EDMONTON — This object in the Edmonton Oilers’ rearview mirror is indeed getting larger.
The Montreal Canadiens, who have been a rock in Edmonton’s shoe all season long, took a 3-2 overtime victory on Monday, crowding to within five points of the Oilers in the North Division standings while still holding a vital four games in hand.
Montreal outworked the Oilers in the crucial third period Monday, erasing a 2-0 deficit after 40 minutes and then celebrating Eric Staal’s debut as a Canadien when he snapped the OT winner far side on Mike Smith.
“We bent a little bit, and gave them some chances. They capitalized on them,” reasoned Darnell Nurse, who scored his 13th of the season to lead all NHL defencemen.
There was a time when a loss like this one would have left a mark on the Oilers’ collective psyche. When the sting of Monday’s blown lead would cast a pall on Wednesday’s effort — then two losses would lead to three. To their credit, we’ve not seen any of that from Edmonton this season.
They’ve learned how to park a loss – or a win – and move on to the next fight.
“You’re not going to bury yourself over this,” said Nurse. “There are going to be highs, there are going to be lows. Wins in good fashion, wins in bad fashion. And you’ll have losses too.
“It’s easy to dwell on it, but that’s not the team that we have.”
The team he has, however, has surely struggled against a Canadiens team that has won four of five meetings this year. Two early wins in January and two in the past week sandwich Edmonton’s lone win, and like the Maple Leafs, Edmonton will have to figure out how to handle a Montreal club that is a lock for the playoffs.
“They’re tough on the walls, they push down hard,” said Edmonton fourth-liner Devin Shore, who scored. “Us forwards, we would have liked to have won more battles along the wall on the way out. They swarm in the D-zone, and that’s on us to find a way to counter that.
“They might have played the way they wanted more than we did tonight.”
That’s a fair assessment, but as Nurse said, you’re going to win some games where the other team has more of the play. The Oilers were painting that picture until the third, when Josh Anderson and Tomas Tatar tied the game.
It might have been different if referee Marc Joannette hadn’t lived up to his reputation as the stingiest zebra in the herd. The power plays ended up 4-2 in Edmonton’s favour, though two non-calls in particular stood out, as Leon Draisaitl was pulled down from behind and Shea Weber chopped Connor McDavid’s feet out while Edmonton was on a power play.
Each non-call was as head-scratching as the next. But, thems the breaks. Edmonton still blew a 2-0 lead.
Whether or not one approves of the method, the Habs have controlled Edmonton’s two superstars better than any other opponent, limiting the duo to a combined four assists this season — and zero goals.
They’ll have to bring a bit more in games like this one, where the Canadiens realized a loss would have created major space in the standings between them and the third-place Oilers.
“They check well. They compete,” Nurse said. “Look at their team — they just come out and work. I don’t think there are any real secrets to their system. It feels like each time we play them they have a real solid game.”
Another three-point game — exactly what the rest of the Conference was hoping not to see.
The Oilers were 15-2 when they scored first, and 16-1-1 when taking a lead into the third period. All of that unravelled against a Montreal team that just wouldn’t go away.
“That’s the way it’s going to be,” head coach Dave Tippett said. “That’s tight-checking hockey. It’s the way good games are.”
Every inch was earned on Monday, and in the end, Montreal earned that much more than Edmonton did.
What do they say in curling? The Oilers ended up on the wrong side of the inch.
“Other teams, they aren’t just going to give you space where you can do stuff,” Tippett said. “You’ve got to earn that space, and we want to make other teams earn their space. It turns into a tight hockey game.
“This is the kind of game you’re going to see night in, night out,” Tippett added. “You’d better be ready for it, ‘cause that’s what playoff hockey is.”