EDMONTON — There are some moments when the answer lies inside the Xs and Os, and others when it is a little more carnal than that.
Embarrassed by the Toronto Maple Leafs in a fashion unseen in many a moon, Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett laid down the challenge that we will assume he stated in very plain English to his players on Friday
“If you truly hate to lose,” Tippett said, “then get up off the mat and do something about it.”
As fate would have it, Saturday’s opponent has accepted losing this season to the extent that it cost head coach Geoff Ward his job on Friday, as the Calgary Flames sent the stage coach up to Viking, Alta., to retrieve Darryl Sutter, who brought them to a Stanley Cup Final 17 years ago.
The Flames players are tasked with proving to their new coach — who will be watching the game on TV while fulfilling NHL protocol before joining the team Monday — that they won’t accept losing either.
Two dogs. One bone.
Two sportswriters. One double cheeseburger.
Someone is going to go home hungry.
“These are moments during a season that can define you as a team,” said centreman Jujhar Khaira, whose words may give you some insight into what Tippett said to his players Friday. “You can either sit in this slump or work as a team, get back to how we were playing, and slowly climb up the standings again.
“We’re going to have another chance playing (Toronto). Right now, it’s on to Calgary tomorrow and getting ready for that.”
It was a long video session that greeted the Oilers players on Friday morning, after a day off Thursday to remove the question marks from the thought bubbles over their head, and the xs from their cartoon eyes. Losing a three-game series by a 13-1 aggregate was bad enough. Realizing that they could have played the Leafs twice more and likely would have lost them both provided the mirror that this whole organization gazed into Friday.
“First off, (Toronto) played some very good hockey. That’s first and foremost,” began Connor McDavid. “We made too many mistakes. Mental mistakes. It’s little things: getting in front of people leaving the offensive zone; getting in front of their D when they’re winding it up, us forwards. D-men making the simple play and being quick with the puck. Little things that add up throughout a game.”
It was the complete team game played by the Leafs that thwarted Edmonton. But it wasn’t so long ago, during a recent 11-2 run, that the Oilers were throwing their version of that complete game at opponents. A game that was good enough to earn back-to-back 2-1 and 7-1 wins against Calgary, just a fortnight ago. (That’s two weeks, kids.)
“It’s not like we’ve been playing bad hockey for a month here. We had a bad week — three straight losses — and you want to grab it as quickly as you can,” McDavid said.
Added Khaira, who is fast becoming a thoughtful quote from inside the Oilers’ walls, “We’re getting back to the game plan Saturday night. We’re going to play a strong game, we’re going to trust everybody in the dressing room and we’re going to go forward and play a good game.”
Of course, there is one hiccup.
Even though it will be assistant coach Ryan Huska who will be running the Flames bench, teams that fire their coach always come out with as concerted an effort as the one Khaira is promising. And with the new guy having the reputation as being one of the toughest, most no-nonsense people in the game, we would expect the Flames to leave little in the proverbial bag.
“You’re going to get an excited Calgary team, a team that’s going to be playing with lots of jump, lots of energy. Intensity,” said McDavid, who will be looking to avoid a fourth straight game sans a point. “I’m sure we can expect a physical game, a simple game. They’re going to play in straight lines.
“Sutter has coached a long time and had lots of success. I’m sure he’ll want to make his mark right away on a very good Calgary team.”
He might not be able to “make” it, all the way from Viking. But he might leave it, in the form of a Calgary roster that knows the organizational focus is squarely on the players after firing yet another coach.
The Battle of Alberta.
Someone is going to go home hungry.