PITTSBURGH — The Edmonton Oilers were sick when they departed travel through Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The goalie couldn’t find a stop for his team, but then again, he didn’t have a prayer more often than not, so poor was the defensive structure in front of him.
On Wednesday the Oilers fly home after giving up just five road goals in total — including two overtime games — with three points earned. Not bad for a 2-5-1 team, right?
So why does that feel like a bit of a rip off for the Oilers?
“It does, it really does,” said Pat Maroon, who perhaps had the most and highest quality chances to score in Tuesday night’s 2-1 overtime loss, but could not convert.
Added head coach Todd McLellan: “If we’d have been told we were only going to give up five goals in two OT matches, I would have thought we had a pretty good chance of getting more than three points.”
They gathered Tuesday in Pittsburgh to witness Sidney Crosby vs. Connor McDavid, the third ever meeting between these two stars. But what 18,625 fans got was Matt Murray vs. Cam Talbot — a goaltending clinic of the highest pedigree that saw 74 shots on net, but just three blinks of the red light.
Ian Cole broke open a 0-0 game in the third period for Pittsburgh, before McDavid rifled home the game-tying goal with 2:53 left in the frame to rescue a point for Edmonton. Phil Kessel scored on an overtime breakaway to decide it in three-on-three hockey, but truly, had Murray and his sprawling defencemen not been otherworldly good, this could have been a three- or four-goal victory for Edmonton.
Talbot was exceptional, no doubt. And Pittsburgh played well.
But it was four or five pucks that somehow failed to enter the Penguins net that had people craning their necks towards the replay screens, asking, “How did that one stay out?”
“I’m going to make that same shot 100 times,” began Mark Letestu, the victim of an incredible, diving paddle save in Period 2. “You’ve got to give the goalie credit, sometimes. You get lots on it, in the right spot. You hit it as hard as you can, and sometimes the guy comes up with the play.”
Maroon could have had a hat trick. He went scoreless.
“(Olli Maatta) on the back check, just got his stick on it,” he said, ticking off his open-net chances. “Murray made a heck of a save on one. I was right in the crease, I shot it right into the D-man (Cole). What are the odds of that?”
We’ve seen this movie before, with every NHL team in every NHL city. The team begins to make repairs in its game, but they still lose a couple of games they don’t deserve to lose before success arrives. Then, when you win four or five and the sickness begins to set in again, you get a win or two you don’t deserve before reality arrives.
McDavid, who now has outscored Crosby five points to zero head-to-head — the Penguins have won all three games, the Oilers are 0-1-2 — isn’t buying the ‘bad luck’ angle.
“We’re missing some flat-out open nets, and it’s costing us,” he said, a fresh gash on his nose from an Adam Larsson high-stick in Philly. “We just have to relax, and calm down. We’re getting these chances in front of the net that should be automatic, and we’re not scoring them — myself included. Talbs is standing on his head, the defence is playing great…
“The forwards have to be better.”
When you were billed as a Stanley Cup contender, and the hard facts are that you’ve dropped six of your last seven games, you could say that looking for positives is delusional. That a harsh, objective eye would see more flaws than improvement.
But when you compare the Oilers’ game, which was truly abhorrent in Games 2 through 5 this season, to the quality purveyed on this road trip, it is unquestionable: They look like a good team again, one with stellar goaltending and excellent defensive posture.
Leon Draisaitl has returned, as has the speedy Drake Caggiula, and there are five players who are consistently earning high quality scoring chances that somehow are not being converted.
It’s windy. That portends a change in the weather.
“I really thought we made some strides on this road trip,” said Maroon. “We just need to build off this. Keep grinding away, chipping away. We can’t hang our heads.”
Not with 74 games to play, you can’t.