Struggling Oilers, Sabres search for answers to right sinking ships

Jack Eichel scored his seventh goal of the season and the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Edmonton Oilers.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The very idea of salvaging something worth keeping from the east-west train wreck that is Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres hockey right now elicits deep thought, blank stares, and laughter.

Yet we asked the young faces of these struggling franchises to pinpoint something that’s gone right amidst all their squandered games and shriveling expectations for 2017-18.

“Positives?” asked Connor McDavid, skeptically. Teammate Patrick Maroon let loose a chuckle behind him. “Not many. We haven’t been very good this year. I think everyone’s made that very clear. When I think positives? Whew… I don’t know.”

A full 10 seconds of silence pass when the same question is passed to Jack Eichel, who, you may recall, shares a draft year with McDavid.

Sunken in the stall of a pristine, expensive KeyBank Center dressing room, a Sabres ballcap pulled as low over his eyes as the day’s collective mood, Eichel thinks hard and sighs before pointing to an improved penalty kill, to which he contributes.

Then he star-wipes wide to wrestle with the big picture and another draft-lottery pace.

“We should stop feeling sorry for ourselves, complaining and making excuses for what’s going on. We just need to come together and work harder. That’s always the key to success,” Eichel says.

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Sabres, Oilers: They suffer from the same disease.

When the going gets tough, they crumble. Following Friday’s near-joyless 3-1 Sabres victory, the worst team in the East and second-worst in the West are a combined 2-20-1 when trailing after two periods.

“The severity of the momentum is too much. We get deflated as a team or they score a goal,” Eichel explains. “We have to find a way to ride it out when the momentum swings and the other team’s pressing and we’re on our heels. We have to figure out a way to bend but not break.”

You’ll have to excuse them. They’re not at their best.

Heading into what was derisively titled the “Pissed-Off Bowl” by one jerseyed-up fan with a drink in hand, the sides had a total of 13 wins to rub between them at the season’s quarter mark. Eight individual teams had that many or more, and one of those is the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

Thirty minutes into a scoreless, jagged game, a lone fan booed loud in a sold-out barn. Presumably he was unhappy with the level of play in general, which featured 24 giveaways and about as much flow as an army barber.

Black Friday, indeed.

You can bet 29 GMs are wondering when the sales start.

“The character was questioned about the group,” said Todd McLellan. The Oilers coach believes the dedication in practice is there and that all the right things are being said in the room. It’s just the games where things fall apart.

“We can’t go on the ice and play for them. We can push them, we can prod them, we can poke them, but they need to make decisions that aren’t always easy. They happen very fast.”

One could flip McLellan’s words with those of Sabres coach Phil Housley, and they’d ring just as true.

“With our record, there’s a lot of questions out there about accountability and trust,” Housley said. “They have to work it out together.”

That began in earnest Monday, after the Sabres lost to the Blue Jackets but before they lost to the Wild.

Bit player Jordan Nolan called for more accountability in the press, pointing the gulf in attitude and approach between this and his former family, the championship Los Angeles Kings.

The doors closed for a players-only meeting. Kyle Okposo, who stayed silent that night, believes veteran Jason Pominville’s message resonated most. When the doors finally opened, the Sabres’ faces were a pall of thousand-yard stares.

“We’ve got to grow up, mature,” Okposo said.

When Ryan O’Reilly isn’t on his game, he grows quiet and self-critical. He’s trying to convince himself that, as the team’s best two-way centre and highest-paid player, he needs to worry more about the group’s result, not his own. Pick others up. Let them reciprocate. The mental valleys are gruelling, more so when losing is what you know.

This isn’t even the bitterest sense of defeat O’Reilly has tasted.

“It’s unfortunate, but I’ve been on some bad teams in Colorado. But the expectations coming in here…” He reloads. “We were expected to be fighting for a [playoff] spot. It’s going to take a lot to get out of this.”

Rolling over a slipshod Edmonton squad in decisive fashion on a jam-packed but low-energy night is a baby step for a fan base that can easily score hockey tickets below face value. (“I got friends giving them away for free on Facebook,” one Buffalonian said.)

Core Oilers Cam Talbot and Oscar Klefbom sat with the flu. Leon Draisaitl may as well have. McLellan on his $9-million forward’s play: “Ask me tomorrow.”

Buffalo got a jolt with the healthy return of its defensive horse, Rasmus Ristolainen, who helped limit McDavid to three shots, zero points and a 44 per cent Corsi 5-on-5.

The Sabres ended a seven-game skid (trench?), the oft-ripped Eichel excelled at both ends and scored for the second straight game, and the Oilers — again — whiffed on an opportunity to link two regulation wins together. They haven’t done it all season.

“Same story,” said McDavid, a dash-2 in loss number 15. “We get a win, we come back and we don’t follow it up. I don’t think it was [lack of] effort at all. We were just sloppy. It just felt like we were never really in sync, anyone at anytime. Little passes that are easy to make, we didn’t complete them. It’s just a group that’s out of whack. It is frustrating.

“We had high hopes for tonight, and we just can’t get it going.”

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There are days, Darnell Nurse admits, when positivity is too slippery to hold. That’s when he looks out, to McDavid, to the group that won a playoff round last spring and appeared to the world like it would win a bunch more soon.

“Games are gonna eat away at you. Plays are gonna eat away at you,” Nurse says. “We believe in each other. As long as that belief stays within this room, it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside of it.”

Outside, they’re already tabulating lottery odds.

Outside, the Pacific-leading Knights have won four games in a row. Ditto the Bruins, Edmonton’s next opponent. The Oilers and Sabres desperately need runs like that, yesterday.

Like Eichel, McDavid says it’s pointless to lick wounds and indulge in hurt feelings.

“We’re the ones who got ourselves in this,” the captain said, “and we’re the ones who are gonna get ourselves out.”

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