Slowly, their identity reappears. Maybe too late, maybe just in the nick of time.
Either way, the Edmonton Oilers — finally — are beginning to resemble the team we parted ways with last spring, an identity that was never supposed to be this hard to find again.
The Oilers could have been 10 points behind the third place San Jose Sharks, dead and buried in the Pacific Division after this game. Instead, after a 5-3 win at Rogers Place, Edmonton is six points back with 48 games to play.
It doesn’t sound like much, sure. History says it is plenty.
"We will believe in this ‘til it’s over," promised Adam Larsson, who returned from injury to play his signature game. "It’s a lot of games — more than half the season left. I’ve seen teams crawl back in February and March. This is a start."
Larsson was solid and punitive, leading the Oilers defencemen in ice time (21:55) and hits (five), lending that physical edge that made Rogers Arena so little fun for visitors last season.
The Sharks scored first, but by night’s end had just 21 shots on goal. They handled Connor McDavid, rendering him pointless for just the ninth time in 34 games, but others took up the cause.
What made this look familiar to the playoff meeting between these two clubs last season was Leon Draisaitl stepping into the void with a two-assist night. He was dealing all evening and could have had a couple more helpers, while the Oilers third-line centre, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had a goal and an assist as well.
That’s an attack that can get you somewhere, and a conglomeration of weapons that haven’t fired on the same night in enough games this season.
"I think we’ve gotten back to playing fast, playing the way we’re capable of playing and the way we played for most of last year," said Draisaitl. "I think that confidence is coming back and for us now it’s just a matter of keeping that going, being consistent with it."
Drake Caggiula drove the net and skated miles, something we thought we’d see more of this season, but for some reason it’s been missing. Cam Talbot was solid if not spectacular in goal. This team simply plays better in front of him than the backup, for whatever reason.
And all that talk this season about the Oilers being to slow? Well, much like when the team was winning a year ago, that theme won’t make the morning sportscasts today.
"We’re playing with a lot more speed, connecting better in the breakouts and that sets up everything for us," Larsson said. "Earlier this season we had trouble breaking out and it slowed everything down. We’ve got a lot of key pieces back, and there is a lot more connection between forwards and ‘D’, ‘D’ to ‘D’, goalie to ‘D’. When we break out well we look like a fast team."
And a team that was having fun again. To the point where Pat Maroon, who sniped the game-winner to buy some much needed confidence, grabbed Brent Burns’ beard and gave it a playful tug.
"It wasn’t really a tug. He was just kind of petting it," said Burns. "It’s a nice beard. It happens more than you think."
"I do some crazy stuff sometimes," chuckled Maroon. "I was laughing about it and he was laughing about it. I thought he would be mad at first, but he just asked me if I liked it. I said, ‘Yeah, it’s a pretty nice beard.’"
The players on both teams had a smile as the replay played out on the scoreboard.
"It was a good laugh, actually," said Oscar Klefbom. "It’s crazy how they look, Burns and Thornton. We need more guys like that."
It’s amazing, isn’t it? Play well, win a few — the Oilers have now won seven of their past 11 games — and all of the sudden the game becomes fun again.
The confidence returns, and with that comes your identity.
"You earn confidence," began head coach Todd McLellan, "and you earn it by doing things right over and over and over again.
"It’s been a challenge because sometimes we do that and don’t win, (like games) against Toronto and Nashville. So you get tested with it, but I think we’re doing more good than bad, and we begin to feel good about yourself and your teammates."
Slowly, the feeling returns.
Can there still be time?