BOSTON — When the Edmonton Oilers used to fall behind in a game, the comeback process would be some combination of wildly entertaining and fundamentally flawed.
They can press, these Oilers, creating offence better than anybody else in the National Hockey League. But in forging — or trying to forge — a comeback, this team used to bleed as many chances (or more) as it created.
Teams like the Boston Bruins? They feast off those teams.
So why, on the rarest of nights at the venerable TD Garden Thursday, did the Bruins go home hungry after a stunning 3-2 loss to Edmonton?
“We’ve come to the realization that you get more chances when you check for them,” said Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse, who sailed a long wrist shot through a screen and Jeremy Swayman’s legs for the game-winner. “We check for our chances, and we capitalized on the opportunities that we did get.”
Check for your chances.
There’s an old coach who was sitting at home watching hockey Thursday, and he coined that phrase. He couldn’t take his eyes off Bruins-Oilers, and saw in his old club a team that’s going to be a tough out come May and June, if it plays this way.
“Checking for your chances,” Ken Hitchcock texted after the win, “is like finding the mother lode.”
The Oilers got bigger and better at the trade deadline — and over the course of the season — and on Thursday they needed every inch and every pound to do something nobody has done in this building in well over a calendar year: Defeat the Bruins when trailing after a period.
You’ve seen the stats by now:
• Boston was 33-0-3 when leading after one period this season, and 35-0-2 when leading after two.
• The last time the Bruins lost in regulation when leading after two periods came on Nov. 11, 2021, on home ice in Boston, against … Edmonton. That was early last season.
Goalie Stuart Skinner had a nightmare first period, allowing the Bruins’ first shot from Brad Marchand to slip under his arm, then coughing up a puck that found its way behind him seconds later — with just 0.3 ticks left on the first-period clock.
But Edmonton wasn’t playing poorly. It was just losing.
So, on a night when the entire hockey world glanced at the out-of-town scoreboard after one period and thought, “Well, that one is over,” the Oilers just kept grinding.
Evan Bouchard took a pass as the trailer and beat Swayman cleanly with a wrist shot halfway through the game. Then, Devin Shore got a nice puck to Ryan McLeod in the slot and he scored — a fourth-line goal that tied the game 6:08 into the third period.
Then the hockey gods — the same ones who had given the Bruins at least one, if not two suspect goals to open this game — smiled on Nurse. And all along the way, the Oilers never gambled or gave Boston that easy third goal.
They checked for their chances.
“That’s always the recipe. That’s always what we’re striving for,” Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl said. “I guess maybe the more important the games get, you take more value in that.
“That’s a standard that we have to have every game.”
We’ve felled virtual trees writing about how the Oilers won’t be a legit contender until they can win big games that Connor McDavid and Draisaitl don’t win for them.
Well, welcome to contention.
Here in Boston — the graveyard of the Toronto Maple Leafs — the Edmonton Oilers found new life as a team that can beat anyone, anywhere.
Next stop, Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, a Hockey Night in Canada beauty.
“I thought just the whole game — we played a playoff game and they did too,” Skinner said, from beneath that world-class moustache. “They always play us tight. They do everything they can to give us nothing, and we were able to sneak through.”
How do you recover from two stinky goals against an opponent of this magnitude? Well, the hockey world learned a lot about young Stuart Skinner on this night.
“I just said to myself, ‘I’ve got to lock it down for the next 40. If I do that, it allows at least to give the guys a chance to win,’” the goalie said.
Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft, without the last change, couldn’t get McDavid away from the great Patrice Bergeron often enough. And when he did, the Oilers captain would have to face the line of David Krejci, David Pastrnak and Pavel Zacha.
The game ended with zero points for McDavid and a second assist on the winner for Draisaitl. It was won by bottom-six forwards, and a defence corps that scored two of the three goals.
“It felt like a playoff game, and in playoff games sometimes there’s a saw-off between the best players on both teams. The other people have to find ways to contribute,” reasoned Woodcroft. “We found ourselves in some sticky circumstances, down 2-0 to the top team in the league after the first period. But we stuck with it, we did it harder and longer (than Boston), and we were rewarded with the two points.”
The last word goes to Nurse, who has been a part of this thing as long as anyone.
Winning in Boston? A two-goal comeback, no less?
“I was saying this morning that we could play with anyone in this league,” Nurse said. “It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another thing to go out there and do it.
“We did today.”