The tweeted theme of the local sports radio show in Edmonton Monday morning was succinct: “Is it time to panic?”
Yes, in a town that has not had a clue how to handle a Top 10 National Hockey League club all season long, fans also don’t know how to act when that team hits the skids with 14 games to go in the season.
If success is new ground here, so then is watching Calgary creeping past in the standings, and having the St. Louis Blues and Los Angles Kings in the rearview mirror.
What’s a poor Northern Albertan to do?
“Have fun with it,” said winger Milan Lucic, flashing a toothy smile under one of hockey’s truly menacing hook noses. “It’s a fun time of year, it’s almost spring time—even though it doesn’t feel like it (with a fresh foot of snow around). As a competitor, this is the time of year you want to be playing in games like this.
“Stick to the system, play the right way, not cheating (in search of) goals… We’ve shown we’re a good team. We can’t let frustration and doubt creep into our minds.”
Yeah, sure. Tell that to the nervous guy whose friends in Calgary are burning up his Facebook page.
Or a clearly tired Leon Draisaitl, whose season began back in August with a German Olympic qualifying tournament, then the World Cup, and now 68 NHL games. He has one goal in his last 10 games, while manning the right wing of the NHL’s assists leader, Connor McDavid.
“I haven’t been good lately and I know that, I’m well aware of that,” said the 21-year-old. “I’m a player—I like to play good. Obviously I think about it. Lately I haven’t been playing the way I can. For me it’s just a matter of getting back to what I’m good at. I’m going to make sure I start Tuesday.”
The Oilers outplayed Pittsburgh for 40 minutes on Friday and lost in a shootout. The theory went, that was supposed to manifest itself Sunday when the Montreal Canadiens rolled through town.
In practice however, the Habs were the better team in a 4-1 win. Now, this eight-game home stand concludes with games against Dallas, Boston, Vancouver and L.A.—four teams below Edmonton in the standings. In theory…
“I think anybody is a good opponent for us right now,” said head coach Todd McLellan, who isn’t biting on the easier opponent angle. “The competition we’ve played over the last little bit has been top notch teams and they’ve pushed us. We’ve pushed back, just ended up on the short end.
“Dallas is an offensive time bomb. They have the ability to explode at any point and score a ton of goals, so we’ll have our hands full with that. The opportunity that’s ahead of us is what we’re looking forward to.”
Visiting the Oilers dressing room on Monday, or even after that loss to the Canadiens Sunday evening, the vibe you get is definitely a therapeutic one. As opposed to an aura where an expectant, winning organization goes to the whip.
This team hasn’t played a playoff game in a decade, and over the past couple of seasons has stocked up with players like Lucic, Cam Talbot, Kris Russell and Pat Maroon who have at least accrued playoff experience elsewhere. It is those players whose job this week is create a winning atmosphere, rather than—as former Flyers coach Terry Murray once described in Philly — “a choking situation.”
“It’s getting the guys to realize that you can’t look too far down the road, even though now it is a sprint,” Lucic said. “Worry more about the process, the system. What’s made you a good team up to this point, other than wins and losses.
“You try to be a calming presence. Build the guys up, create confidence. Let them know that, ‘Hey, we’ve been a good team for a greater part of the season.’ The players in this room have been really good players … and we’re going to need that from here on out.”
Edmonton’s season has in fact been a relatively straight line, with few major slumps or winning tears. They’ve been a Top 3 team in the Pacific all season, until the weekend.
But does that matter when Calgary passes you by while winning nine straight? It’s like a 10,000 metre Olympic race: Does anyone care who led the most laps when they’re handing out the medals?
“Panic and apprehension isn’t going to help our group,” said McLellan, the chief babysitter of a team that is less fragile than simply inexperienced on playing these stressful games in March. “We have to learn to navigate our way through the ups and downs. This segment of 10 or 12 games we could drop it anywhere we want in the season (and it wouldn’t be a major concern). We need to behave that way rather than get uptight because it’s near the end of the year.
“Some of that is experience. The veteran players who’ve been through it before are saying the right things and we’re trying to handle the group the right way. As a coaching staff and we’ll keep that going.”
Losing a shootout to Pittsburgh? OK.
Dropping a game to Montreal that you led with seven minutes to play? Not as acceptable, but it happens.
Lose to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night at Rogers Place? In a must-win game in mid-March?
Try that, and you’ll see a hockey town in full panic mode.