Cracks starting to appear in Oilers lineup despite strong season start

Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith (41) protects the net against a shot by Minnesota Wild's Jason Zucker. (Stacy Bengs/AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Traditional hockey thinking tells us the Edmonton Oilers were due for a game like this, where all of those things that have been going so right go overtly in the other direction.

Particularly against a desperate Minnesota Wild team, whose 2-6 start had them ravenous for wins.

“The start we’ve been having, teams are going to come out and play hard,” said goalless Alex Chiasson. “That’s one thing this group has to learn how to handle.”

How does the old line go? “If you’d have told us we’d be 7-2-1 10 games into the season, we’d have taken that all day long.”

That is fair.

In the big picture, even after being shut out for the second-straight game in a 3-0 spanking administered by the Wild, the Edmonton Oilers are just fine, tied for top spot in the Western Conference and atop the Pacific Division. But some cracks are appearing in the foundation of Dave Tippett’s team, a roster flush with cheap, one-year signees among its bottom six forwards, a group that surely has not solved last year’s issues with depth scoring.

“It’s one thing to possess the puck in the O-zone, it’s another thing to get on the scoresheet,” admitted third-line centre Riley Sheahan, who has zero points in eight games as an Oiler. “We need to give our top guys some relief. Maybe (we) take the puck to the net a little bit more. Get the puck to the point, try and score some dirty goals.”

The Oilers have seven forwards on Tuesday’s roster without a goal, now 10 games into the season. Worse, the six forwards that comprised lines three and four on Tuesday — that is, before Tippett put his lines in the blender after a 3-0 first intermission deficit — had a grand total of two assists between them, both belonging to the ineffective Tomas Jurco.

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Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are seeing increasingly acute checking schemes by teams that simply have no fear of the rest of the Oilers forwards. Shut down Nos. 97 and 29, they say, shut down the Oilers.

“We can’t rely on those guys every game,” said Chiasson. “They’ve been carrying the load, playing 20, 25 minutes a night. I’ll be the first one to admit, I have to help the group. The bottom six has to help the group. That’s just how you win in this league.”

And with the recent futility, comes a pair of ticking clocks: Edmonton ran its scoreless skein to 152:38, heading into Thursday’s visit by the mighty Washington Capitals. And McDavid, who hasn’t collected a point since his five-point game versus Philadelphia last week, has gone three games without a point for only the second time in his entire career.

The last time was the week around New Year’s Day 2018, while the Oilers record falls to 16-53-9 in 78 games where McDavid has been held pointless. It seems the Oilers, whose first 10-game segment ends with a stunning 15 points in the standings, have caught the attention of their opponents.

“Teams are playing us real tight,” said forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “The recipe for success is point shots, get pucks back… We’ve got to get back to that. Winning battles over the ice creates offence.”

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Battles?

Sorry folks, but those all went the Wild’s way on Tuesday, as GM Bill Guerin’s club collected just its third ‘W’ of the young season.

“First time losing two in a row and the first real game where we probably got out-competed for most of the game,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “The first time a game like this has happened to us in the first 10. It’s just a matter how we respond back at home.”

“This is our first little test here,” admitted Sheahan, echoing Tippett’s post-game message to his troops.

“There’s no reason for panic, it’s our first little bit of adversity.”

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