EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers’ effort faded Wednesday night in Las Vegas, going from supernova in the opening 15 minutes of the game, to simply not enough to beat a smoking-hot Golden Knights team by the third period.
You could see it from as far away as The Strip. One team had legs in the third period. The other did not.
And I know what many of you are thinking: “How can these guys be tired? They’re young. In their prime. In fantastic shape. They charter everywhere they go. Eat the best food. Make millions of dollars…”
All true. I say the same things on many a night.
But there is another truth when it comes to the National Hockey League on Feb. 27 of any given season: Everyone is tired.
The coaches are running out of fresh ways to deliver the same game plan. The video guys have clipped the opposing power plays so many times, they know them as well as that team’s coaches do. The writers are worn down, chasing teams that charter everywhere on commercial travel, with the inherent security, delays and cancelations that make air travel what it has become today. The pungent odor of the glove dryer makes the equipment guy want to go back to university.
But you don’t care about those people. Nobody ever bought a ticket to watch Dave Tippett coach, or Mark Spector write. They want to see Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the boys who, compared to the old days, are fully pampered in the Year 2020.
But another thing about the players? Well, they’re not machines either.
The team I cover, the Edmonton Oilers, have spent 15 of 26 nights this month in a hotel, about two-thirds of the time on the Pacific time zone, another third on Eastern time, and the rest in the Mountain time zone. They’re chugging through 29 games in 56 days, as most teams are right now.
While Olympic athletes “taper” their training so they can be at their physiological peak when a big meet arrives, training at altitude then arriving at the competition site days ahead for maximum performance, hockey players are a traveling circus, the owners squeezing out every possible date at the expense of the player and the product.
The Oilers and Los Angeles Kings showed up at the Staples Centre Sunday while the Lakers floor still covered the ice surface, then played the fastest pro game in North America three hours later on a sheet of ice that is inferior to every city rink in a town like Edmonton or Regina.
Of course, both teams share that ice. And both are worn down. There is no advantage here, no excuses.
Us Westerners laugh out loud when we hear about a team like the Philadelphia Flyers “sitting down with the NHL schedule makers” to try and solve what they consider to be an unfair schedule, with too many back-to-backs for the Flyers’ liking. Then you see that most of their road travel consists of flight of less than one hour — at how many nights the Flyers sleep in their own beds in a season compared to San Jose or Dallas — while at that very moment the Vancouver Canucks are on a road trip that begins in San Jose, stretches to Boston, and includes an “on the way home” game in Minnesota.
Body clocks don’t adjust better according to your salary, right? That’s why when your favourite player has a bad night, you might check the schedule before you carve him up on Twitter.
The Oilers came home with three of six points from their most recent trip, which somehow felt like a disappointment, losing in regulation to a red hot (and almost completely healthy) Golden Knights team that has now won seven straight.
But here’s the kicker: Edmonton plays one home game on Saturday night and jumps on a plane for the Central time zone and Nashville on Sunday — another three-games-in-four-nights roadie. Teams hire sleep doctors to help them map out the best schedules when it comes to staying overnight in some towns, or flying out after games, but their expertise is mitigated by the sheer volume of games and the need to move on to the next town.
Then you add in the injuries, which seem to be an epidemic in the NHL at the moment. Take Saturday’s opponent, the Winnipeg Jets:
They’re not missing many guys that they were counting on this season. Just Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Adam Lowry, Mathieu Perreault, Mark Letestu, Sami Niku, Carl Dahlstrom and Luca Sbisa.
Oh, and Josh Morrissey, their best defenceman to have survived the carnage thus far.
Or the Toronto Maple Leafs, who unwisely went into the season with a weak blue-line, and are now missing Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Cody Ceci to injury. Justin Holl has played 75 NHL games, and is accustomed to playing about 18 minutes per night. Well, in his last five games, his ice times have read, 25:49, 23:29, 21:04, 20:39 and 25:20.
It’s those extra six or seven minutes where an inexperienced defenceman makes the kind of mistakes that get remembered the next day, when the fans say, “That Holl guy wasn’t very good last night.”
Edmonton will ice a lineup Saturday with a lineup missing their best D-man, Oscar Klefbom, 19-goal scorer James Neal, point-per-game winger Kailer Yamamoto, depth speedster Joakim Nygard, blood-and-guts defender Kris Russell, and quite possibly newcomer and top-line winger Andreas Athanasiou.
Nurse recently came under fire when he stepped into the breech to replace Klefbom’s minutes, and his spot atop the Oilers power play. Nurse’s minutes went from 22:51 before Klefbom got hurt, to 27:05 in the games since.
And I scroll through my Twitter feed to learn how Nurse isn’t playing very well.
If he were a power-play quarterback, he’d be quarterbacking a power play at this point in his career, right? If he were capable of playing a mistake-free 27 minutes, he wouldn’t be a 21-minute, second pairing D-man, some 342 games into his NHL career.
Nurse, like players all over the league, are stepping out of their comfort zone right now — because someone has to.
It’s like Tippet said of his team a few games ago, after a loss in Arizona.
“They were trying to try…”
That’s how it is across the league, as February turns into March.