To reach the top, Oilers must prove they can beat teams near the bottom

Montreal Canadiens' Jesperi Kotkaniemi moves in on Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Sunday, February 3, 2019. (Graham Hughes/CP)

MONTREAL — The Edmonton Oilers have begun to figure out how to defeat teams like Boston, Toronto and Vegas. The best of the best.

What they still cannot do is beat themselves.

And by “themselves” we mean the bottom feeders. The teams that are not going to make the playoffs; that are scuffling along like the Montreal Canadiens are today, fresh off their third loss to the lowly Detroit Red Wings this season.

Teams that are what Edmonton is trying so desperately not to be anymore.

“I know how it feels to be on the other side,” said Oscar Klefbom, who is in his seventh season with Edmonton. “You’re on a long losing streak, and you’re desperate. I know how it is, and I know what they are thinking.

“Now we’re on the other side,” he said, his Oilers hanging around first place in the Pacific all season long. “To be a good team, we have to take care of business tomorrow.”

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There’s no other way to put it: The Montreal Canadiens are a mess.

They are without several top players — Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia, Paul Byron — and have lost seven straight games.

Carey Price’s game is dipping, and his frustration level is rising. His save percentage is down to .902 this season, and his career numbers against Edmonton are emphatically poor: 3-8-1, with a .859 save percentage and a 3.70 goals against average, his worst GAA against any NHL opponent.

“I’m beyond frustration now,” Price said after a loss to Winnipeg on Monday. “I’m just going to play and do the best I can and try and get past any kind of frustrations or negative attitudes.

“You focus on the next game. Whatever’s happened to this point is irrelevant now and you got to focus on the next game.”

The Montreal writers are trotting out stats that outline the unrealistic record the Habs will have to post for the rest of the season to make the playoffs, calling for general manager Marc Bergevin’s job, and bemoaning a team that will likely miss the playoffs for the third straight spring — a drought that has happened just twice in Canadiens history.

It’s Doom vs. Gloom, fighting itself out inside the heads of a Montreal roster that has lost three times to the worst team in the NHL this season.

“Like Oscar said, that was us,” Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “We’d have really good games against really good teams, and then you’d face a team where even when you felt like you had a lot of energy, but you didn’t really feel like you got much from them.”

What does he mean by that?

Nugent-Hopkins has seen his Oilers lose in Detroit this season against a Red Wings team that had lost seven straight, and get stomped at home by a last place Ottawa club. If the Oilers are ever going to become anything more than an average team themselves, they have to become the team Nugent-Hopkins is talking about.

The bully that rolls into town and just never gives a team like Montreal the tiniest bit of belief that they can win. A team like this is used to losing — no one knows that more than Edmonton. So make them lose.

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“Kind of like Vancouver in my first couple of years, or L.A.,” Nugent-Hopkins recalled. “They wouldn’t give you anything to get you energized, and (losing) teams can be a little fragile. If things aren’t going your way right away, it’s tough to keep the momentum going for 60 minutes.

“That’s got to be our mentality, that even when the other team is flying, we’re not going to give up much. We’re not going to give them a ton of chances, or great opportunities. And offensively … keep it simple. It makes it harder for those teams to have breakout games against us.”

The Oilers had two pretty good months and one awful one in December. But in the new year they’ve won 4-1 at Boston — just the Bruins’ second regulation loss at home this season — and got Connor McDavid’s first ever win at Scotiabank Arena in a 6-4 win over Toronto on Monday.

They’re rested, playing their best hockey of the season, and Montreal is vulnerable.

“All the consistent playoff teams, they find a way to win games like this,” Klefbom said. “If you’re a really good, consistent playoff team, you might not always play your best game. But you find a way to win games like this.

“We know this is a tough league, where everybody can beat everybody — and it’s a long season — but you’ve got to find a way to win games like this.”

Talk is cheap.

Let’s find out if this Oilers team is for real, shall we?

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