Oilers shrug off loss that all but hands Pacific crown to Canucks

Casey DeSmith turned aside 32 of the 33 shots he faced and Tyler Myers collected two assists as the Vancouver Canucks provided themselves with some breathing room in the Pacific Division with a 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers.

EDMONTON — You often wonder if National Hockey League players have the same priorities as National Hockey League fans. (Answer: No, they do not.)

As in, weren’t the Edmonton Oilers supposed to be all-out, super desperate to beat the Vancouver Canucks, and put themselves in the driver’s seat for first place in the Pacific Division?

And weren’t they supposed to be all mean and surly, facing a Vancouver team that had won all three meetings so far this season? Wasn’t this supposed to be a physical, prove-a-point grudge match? Just in case they meet in Round 2 of the playoffs?

Well, in a 3-1 loss in which where the Oilers ceded first in the Pacific to the Canucks, the home team wasn’t particularly physical and scored just once against Canucks backup Casey DeSmith.

After playing their third consecutive game without scoring — and spiritual — leader Connor McDavid, the Oilers (1-1-1 without No. 97) appear content entering the post-season as the Pacific’s second seed and matching up with Los Angeles (highly likely) or Vegas (still possible) in Round 1.

“It was a tight-checking game, lots of hits. It got chippy here and there. I thought we battled pretty hard,” countered Vincent Desharnais, after what was basically a 2-1 game, with a late empty netter by Dakota Joshua

“We lost and it doesn’t really matter, as long as we are in the playoffs,” Desharnais said. “These type of games will get us ready for playoffs. Games like Vegas got us ready as well. We just have to build on it and look at some tape. I thought we did some pretty good things.”

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In three games without McDavid, Edmonton scored five times versus Vegas, twice against Arizona, and just once on Saturday. It’s obvious to say they aren’t as dangerous a team without their captain, but what you notice in McDavid’s absence is all the different ways he can help his team turn the momentum inside a 60-minute game.

The power play went 1-for-6 in his absence over three games, a unit that can be the Oilers’ oxygen in a tight, low-scoring game like this one. The Oilers needed one more regulation goal to gain the second point in a 3-2 OT loss to Arizona, and a second regulation goal would have got the Oilers into overtime against Vancouver.

They’re not a one-man team. But it’s impossible not to become somewhat dependent on a player who annually gives you a point and a half per game.

“When things aren’t going well, one possession, one play by him can change the dynamic of the game,” said head coach Kris Knoblauch. “He’s the best player in the league and the impact he has on this team … Tonight, we only scored one goal.

“A lot of credit to their goalie but we’ve just played three games without him and obviously we’re a better team with him. But I don’t think it’s cause for worry.”

Knoblauch would not declare McDavid ready to return against San Jose on Monday, a decision that will be made likely Sunday or after Monday’s morning skate. But you can expect to see young defenceman Philip Broberg called up and inserted into the lineup for at least two of the Oilers’ final three games, now all but meaningless in the standings.

Does this loss change the way Knoblauch will approach these final three games?

“Yeah it does,” he admitted. “Definitely there is opportunity for rest if players need it. Giving other players more responsibility in certain situations. There could be call-ups. Maybe Broberg is somebody we’ll consider.”

Truth be told, the likelihood of facing the Los Angeles Kings and goalie Cam Talbot, as opposed to finishing first and getting Nashville and Juuse Saros, might just be better for Edmonton. At worst, we’re not sure it matters either way.

Meanwhile, the guys who drive this team won’t be changing the way they play. They’re prepping their game for the playoffs, not playing out string on the regular season.

“I don’t know if it changes how the coaching staff sees it, but as a player whenever you’re out there you want to play your best,” Zach Hyman said. “You can’t just lollygag your way into the playoffs — you have to be on your game.

“There were times in my career where I was locked into a position for 20 games. And it’s a lot harder than three games.”

It was the first regulation loss at home for Edmonton since Feb. 26, snapping a 10-0-2 run that bodes well for a team whose motto for the season was “Cup or bust.”

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