EDMONTON — Sometimes it takes an ugly game like this one to get out of a slump.
"Mucky, ugly, chip-it, ping pong hockey," was how Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett described a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings Friday. "But, we got the two points, so we move on. That’s all I can say about it."
They could have let people into the rink for free Friday, and made more money charging them an exit fee. After watching the Arizona Coyotes pass them for first place in the Pacific, the Oilers outdid hockey’s most boring team with a 20-shot night that reclaimed the division lead.
"We got away from things the last few games," said winger Josh Archibald, who skated next to Connor McDavid with Zack Kassian injured. "We wanted to get back to our identity: playing as five, up and down the ice. It was a good win for us."
If the Oilers, who lost 5-2 on Wednesday to the 29th place Ottawa Senators, hadn’t found a way to pry a victory out of this snooze-fest on Friday, a nice, cool Edmonton weekend would have been spent in crisis. The Oilers had lost three of four heading into the night.
They’ve developed a reputation as a team that plays well against the top clubs and falls asleep against basement teams like Detroit, Ottawa and L.A. They’ve also watched their goals against rise steadily since their 7-1 start, and only the night before Edmonton lost its first-place perch in the Pacific, a roost they had held since the first couple days of the season.
"After last game we talked a lot about defending first," said Adam Larsson, who always plays a lot (22:52) in tight games like this one. "When we defend first, we’re creating a lot more offence too. This team started in the right end today, with the defending mindset. It won us the game."
OK, we get the part about the stout defensive play. But the bit about creating more offence? We’re going to take Larsson to task on that a bit.
Edmonton scored both their goals on the powerplay and managed just 20 shots on goal on the night — 10 in the final 20 minutes. The Oilers managed just 15 even strength shots on goal all evening long.
"They get a lucky one off (Drew Doughty’s) foot on the power play," lamented Kings coach Todd McLellan, "and then they pick us apart for one too. But after that, we kept that team to 15 even-strength shots, and a lot of it was from the outside.
"So we’re happy with the effort, we’re disappointed in the result."
McLellan is already getting used to that refrain. He’s got his team playing hard, but there just isn’t enough talent here to win on most nights. They’re now 2-11-1 on the road and just opened a stretch of eight of nine away from SoCal.
This game was exactly what the doctor ordered for Edmonton, a night where they could grind out a close win, just to prove to themselves that they can rely on their defensive play when times get tough. Missing top-six forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kassian, it wasn’t a night to paint a Monet, but rather to chip two points out of a block of granite.
"With our lineup the way it is right now, we’re trying to grind out some points," Tippett said. "We gave some people some minutes who are more grind mode and who dig in. You look at Larsson or Kris Russell’s minutes or Riley Sheahan — we knew we needed a tight hard-checking game just to get us back set in the right direction and we got that tonight."
Playing well defensively — despite having one Kings goal disallowed on a video review for offside — will quell the issues with five-on-five offence, which was almost nil Friday. Beating a team well below them in the standings was another box that needed to get checked in this town.
"So far this year we’ve done a pretty good job of rising to the challenge of big games," said Alex Chiasson, who had one of the two Oilers powerplay goals. "But at the same time, this league’s too hard, teams are too good. It doesn’t matter where (an opponent) is in the standings, this group has to learn that we may not feel our best as a team or personally, but we have to find ways to keep the game in front of us. Keep the game close."
They all meant the same thing for Edmonton on Friday: two points.