Oilers dig deep against Rangers for first win of season

Conner McDavid scored on the power play and the Edmonton Oilers defeated the New York Rangers.

NEW YORK — There they sat, in a nondescript visitor’s dressing room inside historic Madison Square Garden, tied 1-1 after 40 minutes against a rebuilding New York Rangers club that is likely not playoff bound. It was only Oct. 13, but, for the 0-2 Edmonton Oilers it seemed more like May.

Owner Daryl Katz had flown in for the game, bringing with him lieutenants Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe. General manager Peter Chiarelli was also on hand. All were hoping for the first win of the season, all realizing that this was a period that simply had to be won — or here would be hell to pay back home.

"We had a lot of pressure on our backs," admitted defenceman Oscar Klefbom, "even if it’s the third game."

"It felt more like a Game 3 of a playoff, when you’re down 2-0 in the series, versus Game 3 of the season," admitted Milan Lucic. "There was a lot of pressure on us — from top to bottom — to get a win here before we got back to Edmonton."

You can breathe, Oilers fan. At least for now.

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The Oilers won a game they were supposed to win, gutting out a 2-1 victory in a matinee, a start time that has befuddled this team ever since it joined the National Hockey League in 1979. Edmonton scored just twice — one by Connor McDavid, the other assisted by Connor McDavid. So, through three games now, Edmonton has scored just five goals while McDavid’s line reads 2-3-5.

But let’s go back inside that second intermission dressing room for a moment. NHL players don’t talk about pressure much, because that is a hint that it perhaps affects them. And in real life sports, coaches don’t walk into dressing rooms at moments like that and tell players how important the next 20 minutes are.

So Todd McLellan and staff dipped into the room with a powerplay tweak, and made a quick adjustment on the penalty kill. Then the coaches cleared out.

"We got out of their way," McLellan said. "It’s their team, and they’re going to have to play. Sometimes coaches can slow teams down by making them think too much."

Dramatic for the game No. 3 of 82? Well, in a season like this one in Edmonton, that flight back across the continent would have been a killer if this game had tipped in the other direction.

"You know, sometimes the first ones don’t come pretty," said Lucic, who had a game-high nine hits and was working the top of the crease on McDavid’s powerplay winner at 6:23 of the third period. "For whatever reason everything was going in for us in the preseason, but we’ve had our challenges so far in the season."

The Oilers flew home to Edmonton Saturday, and will fly back into Winnipeg on Monday afternoon for a Tuesday night game. "Even though it’s not a (normal) road trip," Lucic noted, "it’s a chance to come out of the trip at .500."

This was a fabulous duel between King Henrik Lundqvist and his former backup Cam Talbot, who had never beaten his former mentor and the Rangers team he’d broken in with. This one meant a lot to Talbot — "these two games are always circled on the calendar for me," — and showed that even when the guy at the other end is a pending Hall of Famer, the Oilers can still leave a building saying they had the better goaltender on the night.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

It’s funny, two nights before in Boston, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hit two posts and watched a puck roll along the goal line for three feet without going in. His work was finally rewarded with a nice break in New York, as Darnell Nurse’s point shot caromed off of Rangers defenceman Adam McQuaid and settled right at the net side that Lundqvist had abandoned to make the original save.

Nugent-Hopkins tapped it in for his first of the season.

Then, moments after the referees had opted not to call a third-period Jason Garrison hold that left the Rangers faithful irate, Kailer Yamamoto drew his second minor of the game — but the penalty was not called by the zebra who was 10 feet away. Rather, the referee out a centre ice made the call, another small bit of fortune that became much larger when McDavid scored on the ensuing powerplay.

You play well, do things right, and eventually those 50/50 pucks begin to fall your way. Eventually, you get a few breaks.

"All the guys know what we are capable of, to be a real good team, a playoff team," Klefbom said. "We just have to play like we did today: Cam was solid in the net, and we played a solid defensive game."

Added McDavid: "We’ve only scored five goals in three games, so when offence isn’t there you need to check for your wins."

Hey — when the pressure is this steep on Oct. 13, nobody is asking "How?"

Just "How many?"

For now the Oilers will settle for a "1" in the win column.


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