EDMONTON — Is this it, Edmonton? Is this what we get now, 0-0 hockey deep into two of the last three games?
Is this (gulp) Ken Hitchcock hockey?
“For me, personally, I’m happy with this,” said Oscar Klefbom, who found his first goal of the season in overtime as the Edmonton Oilers outlasted Dallas 1-0 in a Tuesday snoozer. “For the game of hockey? I’d rather win 5-0 and have a lot of goals and a lot stuff going on. But for me as a defenceman, when we have Mikko (Koskinen) in the net, that’s a solid game for us.”
There’s a balance in this success-starved town. The tickets are expensive, but a spot in the playoffs would be a nice change.
Klefbom gets it.
“When I was a kid and would go to see my hometown team and it was a 1-0 game? I was mad. ‘What’s going on here? I came to see some goals.’ But now, I’m happy, as long as we win.”
This win was like sinking a 40-foot chip for par after never having played off the fairway. It smelled as sweet as Craig Ludwig’s shin pad, and shone as brightly as a set of community league goal posts.
It was, however, two points for an Oilers team that is trying to hang around in the Pacific while it breaks in a new head coach. While they figure out how to play Hitchcock hockey.
“It doesn’t matter how you’re going to win. Just as long as we’re winning games,” said Connor McDavid, who wound up staying back on defence as Leon Draisaitl and Klefbom broke away for the game-winning two-on-one. “We’re just trying to get adjusted to the system and working hard and good things have happened so far. A couple of wins and we’ve given away a couple of points, too, but for the most part it’s been some pretty good hockey.”
Good hockey is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, defined by the spelling of the result. Anything that starts with a ‘W’ qualifies.
This is a team that, historically, has struggled in games like this. In a tied, low-scoring defensive struggle, Edmonton has most often cracked first, taking the ill-advised chance that turns into an opportunity the other way.
It was former coach Todd McLellan’s motto to “hold on to our cards a little longer” — coach speak for playing proper defence until a legitimate offensive chance presents itself. “Checking for your chances,” coaches like to say.
Of course, the coaches don’t pay $250 to get into the rink, and the players aren’t coughing up $12.50 for beers.
The Oilers, they’re absolutely fine with the defensive trend, as long as they keep collecting points.
“More than OK with that,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “I don’t know about you guys, but we are OK.
“I think it will hopefully be that way for the other team, that we are keeping them on the lower number,” he added. “The way we have been playing is just very responsible. The forwards are coming back hard and are hard to play against right now, and it is making it tough for other teams to score against us.”
This one was a hare’s breath from being an abject disappointment, as Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin stood on Koskinen’s doorstep with less than two seconds remaining in regulation. Benn must have known that time was of the essence, but had he moved the puck to a wide open Seguin who was perched net-side, he’d have had an open net.
What was Hitchcock, the former Stars coach, thinking?
“I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well.”
So far here in Northern Alberta, Hitchcock’s work behind the bench has been second only to his motivational speaking.
Years ago he’d come through town with the 1990s Stars, gush pre-game over what a great team Edmonton had, and then watch his team win for fun later that night. Since replacing McLellan, he’s been relentless in doling out belief in this Oilers team — exactly the tonic a wavering fan base needs.
He’s praised young Jesse Puljujarvi, who played next to Nugent-Hopkins on Tuesday and had 14:33 of ice-time, his highest in over a month. And despite the undeniable fact that Koskinen has grabbed hold of the No. 1 job here, Hitchcock heaved Cam Talbot up on the praise wagon post-game.
“I think that goaltending is our strength — both guys. I think it’s the strength of the team,” Hitchcock declared.
Hey, whatever it takes. Even if that means 1-0 in overtime.