LOS ANGELES — This is the script that meets every new coach in the National Hockey League, and on a sorry Sunday night in Los Angeles it played out once again, this time for Ken Hitchcock and his Edmonton Oilers.
“Today, the errors that we made were big errors,” Hitchcock declared after a 5-2 loss to the NHL’s 31st-place team — that had played and lost the night before. “We gave up a breakaway, we have up three two-on-ones … . We made big errors.”
OK, Oilers fans. Quiz time:
Does that sound like anyone you know?
Hint: His first name rhymes with Rod, and his last name sounds like a brand of expensive scotch.
It’s the script, and it goes like this:
Team has issues, so it fires its coach. New coach comes in, and the players have an extra jump in their step, and a keener eye to detail. That lasts for two or three games, maybe a week, but eventually the team that got coach No. 1 fired returns, as it did Sunday night in a wasteful loss to a Kings team that doesn’t beat anybody, but beat Edmonton on the second end of a back-to-back and with star player Ilya Kovalchuk stapled to bench for the entire third period.
“In Anaheim (Friday) we never made the huge mistake,” Connor McDavid said of a game against the Ducks that was tied 0-0 before Ryan Nugent-Hopkins opened the scoring with 8:55 to play. “Tonight, they slip behind us one time, and they hang on. They did a good job shutting it down after they got the lead.”
Remember how Todd McLellan used to talk about how his team needed to “hold its cards” a little longer before folding? For two nights on this trip the Oilers battled, hanging in close games and patiently waiting for the opponent to crack first.
On Sunday at Los Angeles, the game tied 2-2 just past the four-minute mark of the third period, Edmonton’s top pairing of Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom cracked first. They let Anze Kopitar — by far the most dangerous person on the ice with a goal and three points — get behind them for a clear-cut breakaway.
It was a shift to simply get through; a situation where the opponent has its best line on the ice, and a win was simply getting off the ice after 45 seconds unscathed. It didn’t happen, Cam Talbot couldn’t give his team a huge save, and a couple of empty-net goals later the final was 5-2.
But it was that one goal that defines the night. It was a one-goal game disguised as a 5-2 loss.
Unless you’re Milan Lucic, however, who looks back at the six shots on net he and Zack Kassian split that, once again, all went for naught.
“It’s great that we’re creating chances, and doing all those types of things. But you’ve got to get something to go,” said Lucic, who has scored two goals in his past 69 NHL games.
He and Kassian have one goal apiece this season, through 22 games. Alex Chiasson, who arrived on a PTO and made the team this fall, had two on Sunday and has 10 on the season.
“It’s great that we’re spending time in the O-zone, and getting shots, creating chances, all that kind of stuff,” Lucic said. “And I’m not saying this out of frustration. We’ve got to stick with it. But, at some point, if we got one last game like we should have, and one or two tonight like we should have, we come out with six points on this road trip.”
Alas, the same things that let McLellan down let Hitchcock down on Sunday.
“We had some really good participants and some people that we’re going to need a lot more from,” Hitchcock said, singing a familiar tune. “We’ve got people who are on the perimeter.”
Ryan Spooner, step right up. He had one shot on goal on this three-game California swing. Ty Rattie, who exited Hitchcock’s doghouse when he left St. Louis for Edmonton, received just four shifts and 3:32 of ice time from his new/old coach Sunday. He had no chance to impact this game.
Jesse Puljujarvi played 7:43 with no shots on goal in his return to the NHL. That ice time will go north, according to the coach.
“Moving forward we can accelerate his progress,” Hitchcock said. “As the game went on he got better and better. There’s something to work with.”
Meanwhile Kovalchuk, who came from the KHL to sign a three-year, $18.75-million deal with the Kings, didn’t get a shift from head coach Willie Desjardins in the third period. Just 23 games into his new deal in Los Angeles Kovalchuk played just 6:20 versus Edmonton, and it was one of the Kings’ stronger outings.
But, he’s Desjardins’ problem.
This Oilers roster, it isn’t McLellan’s issue anymore. Now it’s up to Hitchcock — the eighth Oilers coach in 11 seasons — to find the answers.
“We’re right there,” he said after the game. “Every game, we’ve been right there. We’ve got to find out of there’s another gear.”