EDMONTON — Not long after his team had beaten the Calgary Flames in overtime Monday night, Dallas Eakins began planting the seed with his players for the following night’s game in Edmonton. A little something to think about on the short flight north.
"Right after the game I sent all the team a note," he said. "Our mantra, and keep saying it to yourself right through to the end of the (Oilers) game: No penalties, no penalties, no penalties."
Fast forward 24 hours, and Eakins and the Ducks were boarding a plane for Winnipeg after a hairy 6-5 loss to the Oilers.
And Eakins’ mantra?
Ya, the Ducks took six penalties, and gave up two goals to the National Hockey League’s best powerplay unit.
"That’s where we got ourselves in trouble," the Anaheim coach said after the game. "I will say this: I’m proud of that group, back to back game playing against an elite team and the way we battled and stayed in it and kept coming back, never quit. That’s a big step forward for us even though we didn’t get the points."
Leon Draisaitl had a four-point night — including career goal No. 200 at the young age of 25 — to move into a tie atop the NHL scoring race with eight points in three games. Connor McDavid had three points and joins his linemate there, next to L.A.’s Anze Kopitar, and the Oilers moved to 3-0 after rescuing a game that was squandered by the young, exciting Ducks.
"Definitely wasn’t one of our best efforts," said Zack Kassian, who chipped in two goals. "The second period was pretty ugly, but good teams find ways to win. In years past we would have found a way to lose that game."
For a couple of those "years past," Eakins was the poor sucker standing behind the Oilers bench, suffering the final few slings and arrows of the Decade of Darkness in Edmonton.
He coached 113 Oilers games and won just 36 of them, a young coach who bit off more than he could chew back in 2013 and ’14, with a roster that left Eakins without a prayer.
"I’m a big believer in adversity and challenges. I’m grateful for my time here. It’s made a better person and a better coach," Eakins said. "I’m glad I went through it. It checks a lot of boxes as far as maturity, growth, and being a better coach and a better person."
There is some irony that during his tenure in Edmonton, Anaheim was an established Western power that would roll through town and steal the young Oilers’ lunch money a few times a season. Now he’s in Anaheim, coaching a young, talented but raw team that will lose more games than it wins against these Oilers, a team that has finally reversed the roles between the two organizations.
"McDavid is the best player in the game, and a lot of suffering went into getting him," recounted Eakins. "The amount of research that went into drafting Draisaitl… Darnell Nurse — I remember we had a deal on the table that would have made us better in the short term (the draft pick to Vancouver for Cory Schneider). But MacT (then GM Craig MacTavish) held off on it because he wanted Darnell Nurse in that draft.
"He was going to be damned if he was giving up on that defenceman."
Today Nurse, Draisaitl and McDavid wear letters here. And Eakins? He’s back in rebuild mode, in a quieter place with a lot less pressure.
"We’re able to go about our business with not a whole lot of spotlight," he said, motioning to a bank of five cameras and about 15 Edmonton media members. "When I get back to California, it’ll take three months for me to see this many (media) people asking about the team. And with that, expectations stay in check. Compared to when I was with the Oilers, and the suffering had been going on for quite a long time. The expectations were that it was all going to change, but the reality was that the team wasn’t ready for it yet."
Expectations are high in Edmonton, and they should be. The difference is, GM Ken Holland has assembled a roster that can live up to that pressure.
For years we watched teams like Vancouver, Anaheim, San Jose or Los Angeles lay down something south of their best game against the Oilers, yet still end up with two points at the end of the night. On Tuesday, the shift in power could not have been more stark, as Edmonton played poorly, yet board their charter plane for their first road trip of the season with a tidy 3-0 record.
They’re in Arizona on Thursday night with a very real chance of starting the season at 4-0, though a second effort like this one might raise the coach’s ire a little bit.
Was he sour after this game, a 6-5 mistake-laden effort that was fun to watch, but not the kind of game Dave Tippett would like to see his team employ?
"Naw, there’s ebbs and flows of a game," he said. "Things you do well, things you have to clean up, and in the end I was happy we found a way to win. It was kind of a sloppy game… but they can’t all be masterpieces. Games where the coach walks away and says, ‘Wow, that was great.’"
Edmonton lost No. 1 goalie Mike Smith when Devin Shore’s skate appeared to hit the back of Smith’s leg during a scramble. The good news is that Smith wasn’t playing very well anyhow, and Mikko Koskinen came in and was nearly flawless to claim the victory.
The bad news is that Edmonton has back to back games on Thursday and Friday in Glendale and Las Vegas, and they may have to call No. 3 Stuart Skinner up from Bakersfield.
"Smitty just tweaked something, and he didn’t want to hurt it any worse," said Tippett. "Lower body injury. Day to day."