SAN JOSE, Calif. — As the minutes whittled down to seconds, and then overtime in San Jose against a veteran Sharks club, a wave of concern washed over new Edmonton Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock.
“I was worried,” he admitted, “that it was past my bedtime and I wouldn’t be able to stay up. I don’t think I’ve seen a third period all year out West.”
This third period, and the ensuing overtime, was worth staying up for, as the Oilers erased a 3-2 deficit after 40 minutes then won on Leon Draisaitl’s overtime goal for a 4-3 win.
In Game 1 of the Ken Hitchcock era in Edmonton, Draisaitl and Connor McDavid had three points apiece and the Oilers won in a building that has not been kind to them over the years. The Oilers never held the lead until a puck bounced off of Draisaitl’s foot and into the goal in overtime, but scraped and battled to come from behind three times on the night.
“A new voice, and there’s lots going on,” said Draisaitl. “A lot of meetings, getting to know the new coach. It’s my first time…”
“It’s a new experience for me,” echoed McDavid, who had played under the fired Todd McLellan his entire career. “I’ve only ever heard one voice back there, as the head guy. He’s a different style of coach, and just a new voice.”
Hitchcock, 66, had a long day, flying in to San Jose to replace McLellan, pouring over the game plan with his assistants, and meeting 22 new players. Then they dropped the puck, and it was go time for grandpa.
“I was grinding hard,” he admitted. “I needed about four shifts to make some judgments and then I started coachin’. I struggled with names. I had one player, I called him four different names and he never got off the bench. Never went anywhere. Finally, we got to a nickname and that worked in the third period.”
He put his stamp on the lines immediately, buttressing big centreman Kyle Brodziak with hefty wingers Milan Lucic and Zack Kassian, the kind of heavy unit that Hitchcock has always tried to have on his teams.
“There is a lot of weight and size in this group — a lot more than I can remember. And we started to lean pretty hard in the third period. It was very effective,” Hitchcock said.
At 6 a.m. on Tuesday, general manager Peter Chiarelli informed McLellan that his tenure had come to an end after three seasons and 20 games behind the Oilers bench. He went to the bullpen for Hitchcock, who Chiarelli worked alongside on Canada’s Olympic team, in hopes that the veteran hockey mechanic could lift the Oilers’ hood and turn the right wrenches.
What Hitchcock’s teams do — that Edmonton has always struggled with — is win games when they aren’t at their absolute best. Hitchcock’s teams collect points on nights like this, hanging around, hanging around, then kicking one home in overtime.
The Oilers left two Sharks wide open in front of goalie Mikko Koskinen on two goals, then the top pairing of Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson each made colossal mistakes on San Jose’s third goal. All those mistakes are fixable, and Hitchcock knew before the game was over what needed to be addressed.
“He knows what to do and what to say. He came in and said exactly what we needed to hear,” said McDavid, who knows that this coaching change needs to be the trigger to find some consistency. “That’s what it’s got to be. Any time you bring in a new coach, it’s the last option before shipping everyone out. This is a chance for us to come together and try to make something of this.”
Koskinen gave his team a chance here, making four or five huge saves — the kind Cam Talbot has been unable to come up with in his starts.
And the old coach took his new, young team to a win, leaving them right in the playoff hunt heading into that hockey milepost that is American Thanksgiving.
“They feel young to me, which is fun,” Hitchcock said of his new roster. “And they’re excited to play. The part I like is, I told them I would coach them hard and they really embraced that.
“When I said to a person, ‘You need to change. This is what we want to see.’ They just went out and did it.”