EDMONTON — These are the wins that separate.
The games where you don’t score first. Where your lines at the start of the game and your lines at the end of the game aren’t the same.
Where the team that just got its coach fired is doing everything in the opening period — hitting, hustling, sacrificing — that it never did for the old coach, and you just have to survive the push and deal with a 1-0 deficit.
Goaltender Mike Smith let us inside the program a little bit in his post-game comments on Saturday, after a healthy, hard-won 3-2 regulation win over the Calgary Flames. It was the tourniquet that stopped the bleeding of a three-game slaughter at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the kind of medicine that helps get the patient off the table.
“Something that’s been talked about in our locker room the last few days is, how do we win games when it’s not easy?” began Smith. “How do you win games when things don’t go as planned? You get down, or there is some adversity. That’s something we’ve been talking about, and trying to learn from.”
The team with the new coach — even though Darryl Sutter was at home in Viking watching the game on TV due to COVID-19 protocols — always wins this game. And sure enough, the Flames out-hit and outplayed Edmonton in the first period, frustrating Leon Draisaitl into two retaliatory penalties and scoring on the power play provided by Kailer Yamamoto’s slew foot.
“We didn’t have the first period we wanted to,” Smith said. “But that didn’t deter us from going out in the second and third and building a game. Finding a way to win even though we were down. It’s a good lesson learned for our group, because it’s going to get harder and harder as the season goes on. As you get closer to playoffs and in the playoffs.”
Smith gave them the requisite goaltending to build a comeback around. It never got to 2-0, and even when the Flames made it 2-1 early in Period 3, Smith made sure the Flames never scored again.
It was the kind of win that begins to put the Leafs disaster in the rear-view mirror, rather than a loss that would wake the ghosts of a humbling week for the Oilers.
“We played a really good team in Toronto that kind of snuffed us out and gave us a wakeup call. If we want to be a top team in this league, there are standards that have to be set,” Smith said. “We’re figuring that out. We’re learning every day.”
As usually happens when Edmonton plays Calgary these days, Edmonton’s stars were simply better and more engaged than Calgary’s.
Placed on a line together in the second period, Connor McDavid and Draisaitl forged the game’s final two goals. First, a virtuoso pass from Draisaitl to Yamamoto, and then it was McDavid ripping a shot off the post and past Jacob Markstrom with 3:45 to play. On this night, the captain’s pointless streak ended at just over 217 minutes.
Meanwhile, Johnny Gaudreau had one shot on goal all night — a game-opening power play goal — while Sean Monahan also had a single shot, adding a second assist on Gaudreau’s goal. The Oilers' stars beat the Flames' stars, plain and simple.
“It's a big win,” McDavid said. “When you're sliding like we were, sometimes it's tough to find a way out of it and I thought we did a great job as an entire group of just staying with it, sticking with it, holding onto that game even though we probably didn't get off to our best start.
“I loved the way we kind of held onto that one, so hopefully that builds us some momentum heading into a very big Ottawa series here this week."
Would you call it winning with your ‘B’ game?
I’m not sure that’s the perfect description, but the Oilers met an opponent on Saturday that was hungry, physical and motivated, and after taking a few punches on the ropes they finished with a late K.O.
The boxing analogy comes in a game that featured two spirited scraps, as Darnell Nurse took on the giant, fighting Milan Lucic for the second time in his career. There are no losers when two big men like that are chuckin’ knuckles, and the scrap made Lucic the only man in history to have earned a fighting major wearing two different sweaters in the Battle of Alberta.
“He’s one of our leaders,” head coach Dave Tippett said of Nurse. “Nobody can tell a player when to fight, why to fight… Those things happen. You’re into battles in the game, and those are things people engage in to help your team win. To try to help gain momentum.”
Down in Los Angeles on Saturday, where the Kings came back from a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3 in overtime, their head coach was talking about the dynamic of leadership:
“When your top players decide they’ve got to reel the game back in, and do it the right way, it’s real easy to follow,” Todd McLellan said. “When the Alpha decides to play the right way, everybody else follows.”
Up in Edmonton, the Alphas fought, saved and scored their way out of a hellish slump.
Now, with Ottawa in for three, let’s see what follows.