NEW YORK — Is it a mirage? Or is Saturday’s stunning come from behind win the start of something real?
Was that four-goal third period — courtesy a group of players whose lengthy lack of production has been a big reason for the situation the Edmonton Oilers find themselves in — a launching pad?
Does it mean, as our old friend Teemu Selanne used to say, that the Ketchup bottle is finally flowing in Edmonton?
“I knew, as a team, that goals were coming for us,” said Evan Bouchard, who scored the first two goals in a four-goal, third period outburst that left the Rangers reeling, 4-3 losers at home. “We had our chances — we just had to bear down.
“Once one went in, everything went in.”
Trailing 3-0 after 40 minutes and scoreless in five consecutive periods of what was looking very much like a pointless three-game New York swing, the Oilers finally struck when Bouchard picked the top corner behind a screened Igor Shesterkin with a deft wrist shot through a screen. It wasn’t much — beyond Bouchard’s first of the season in game No. 21 — but it was everything for a team desperate to have someone make a big play.
Three minutes later Bouchard struck again, drifting one home from the high slot.
Then Dylan Holloway took advantage of a rough Jacob Trouba shift, tore down the left wing and wired a shot short-side on Shesterkin for his first National Hockey League goal.
“It’s pretty special. A cool moment,” said Holloway, who may well have had a plane ticket to Bakersfield waiting for him in Edmonton — one that will stay in GM Ken Holland’s drawer for at least one more game. “It took me a little bit (to score), but it was a great effort by my line, and really cool that it went in.”
Then, with 2:26 to play, the Rangers made the bone-head mistake that these Oilers have trademarked over this last 10-game stretch, as Alexis Lafreniere took a needless roughing penalty a full 200 feet from his own net.
And on a day when a hero was needed — and guys like Bouchard, Holloway, Ryan McLeod (three assists) and Warren Foegele stood up — who do you think combined for the game-winning powerplay goal with 2:02 left to play?
You guessed it: Leon Draisaitl, from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid.
“You try and score in the first seven minutes (of the third period), give yourself a chance. We did that,” said Draisaitl. “Then ‘Clouder’s line got us back into the game, dragged us into the fight.”
Mired in a two-goal New York swing, after a 5-2 loss to the Devils and a 3-0 beatdown by the Islanders, the Oilers would have taken the offence from anyone. The fact it came from a group of support scorers who have been at the heart of that age old problem of winning games that Nos. 29 and 97 don’t win themselves, is a major bonus.
“That’s what good teams do. That’s how they win,” Draisaitl said. “You’re not going to win with two, three, four guys scoring. We know the heavy lifting will rely on us — that what we get paid to do. But we need guys to chip in.”
In the midst of a punishing phase of their schedule, Edmonton had just closed a 3-7 10-game segment, and were trailing 3-0 after 40 minutes as the next 10-game segment began.
There are slumps every season, but this one has come surprisingly early and has exposed some elements of the roster that were thought to be strong enough to get GM Ken Holland to the trade deadline. Key among them was a Bottom 6 that had six goals between them heading into Saturday, a D-corps with just seven goals, and a top line right-winger in Jesse Puljujarvi (one goal) who wailed away again Saturday to no avail.
Jay Woodcroft did what all Oilers coaches eventually do in desperate times, putting McDavid and Draisaitl on a line together, with Puljujarvi. The slumping Finn twice had Shesterkin deep in his net as he took a pass from his linemates from inside 15 feet, but hit a post and shot a puck that the Vezina winner had a chance to stop, two dear opportunities for a goal-starved player that went to waste.
What it boiled down to was, someone had to make a play.
Pick a corner. Beat a goalie.
Find a way, which is exactly what Bouchard and the McLeod line did in forging this comeback.
“It’s a big, character win,” said Draisaitl. “But we’ve got to learn from our mistakes. We’ve got to learn we can’t be going down 3-0 every game. It’s too exhausting on players. This is a step in the right direction, but we’ve got to follow it up. We can’t continue to go win-one-lose-one. Five hundred isn’t going to get us into the playoffs. We’ve got to start winning games consistently, and do it the right way.”
New York had two goals called back, one very accurately on an offside challenge, the other a little more subjectively on a goalie interference challenge. So Edmonton caught some breaks, but then made more of their own — a true sign that a slumping team may be on its way out of a funk.
Most importantly, this was a game rescued from the fire by a bunch of guys who won’t be going to the All-Star game. Guys who are the guts of this team; who have to be there far more often if the Oilers are going to be the team they think they can be.
On one night, at least, they looked up and down the Edmonton bench for a hero, and the guys who stood up were the foot soldiers.
“If they start going in for the third and fourth lines, and the defencemen,” Bouchard said, “we’re a hard team to beat.”
Of that there is no doubt.