NEWARK, N.J. — It really doesn’t make sense that the Edmonton Oilers would believe in Dave Tippett’s system any more or less than they believed in Todd McLellan’s, or Ralph Krueger’s.
But there’s something happening here, as the Oilers ran their start to 4-0 Thursday night in Newark, taking down the New Jersey Devils 4-3 in a shootout to win yet another game in which they trailed three times.
“The biggest thing that has changed is our commitment to playing within our structure; playing within our game,” said defenceman Darnell Nurse. “You can be chasing a little bit, but we’re not taking obscure chances to try to make up plays in a game. We stick to our structure, and chip away.”
So let’s start there, as we continue in our quest to answer the questions about a team that appears to be far, far ahead of any schedule that had been set out for their transformation into a team that has confidence and character.
The Oilers trailed with 10 minutes to play in their opening two games, wins against Vancouver and Los Angeles. They trailed four times against the Kings and won in regulation, then rolled on to Long Island and pounded the Islanders 5-2. They were only ‘OK’ in Newark, and trailed by scores of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2.
But here’s the difference, and Nurse nailed it.
The old Oilers would abandon their structure in search of game-tying goals, and more often than not, a one-goal deficit became two, and then three. They would lose, and the ensuing desperation made them even more likely to repeat the mistake the next time out.
This season — and we know it’s early — they have proven to themselves that patience can be rewarded. Especially when you have the quick-strike abilities that Edmonton possesses in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
“You’d get down late in a game… it’s that belief within your structure that you can get it done. That’s what we have here,” said Nurse, who held court post-game like a maturing, confident leader that we haven’t seen so much of before.
“We’ve shown over four games that we can win any type of way,” Nurse said. “You look around the league at the really good teams, they win all types of ways too. They don’t fold up their tents and leave when they get down late in the game.”
It’s only the fourth time in Oilers history they’ve opened a season at 4-0, and the first time since 2008-09. They’ll skate out at the legendary Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon trying for 5-0, a feat only the ’83-84 and ’84-85 dynasty clubs managed to achieve.
“Our players were talking about it after the second period,” Tippett said. “‘We don’t feel like we’ve got our A-game, but that’s not an excuse for not winning. Let’s find a way to win a game.’
“They can’t all be masterpieces. We’ll take the win, and move on.”
Goalie Mikko Koskinen was excellent in his second straight start, allowing the comeback to percolate before going perfect through the shootout. McDavid drew a penalty with 1:16 to play, then scooped the puck out from behind Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood to tie the game with 1:06 left in regulation.
Leon Draisaitl scored the only goal in the shootout, and voila! The Oilers won a game they likely didn’t deserve to win, another one of those things that the good teams have been doing to them for the past decade or so.
Oh, and James Neal scored again, potting his seventh goal this season to equal the number he scored all season last year in Calgary. He somehow put a deflection on a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins bullet from about 15 feet out, a miraculous feat of hand-eye coordination, and the kind of thing that happens to a shooter who is as smokin’ red hot as Neal is right now.
“It’s just putting your stick in the right area, trying to screen a goalie. Got a lucky bounce,” he shrugged. “When you’re doing the right things you get bounces like that. Sometimes you touch those and they go into his glove.”
The McDavid goal survived an officials review, and Koskinen stopped Taylor Hall on a pair of breakaways in overtime, the first one a laser that skinned his pants and rang off the post.
“You’ve got to earn your luck,” Koskinen pointed out.
“I didn’t think we played near as well as we played the other night (against the Islanders),” Tippett said. “But I liked the way we hung around and battled. Our special teams won us the game.”
When can we say this team is legit?
“Ah, it’s early,” said Tippett. He likes most of what he sees, “but you’ve got to go more than four games. I’m really happy with the start… but it’s a process.”
Nurse is almost there. He’s been around this dressing room a lot longer than Tippett has, and the Oilers assistant captain digs what’s happening here.
“There’s a culture change within the room,” Nurse said. “All anyone cares about is winning. That’s all that really matters in here.”