Oilers embark on road trip that will test their status as contenders

oilers-leon-draisaitl-and-sharks-barclay-goodrow-take-faceoff

Edmonton Oilers' Leon Draisaitl, left, and San Jose Sharks' Barclay Goodrow face off for the puck during the second period on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (Ben Margot/AP)

"We had a meeting as a team this morning, and talked about this trip, the importance of the games. … It’s a great test for our group right now." — Dave Tippett, on Monday.

SAN JOSE — In the movies, the coach walks around the dressing room after practice, alternately challenging some players, berating others, and generally working his team into some kind of a tribal frenzy that results in retrieving their finest effort in the next game or games.

In real life?

"No, it’s not like that," said San Jose coach Peter DeBoer.

So a road trip that begins Tuesday night in San Jose — a building where Edmonton has not won a game in regulation since April 6, 2017, against a team that is 7-1-1 in its last nine games against the Oilers — opens with a fairly obvious challenge: two-year droughts against divisional opponents do not a top team make, so if Edmonton wants to consider itself a top team in the Pacific, figuring out how to win at The Shark Tank is mandatory.

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After that, the Oilers visit Los Angeles, a team that is tied for 30th place in the NHL. When the shoes were on the other feet — when the Kings were a top team and the Oilers a doormat — L.A. never wasted two points on the Oilers.

Then, Las Vegas, a team that has won once in its last five games. Then Arizona, a difficult opponent that it is high time the Oilers figured out how to defeat. Then Colorado, a place you don’t want to walk into trying to salvage a road trip.

"All divisional games, and one conference game," said winger Zack Kassian. "Even though it’s only November, these are the points you want to grab. You want to set yourself going into American Thanksgiving — everyone knows what (revolves) around that. It’s an important week of hockey for us in here."

It starts against a Sharks team that somehow owns the Oilers, routing them 6-3 in this same rink exactly a week ago. In that game, the San Jose game plan of funnelling the puck back to the point, then crashing the net with effective puck-tippers was in full effect.

"They generate a lot off the point shot," began defenceman Darnell Nurse. "You cover them down low, they rim pucks out to their D, and their forwards are elite at (tipping) pucks. They have a really good recipe here that they’ve been using for a lot of years, no matter who is on the point or what line is on the ice.

"For us, the work and compete is going to have to be there first and foremost, because you know they come out hard each and every night, right off the bat."

This is the exact challenge that Tippett has referenced when he talks about the transformation from the old Oilers we have come to know, and the team he is starting to build. San Jose does not win with sorcery – everyone knows the way San Jose is going to play on Tuesday.

It is a matter of winning the battle along the boards so that the puck doesn’t get sent back to Brent Burns or Erik Karlsson for that deadly point shot. Or tying up the forward so they can’t deflect that puck. Be bigger, stronger, denying them a clear path to the slot, where they screen a goalie or change the puck’s direction.

Get the puck out of the zone and moving north, rather than allowing the zone time the Sharks feast on, when they start the game with the kind of energy the Chicago Blackhawks once had in old Chicago Stadium. A team Sharks GM Doug Wilson played for, if memory serves.

"In my four-and-half years here I think we’ve come out of a first period here ahead, maybe once," Kassian said. "The first 10 minutes, the first period, is crucial against these guys."

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And the San Jose game plan?

"Sometimes, Burns and Karlsson are shooting five feet wide. But, there’s a stick there that’s re-directing it. That’s what makes them so dangerous."

The Sharks, meanwhile, are riding the other side of that inexplicable trend where one team just seems to have the other’s number. Edmonton has won both playoff series against San Jose over the years, but outside of that the Sharks just have a good mojo versus Edmonton.

"I don’t have an answer for that," said DeBoer. "For us, the message in our room is that this is a team above us in the standings that we have to hunt down. Playing against players like McDavid and Draisaitl, that challenge, gets the juices flowing in competitive people, and we have a lot of competitive people in there."

As for Nurse, don’t ask him if he’s sick of losing here.

"I never played a game where I liked losing," he said. "It doesn’t matter who, or how many times you lose to them. I’ve never met a guy in this league who likes losing."

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