EDMONTON — They talk about how the recipe for a good team is when it can win games even when it plays poorly.
Then there are the games where you only get one of those two menu items. Like on Thursday, when the Edmonton Oilers had the “playing poorly” part down, but despite hanging around, could not find a way to come up with a win.
The Oilers left their emotions in Winnipeg and their hands somewhere over Swift Current, then came home to face a Calgary Flames club that had been in town longer than Edmonton had. The Flames won 3-1, and were the better team by some margin.
“We were sloppy. Sloppy with the puck, turned a lot of pucks over,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “(Mike) Smith was really good in goal (27 saves), gave us a chance. We had some chances but we didn’t bury anything."
James Neal, who scored the lone Oilers goal, echoed his coach's sentiment: "Getting back late, trying to get some rest and get ready to go tonight… we were a little sloppy. But we were right there heading into the third period. A one-goal game. We just have to try to find one and tie it up, and we didn’t. We’ll regroup.”
The rejigged schedule provided the perfect recipe for the kind of game the Oilers cooked up Thursday, coming home for the second game in a back-to-back after having played — and won — two emotional, important games at Winnipeg. This was one of their two games in hand on the Jets, and the Oilers just didn’t have the juice to take advantage of anything.
“They’re a desperate team over there, and we played a game yesterday with travel. You could tell they had a little more jump than us,” said defenceman Ethan Bear. “These are playoff style games. When you’re playing a team that’s fighting for their lives, we have to match that intensity.”
Connor McDavid went pointless in the loss, a minor dent in his quest for 100 points and also an end to his run of four straight games with three or more points. That should have Calgary nervous on Saturday — McDavid is unlikely to put up back-to-back goose eggs, with the schedule dwindling and that 100-point number out there as a target.
It’s no worry — second place in the North is still Edmonton’s to claim. With five games remaining against the listless Vancouver Canucks, there should be no problem keeping the Jets in the rearview mirror.
But first, the last of a 10-game season series against the Flames on Saturday night. We can only hope it does the Battle of Alberta more justice than the no-hitter witnessed Thursday.
“We’ll play a lot harder,” promised Bear.
There isn’t a lot of negative things to write or say about an Oilers team that lost just their second game in their last six and third in nine outings. If you can play .667 hockey all year long, who’s complaining?
Edmonton is now 26-11-2 since their 3-6 start, and have control of second place in the North. If ever there were a scheduled loss, this was one. We’ll expect much more on Saturday.
“You could tell fatigue was a factor in our game,” Tippett admitted. “We just weren’t as sharp as we needed to be. We’ll get a rest day (Friday) and get back at it Saturday.”
He put his lines in the blender in the third, the international sign of a coach who knows he’s playing a losing hand on a given night.
“You’re just looking for something. The puck’s not going in the net for you, you’re just looking for something to happen. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Tippett sat Jesse Puljujarvi down in the third period, sending him over the boards just four times for 2:47 of ice time. Typically, it’s the younger player that succumbs to the rigours of a tough schedule, and Puljujarvi was simply ineffective on Thursday.
The coach was unapologetic about sitting his top line right-winger. “He got slashed on his elbow or something. But he was fine to play.”
With due respect to the Flames, who managed to keep the candle flickering on their faint playoff hopes, this isn’t one the Oilers will lose sleep over. They have a mandated day off on Friday, and will show up on Hockey Night in Canada with a much improved game, we suspect.
“That’s the playoff mindset. Whatever happens in that game, it’s over with,” Neal said. “You’ve got to let it go and move on.”