EDMONTON — The pressure is acute in Edmonton, and there is no place to hide.
Go gas up the truck? Better go to a self-serve, or the pump jockey will want to know how that first goal snuck through your glove hand last night against Florida.
Shovel the walks to get that mind off the game? Yeah, there’s no peace and quiet when the Girl Guides walk right past your house with a, “Sorry coach, no cookies for you.”
Even the hockey kids on bottle drives don’t want Ken Holland’s empties. They’re hoping for more analytics driven bottles, and more cap conscious cans.
The pressure is on three men here in Edmonton: head coach Dave Tippett, goaltender Mikko Koskinen, and the only guy who can really make significant change — Holland, the Oilers’ GM.
Their seats are so hot they eat dinner standing up, the tension so high that even the family dog has asked for separate vacations.
“It’s unfair,” observed winger Warren Foegele, a former Carolina Hurricane who is living through his first three-alarm blaze here in a Canadian hockey city. “We win as a team, we lose as a team. It’s unfair to just blame one guy. We’re all responsible, all six guys on the ice.
“We’re a team, we’re here to win, and you just can’t be pointing fingers, saying, ‘It’s that guy’s fault.’ Or,. ‘It’s that guy’s fault.’ It doesn’t work like that. That’s not how you win.”
We don’t see Tippett getting fired any time soon no matter what happens Saturday night when the Calgary Flames come to town, a Hockey Night in Canada game that folks will watch from coast to coast like rubberneckers on the Don Valley Parkway. Nobody can avert their eyes from a good wreck — and that perfectly describes these Edmonton Oilers — but that doesn’t mean Holland is going to fire a head coach in the middle of the season for the first time as a National Hockey League general manager.
Why? Because it’s awfully hard to fire the head coach when his biggest problem is entirely the GM’s fault.
Tippett hasn’t had starting goalie Mike Smith for more than handful of healthy minutes this season. It was Holland who set his team off to sail with this Smith-Koskinen tandem back in October, two old goalies on a three-hour tour. He’s the one who took the chance that has blown up in the Oilers’ collective face.
It’s hard even to watch poor Koskinen take the nets these days, as the oddsmakers make lines on who has less confidence in the six-foot-seven Finn. His teammates, or himself.
What the Oilers truly need is a new face in goal, with backup Stuart Skinner very likely to remain in COVID protocol through the weekend and Smith’s return set for some time next week, maybe. Holland spent his Friday knocking on the Philadelphia Flyers’ door about Martin Jones, while simultaneously trying to free Braden Holtby up from the Dallas Stars.
Neither is expected in time for the Flames game Saturday — an evening that could become toxic if the hated provincial rivals roll into town and mistreat the Oilers the same way the Panthers did on Thursday.
But the Oilers are looking at the HNIC game as an opportunity. Hey, what choice do they have?
“When you’re not getting the results you want … to come out and win a big divisional game and start moving in the right direction, that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Tippett. “We had a hard week of practice, a good week of practice and a lot of that (Florida) game we were trying to do what we had been doing (in practice). It would have been nice to get rewarded for it, but we didn’t. In the end, we didn’t finish the game very well, so we have to come out tomorrow, regroup and go back at it.
“Getting a win in your division is a good way to start, grab two points here and start moving in the right direction.”
The issue for everyone here is the fact that Edmonton has the second-best goalie on the ice every night. That will be true again Saturday, with Jacob Markstrom expected to start for Calgary.
But not to be forgotten is the second digit in the 6-0 score from that Panthers game. Edmonton’s once powerful offence has offence has stagnated, with some ugly numbers from the players they count on to score:
• Connor McDavid has just a single assist in his past four games.
• Leon Draisaitl has a goal and an assist in his last four games.
• Jesse Puljujarvi has two assists in his past six games.
• Zach Hyman, two assists in six games. He is in COVID protocol.
• Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is out with a knee injury, after collecting just 1-2-3 in his previous seven games.
Those players need to be better for anything to change here, but it’s the Three Horsemen of the Oil Collapse who are the most nervous heading into the weekend.
“When you hear the talk — and it’s hard not to hear it — you can’t help but feel responsible,” said fourth-line winger Colton Sceviour. “Is there something you can be doing in certain situations to try and help? I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks at themselves and tries to figure out if they can do something differently to help make everyone look better.”