you want when you read this, but it’s not like that anymore.

“Our goal from camp was to put a foundation in place,” head coach Todd McLellan said after the game. “To get the players to understand what our identity was going to be, and how we want to play. Our play, while we’re not good enough to win the majority of games … I think we’re starting to show it.

“I don’t want us to accept losing,” he said. “But, the approach to the game, the effort, the build throughout the night, the resiliency … those are all positives for us. But, I don’t want us to acknowledge that losing is fine. Because it isn’t.”

Pittsburgh scored the winner on two odd plays, a sign that this growing Edmonton team hasn’t earned the karma to have the breaks fall their way quite yet.

Goalie Anders Nilsson tripped David Perron for a minor penalty. It was the right call, but one that is made only about 50 per cent of the time. Then Phil Kessel ripped a shot that went off of an Oilers glove and past a helpless Nilsson halfway through the final period.

The Oilers owned the rest of the evening, hitting two posts and taking another close play to video review. But they came up short, as they have here for far, far too long.

It takes a newcomer now to voice what we have heard so many times before inside this dressing room. Even if now the words are credible.

“We played very sound. We played them hard, any opportunities they got, for the most part, they had to earn,” said defenceman Eric Gryba.

At some point, regardless of past foibles, a team must permit itself to take positives from a game like this one.

“You have to,” Gryba said. “Not every loss has nothing but negatives. We did a lot of good things tonight, and hopefully we can keep building on this.

“If you watched this team play the last few years, you’d probably say this is a different looking team. And there’s no quit in this team. Guys believe we can come back, and we have the skill to do it.

“We’re growing as a team. This is going to take time.”

That last part stings, because so much time and misery has passed since this project was started.

But it’s not this group’s fault, and to this eye, tangible change has begun. McLellan is genuine, and a better NHL coach than the past four or five combined in this town.

There is progress, but at this point nobody wants to hear that supper will only be a few more minutes.

They’re hungry here in Edmonton, and sick of waiting. That’s just the way it is.

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