Reaching for the Stars: Struggling Oilers must emulate 2013-14 Dallas squad

Edmonton Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch talks about the team doing the 'little things' right, in practice and games, and how the Oilers are focussing on becoming a complete team. Courtesy: OilersTV

WASHINGTON — Arriving in the United States capital for the National Hockey League milestone that is American Thanksgiving, the joke is too obvious to avoid: 

So far this season, the Edmonton Oilers have performed like a bunch of turkeys. 

Ten points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference — but with three games in hand on the Seattle Kraken, holders of that spot  — the historic comparables for the Oilers’ plight are few. 

The 1959-60 Chicago Blackhawks and 1970-71 Toronto Maple Leafs are the only two teams in history that made the playoffs after being 10 or more points back on American Thanksgiving. But that was before wild-card spots. 

Then, there were the 2013-14 Dallas Stars

Helmed by head coach Lindy Ruff, the Stars were eight points back on Nov. 28 and grabbed the second wild-card spot. It took them until the April 11, but they clinched a spot in the post-season, after being right about where Edmonton is today. 

“Jamie Benn and (Tyler) Seguin had very good years, and Kari Lehtonen was awesome in goal,” recalled Les Jackson, the assistant GM for that Stars team. “We had some really good veterans — Rich Peverley, Shawn Horcoff, Stephane Robidas… 

“We had a real good group of guys who played for each other. I don’t think there’s any other secret to it.” 

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Those Stars never plumbed the depths of despair quite like the Oilers have, taking a 5-12-1 record into Turkey Day here in D.C. Dallas was a respectable 12-9-2 with only four teams to pass at Thanksgiving, while the Oilers have twice as many clubs between them and the final wild-card spot. 

Dallas had Lehtonen in goal, a rather inconsistent Finnish netminder who ran incredibly cold or unbelievably hot — and not often in between. Edmonton’s goaltending is more predictably average, with Stu Skinner running an .865 save percentage behind a weak Oilers team defence. 

Lehtonen was able to shut the door a time or two while the Stars found their footing. Right now, as Edmonton prepares for a Washington team that has gone 8-1-1 in its last 10 games, the Oilers are in searching for a hero in goal. 

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“When you get into slumps like that, my experience is your goaltender is going to have win you a game and get you through it. That’s usually how it works,” Jackson said. 

But whether it’s a goalie or all the guys in front of him, the only way the Oilers have a chance of doing what Dallas did a decade ago is if the players take control of this thing. 

They’re the ones who will drive this bus into the playoffs, over the cliff, or somewhere in between. 

“That’s where it comes from,” began Jackson. “A lot of it is the coach — they have to help get you through some rough times. And even the (general) manager has some say in there, because when things get tough they show up and that shows support. That’s just how it works. 

“But at the end of the day, it really is the players.” 

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The Oilers have 11 points through 18 games. In order to reach the expected wild-card threshold of 95 points, they need 84 points in their final 64 games. 

That’s a .656 pace, up from the .306 points percentage the Oilers have stumbled to thus far. 

Can they be more than twice as good through the final 78 per cent of the season than they were through the opening 22 per cent? 

Well, you won’t get an Oilers player to talk about anything past Friday afternoon, when they close out a thus far 0-3 road trip with an afternoon game against Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals. 

“We’ve got to be harder to play against, plain and simple,” said defenceman Mattias Ekholm after a hard Thursday practice. “We gave up last game in the first period, and that can’t happen.” 

Edmonton took a three-game winning streak on this road trip, but chugs into Washington with a three-game losing streak intact. They blew a couple of 2-0 leads to open the trip, but on Wednesday in Raleigh they fell behind the Carolina Hurricanes 4-0 before the Oilers even knew what was happening. 

They’re a fragile squad, one that struggles to turn momentum when goes against them in-game. 

“We can’t just think we’re going to score every shift,” Ekholm said. “Sometimes you’ve got to go out there and make sure we take their momentum out of the game a little bit. 

“(Carolina), they just kept coming, kept coming… We’ve got to find a way to get pucks deep and make sure they (lose momentum) a little bit, and the crowd gets out of it a bit too. 

“They just got goal after goal after goal, and it was game over. Managing the game, we have to do better.” 

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