CHICAGO — If it is true what they say, that an athlete learns more from losing than from winning, then by extension do we learn more about the athlete after a loss than we do after a win?
On a night when the Edmonton Oilers watched their perfect 5-0 record go down at the hands of some smooth goaltending and a sheet of the choppiest ice this side of Anaheim, there were plenty of chances to simply say, “Thems the breaks. You’re not going to go 82-0.”
So, how did the Oilers handle a 3-1 loss in Chicago on Monday? They looked squarely in the mirror, and assigned the blame exactly where a fan should hope.
“We didn’t play well enough to win at all,” said captain Connor McDavid. “We gave pucks away, we gave them chances and Smitty held us in the game all night.”
Assistant captain Darnell Nurse had a rough night, like his team, but looked up at a scoreboard that read 2-1 for the Chicago Blackhawks with 2:11 to play. They were close, right?
“We weren’t good enough,” he said. “The mistakes we made, we know we can clean those up, and how to clean them up. Let’s get back to basics going back home. We can’t dwell on it. It’s a long, long season.”
Perhaps the best review, however, came from the game’s third star, goaltender Mike Smith. The former Calgary Flame was the only reason this wasn’t a 4-1 or 5-1 smoker, but when it was done he wasn’t looking for credit on a 32-save night.
Instead, he was taking the rap for Chicago’s second goal, a weird “change-up” by Alexander Nylander that appeared to slow down abruptly as it slid on the ice, scoring far side on Smith.
“In close games you can’t make mistakes that are going to cost your team the opportunity to stay in it,” Smith answered on the first question asked post-game, a query that had nothing to do with the goal he was describing.
“Just an honest mistake there. I thought the puck was moving faster than it was and got out of my net, and by the time I realized it wasn’t getting to me, I was in trouble. We go back and get a powerplay goal, and that turns into a pretty big mistake. You’re disappointed in yourself. You’ve let the team down.”
Despite his strong stat line, Smith feels like he let the team down. That would be exactly what you want to hear from your goalie — even if it is a tad hyperbolic — and it’s the same sentiment that carried the day when Smith let in two own-goals versus the Los Angeles Kings earlier this month, and not a single teammate laid any blame in his crease.
The lesson here is plain: every team is going to lose. It’s how you act when you do lose that is the tell.
For what it’s worth, the Oilers passed the test on loss No. 1. Now, they’ll try to put some distance between this viewing, and the way they act after loss No. 3, 4 or 5.
“Don’t lose two — we’ll start with that,” said Smith. “Go home, have a day with the family on (Tuesday), then come back ready for the next game.”
Chicago hadn’t won a game yet this season, and Edmonton hadn’t lost one. Everything had gone in for the Oilers thus far, but against goalie Corey Crawford almost nothing could light the United Centre lamp, as at least three Oilers found themselves in alone over the course of the opening period to no avail.
It just wasn’t happening for the Oilers’ top players Monday. Leon Draisaitl, who has been their best player through five games, was thwarted on a couple of early chances and never quite found his passing game. McDavid had flashes, but also gave some pucks away, including on the 2-0 goal. When you have the puck all night, those things are going to happen.
Neal scored his eighth of the young season and sixth on the powerplay, drawing the Oilers to within a goal with 131 ticks left on the clock. But a team that had come back to win five times after trailing in every game — an NHL record to open a season — just couldn’t roll boxcars in Chicago.
While Neal becomes the first player to score six power play goals in his team’s first six games since Dino Ciccarelli in 1986-87, the Oilers will shake this one off, have a day off Tuesday, then face the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings at home this week before a two-game roadie through Winnipeg and Minnesota.
“We’ve set a standard how we need to play. If we play to those standards every night, we’ll have a chance to win every night,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “When we win games, we look at what went right and what went wrong. We’ll look at tonight and we’ll look at what went right, and some things we have to do better.”
Tippett is a lifetime hockey man, and was as unswayed by the 5-0 start as he was by the eventuality of this first loss.
“They were a hard team tonight. This homestand was big for them and they have to put some wins together,” he said of the Blackhawks. “There is lots to build on for our team.
“You’ve got to find ways to win. We just didn’t do it tonight.”