They’ve always had the skill guys, the ones who lead the league in jersey sales and look great in a 6-5 shootout. But come February and March, a bunch of guys in a uniform you’d never buy — sorry, Nashville — annually come through town and work them for two points.
Or perhaps more accurately, “outwork” them for two points.
But while the struggles continued for the Maple Leafs Saturday night in Montreal, the Oilers fought one out in the alley with a Predators team that has mastered games like this over the years.
They ran this race on a muddy track in Edmonton Saturday, and the Oilers managed to turn a 2-0 deficit into a mucky, dirty 3-2 regulation win. This was the opposite of fire wagon hockey: Gritty, limited space, hard-checking, stretch run hockey.
You can win all the track meets you want in November and December.
If you can’t win a game like this in February? You’re not going anywhere, pal.
“No, and we’ve seen that in the past,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the longest-serving Oiler. “We could win those pretty games when things were easy, but when push comes to shove you’ve got to be able to win games like these. Games against Calgary, St. Louis… It’s good we’re battling all the way through and finding ways to win.”
Mike Smith, who was stellar versus the Preds, suddenly hasn’t lost a game in regulation since Dec. 20 (7-0-2). He’s been around long enough to know hockey’s change of seasons, as games turn colour — to black and blue — with the playoffs approaching.
“I think we’ve seen our team when we’ve tried to out-skill teams and outscore teams and it works for maybe a game or two here or there,” Smith said. “But consistently, it doesn’t give yourself a chance to win on any given night. It doesn’t give you a chance to make the playoffs, let alone be a good team in the playoffs. And I think this team is figuring that out slowly.”
Look, Nashville isn’t a great team. We get that.
They don’t score much. Never have, actually. So they’ve perfected the art of the 2-1 or 3-2 win.
The Preds copyrighted the act of coming into your building, scoring one in the first, another in the second, then nursing a game home the way they did in Calgary two days before.
“We expected that coming in,” Nugent-Hopkins said, “and then really understood it once the game got going. It wasn’t going to be fancy or pretty. We had to keep it simple.
“It was a greasy game.”
In Gary Bettman’s National Hockey League, where parity — no, competitive balance — rules the day, March happens in February. We used to get pseudo playoff games like this one for the final three weeks of the regular season. Now we get them starting in about the second week of February.
Kyle Turris hoofed home an own-goal with nine seconds left in the second period to give Edmonton life, trailing 2-1 after 40 minutes. Then Leon Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins, whose mixture of sublime defensive work and high-end offensive skills make him perhaps the perfect linemate for the big German, went to work.
Nugent-Hopkins thwarted a Turris chance with a stellar bit of checking, and moments later sauced a backhand pass across the ice to send Draisaitl wide. He would beat Juuse Saros to draw the Oilers even, then score the winner on a Nugent-Hopkins feed 10 minutes later, on the power play.
It was Draisaitl’s 31st goal and league-leading 85th point.
“He is such a dominant player when he plays a big, strong game,” marvelled head coach Dave Tippett. “He just holds the puck and can dominate the game at times. People don’t give him enough credit for being a fast player. He can beat people out wide as you saw on our second goal.
“And you don’t have to tell him that he had a couple of tough games. He is a smart hockey guy. His dad is a coach — he knows how to evaluate his own game. He knew things weren’t going as well as he liked and he knows he is one of the leaders on our team and he played with a purpose to turn it around tonight.”
McDavid injured his knee when he crashed into the end boards in the second period. He was not made available to the media after the game, but Tippett didn’t sound too stressed about the left knee injury‚ the same knee he rehabbed all summer long.
“He has a little bruise on top of his knee or something like that,” Tippett said. “They looked at it between periods, he iced it and they wanted to ice him right after the game. I asked him how he was doing and he said ‘I’m fine, I’m playing.’ He got out there and played.
“As far as I know it is nothing serious.”
Edmonton will enjoy an off day on Sunday, so the next McDavid update will not come until we see if he skates out for Monday’s 11 a.m. MT practice.