It was the kind of night you were going to remember for a while.
The best line in the Western Conference on the best team in the Western Conference was in town — the Edmonton Oilers were going to go head to head with the best and see where they stood.
Well, it turns out the Oilers stand somewhere beneath the St. Louis Blues, losers by a 4-1 score in one of the young season’s better games Thursday night at Rogers Place.
A rough, physical game that had shades of playoff hockey was tied 1-1 after 20 minutes. From then on it was all St. Louis, with the Blues’ top line outscoring Edmonton’s top line 2-2-4 to 0-0-0.
“We get to the blue line and … we wanted to play east-west,” said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan. “As a result we turned it over and it went the other way. That (first) line was guilty of it, but so were the other three.
“It was team-wide tonight, it wasn’t just the one line. It was spread out amongst the team. It was a team loss tonight, we just didn’t play well.”
McLellan was happy to match Connor McDavid’s line against the Blues top unit of Brayden Schenn between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. It was Schenn’s two third-period goals — the first on a turnover after a soft McDavid pass that missed Leon Draisaitl — that put the dagger into Edmonton.
It was emblematic of an Edmonton team that refused to meet the Blues’ straight-ahead game, instead passing off on shots and trying to win a hard hockey game with cute, soft plays.
“There were a lot of pull-ups (at the blue line) that led to nothing,” agreed Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “You need to establish more of a forecheck against a team like that. Keep it simple and wear ‘em down.
“We have a lot of talent in this room, but I still think when we play our best we use our speed that way, instead of trying to beat everybody one-on-one.”
Added defenceman Adam Larsson, who played a very tough game Thursday, “It starts with the turnovers. It seems like we complicate the game, when we should simplify it.”
The brilliance of defenceman Alex Pietrangelo was on display Thursday, as he handled McDavid’s line defensively while tossing in a pair of assists. He is that stud defenceman that the Oilers simply do not have, able to shut down the game’s best players at one end and quarterback the power play at the other.
Truth be known, you could argue whether the Oilers have a defenceman as good as either Pietrangelo or Colton Parayko, the six-foot-six stud who led all players with 24:50 of ice time. Toss in big Carl Gunnarsson, and even bigger Joel Edmundson and Robert Bortuzzo, and when the slick skating Jay Bouwmeester when he returns from injury this could be the best defensive corps in the NHL.
“They have a lot of big guys, we have a lot of big guys. That brings a lot of emotions,” said Larsson, who was right in the middle of a true battle in the early going. “That was the start today, but not the finish.”
This truly was the kind of hockey that puts hair on a young man’s chest, with even 19-year-old rookie Jesse Puljujarvi getting into the action with a devastating hit on Dmitrij Jaskin. These clubs may have a playoff meeting in their future some time down the road.
Rough, skilled, and Western Conference big, in the end the Oilers were not quite at St. Louis’ level.
“They’ve got some big bodies over there, (Patrick) Maroon and (Milan) Lucic and (Zack) Kassian up front,” said Blues goalie Jake Allen. “We put our big-boy pants on in the first period and it was nice to see. It brings guys into the game, gets you emotionally involved.”
McLellan wouldn’t bite however when asked if this was a measuring stick game for his team.
“They capitalized on some opportunities that we fed them. It wasn’t our best,” he said. “If we throw our best at them I think we come away with a chance to beat them, but we weren’t close to being our best.”
“We know we can be better than that,” added Nugent-Hopkins. “The good news is, we get to play them again in a couple of games.”
The Oilers get another shot at St. Louis Tuesday in the Show Me State.
Be careful what you wish for.