EDMONTON — Sometimes, circumstances mix together just so, the perfect concoction for a crisp slap in the face on a cool winter night.
A three-game losing streak. A Christmas break. A measuring stick game that gives everybody a close-up look at what a real Stanley Cup contender looks like — and just how far away that really is for Edmonton.
The Edmonton Oilers lost 6-3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night, and with a three-day break and the season’s halfway point just around the corner, it was time to take stock.
“We’re going to need a little bit more out of everyone here. To win every night, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing… we’re going to need a little better out of everyone,” said Alex Chiasson.
Chiasson can talk, and he is fast becoming a leader here. He arrived on a PTO and sits third on the team with 16 goals. He played on a Stanley Cup champion last season in Washington, and knows what a good team looks like.
“This group has to learn how to play in close games,” he said. “If you want to be a playoff team… you have to learn how to play being down one goal, or a tie game. Stick with it for 60 minutes. It seems like we lose our focus, change the way we want to play as the game goes on. That’s something we have to address here, as players.”
OK. That’s the players’ Christmas homework.
As for the front office, well, they’re in a whole lot deeper.
General manager Peter Chiarelli has a capped out this team despite having just two lines that can score, two lines that do not even remotely threaten the opposing goalie, and as thin a defence as you’ll find out west. He’s got a $6 million Milan Lucic who scored on his first shot of the season and hasn’t scored since, a free agent pick-up in Tobias Rieder who lives goalless on the perimeter, an invisible Ryan Spooner costing $3.1 million, and the list goes on.
The lack of scoring depth had Connor McDavid (three assists) playing 23:27 on Saturday. After watching Tampa get goals from three lines — not to mention five points from Nikita Kucherov — Hitchcock came clean on his empty arsenal.
“We’re leaning on people pretty heavy, and other people have to seize opportunities. You’re right — we’ve got to get more,” Hitchcock said. He’s trying to “get more people to try to help. Unless it changes, it’s looking a lot like we don’t have enough support… for our group. We’re going to end up running on fumes if we don’t.”
Meanwhile, Jesse Puljujarvi’s big chance on McDavid’s right wing was short but eventful. The big Finn dug a puck off the wall in the first period, fed it to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and he worked a nice give and go with McDavid for the game’s first goal. Thirteen minutes into Period 2 however, with the Oilers clinging to a 2-1 lead, Puljujarvi couldn’t handle a hot pass from Darnell Nurse.
The ensuing loose puck worked like a breakaway pass for Kucherov, who tied the game when he rifled one past Mikko Koskinen. Not the player you want to spring on a breakaway from his own blue line.
“(Puljujarvi) was playing a hell of a hockey game, and then… that happens,” said Hitchcock. “But he’s been a really good participant in helping us get better. So has J.J. (Jujhar Khaira, who served the first game of a two-game suspension). But we’re going to need more; more people helping us — whether it’s here or in the American Hockey League. We aren’t getting enough support players.”
When the third period opened, with Edmonton trailing 3-2, Puljujarvi had been replaced by Chiasson, and the young Finn was playing with Kyle Brodziak and Milan Lucic. His time with McDavid would be best be described as “OK,” as he was neither a liability nor particularly dangerous.
Out west, almost everyone around the Oilers gave up at least a point on Saturday, so Edmonton squandered a chance to make up some ground. Still, as their Christmas break begins, the Oilers are tied for the second wildcard spot in the West.
That’s a sight better than a year ago, when they were dead and buried before the halfway mark of the year. Now, it’ll be up to Hitchcock to squeeze every drop he can out of his lineup, to avoid missing the playoffs here for the 12th time in 13 seasons.
“Rather than relying on the same people every night to do everything, I’m trying to get people connected. We’re going to have to figure out who’s helping and who’s hurting, for us get to another level,” he said.
“We can’t keep doing it the same way over and over. It’s not going to work.”