There was a time, not so long ago, when the Edmonton Oilers simply couldn’t handle a game like this one. And they knew it.
If a visiting team arrived in ill humour, threw a few hits and put some gloves in some faces, the home team simply packed ‘er in. Slinked off in search of ice, they did, so the other team’s post-game celebration beers would be properly chilled.
There are no secrets in the National Hockey League. Everyone inside the game knew it. The Oilers were too small and not brave enough. A bunch of sweethearts, with little belief in each other, a poor sense of team, and outside a slugger on the fourth line, absolutely zero team toughness.
Then the new general manager came to town and it just so happened that Peter Chiarelli’s last gig had been in Boston. If you’ve read this far, I don’t have to explain to you what that means.
The Bruinization of the Oilers continued Friday night in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators in which Milan Lucic came out of his month-long slumber to play a major role. There were fights, lots of hits, and a ton of physical play.
And for a change, the Oilers hung around until the final bell.
“That goes to our team toughness. Guys sticking up for themselves and their teammates,” said Lucic, who grew up in the NHL a Bruin. “You don’t need the most talented team — it’s just guys having each other’s backs. We had a lot of talent in Boston but what made us a championship team was we had each other’s backs.
“No one was going to come into our building and start pushing us around, and vice versa — we had the ability to go into other people’s buildings and push them around. You knew that if you were engaged, the guy beside you had your back. We’re starting to believe in each other [in Edmonton], as far as that goes. We need that belief to continue if we want to keep having team success.”
Edmonton wasn’t the better team Friday. Nashville was. The Predators, with P.K. Subban back in their lineup, deserved the two points.
The point is, you never know when a game like this is going to present itself. When it does, and you are completely unable or unwilling to participate in it, guess what?
Word gets around. Now that game finds you more and more often.
“We’re constructed to play the game however it’s presented,” said head coach Todd McLellan. “I think we can play a fast game, or a quick game — and to me those are different things. I think we can play a calculated game, I think we can play a checking game. We certainly can play a rough and tough game.
“Tonight was a combination of a little bit of everything,” he said. “We found a way to get a point. Maybe that’s what we deserved.”
This one would never have made OT had Cam Talbot not been fabulous in Edmonton’s nets, stopping 42 shots. With the Oilers trailing 2-1 late, Lucic absolutely blew up six-foot-four winger Austin Watson behind the net. Seconds later, Watson took a dumb retaliatory penalty on Lucic.
Lucic’s ensuing powerplay goal tied the game, his first goal in 14 games and 11th on the season. More concerning, Lucic had gone 20 games without a penalty minute.
Somehow, Lucic is that player for whom PIMs and points are linked. And he knows it.
“The emotional part is a big part of my game. I probably wasn’t good enough in the last month,” he admitted. “Sometimes it’s tough to find a wiling combatant in this day and age of the NHL but it’s just a matter of playing hard … and sometimes making the other team react [instead of giving them the option].
“I don’t think I have done a very good job of that, as of late.”
“That’s what we need from him, night in and night out,” said Talbot.
Edmonton heads to Calgary Saturday for a Hockey Night in Canada tilt, having grabbed nine points on a now complete six-game home stand. They’re seven points ahead of both wildcard teams Calgary and Nashville.
And games like this one? Well, it’s the old hockey maxim: The tougher you are, the less you have to fight. Edmonton proved Friday that it could give as good it gets, and that’s a line we haven’t used in a decade in this town.