Surging Oilers face Hawks knowing what hasn’t killed them has made them stronger

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) plays against the Nashville Predators during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.(Mark Zaleski/AP)

CHICAGO — The biggest change we’ve seen in this Edmonton Oilers team, as players have grown from 22 years old to 27, 28 or older, is the panic level. 

On Saturday, in what was billed as an offence-first night against the Ottawa Senators, the Oilers looked at the scoreboard 35 minutes into the game and saw 0-0. 

Now, there was a time when you could out-wait Edmonton. When you knew they’d start taking chances on offence in a game like that; when the Oilers were allergic to a game that was playing out the way the Ottawa game did. 

Today, Edmonton just rides it out. They know they’ll get their power play, and that it’s likely a goal will come. They roll their lines, and know that in a low-event game where we’re splitting up a minimal number of scoring chances, most nights their guys will find one more goal out of that than their opponents will. 

As the Oilers line up at the United Center against Chicago on Tuesday night (8:30 p.m. ET / 6:30 p.m. MT on Sportsnet), impatience is a hurdle that Edmonton has cleared. 

“Well, you’ve never cleared every hurdle in this game,” said defenceman Darnell Nurse. “But it’s experience, and it also speaks to how the season has gone. There have been a lot of games that we’ve won where we’ve just stuck to our game and it hasn’t gotten away from us.” 

There was the Nov. 30 game at Winnipeg, where Edmonton was playing pretty well, but the Jets led 1-0 with seven minutes left in the third. The Oilers won that game 3-1, and then went on to have those two third-period comebacks right before Christmas against New Jersey and the New York Rangers. 

Then the Oilers walked into L.A. on Dec. 30 and won 3-2 — despite trailing 2-0 after 20 minutes. 

It’s easier to believe once you’ve done it a few times, and at 15-3 in their past 18 games heading into Tuesday, it’s beginning to look like the terrible start that didn’t kill the Edmonton Oilers may just have made them stronger. 

“It was the beginning of the year,” Nurse said, “so everything’s under a microscope. It’s doomsday. The world’s over. But as long as I’ve been here, you look around the league, teams go through rough stretches. 

“So for us to make that something that makes us stronger, we have to not only learn from those lessons, but practise what we’ve learned from those lessons throughout the rest of the year.” 

••• 

Here’s how the Oilers will line up Tuesday: 

RNH-McDavid-Hyman 

McLeod-Draisaitl-Foegele 

Kane-Ryan-Brown 

Erne-Hamblin-Janmark 

Nurse-Ceci 

Ekholm-Bouchard 

Kulak-Desharnais 

Skinner 

Connor Brown gets a nudge up to the third line, in hopes he can finally notch that elusive first goal as an Oiler. For my money, once Dylan Holloway makes his way back into the lineup — and if GM Ken Holland can find himself a third-line centre at the deadline — a fourth line of Adam Erne, Derek Ryan and Mattias Janmark has the look of a fourth line you can take into the playoffs. 

Calvin Pickard will get the Thursday start in Detroit. 

••• 

Take a look at the Blackhawks lines, in front of veteran goalie Petr Mrazek: 

Anderson-Dickinson-Blackwell 

Pitlick-Kurashev-Raddysh 

Katchouk-Donato-Sanford 

Reichel-Entwistle-Guttman 

A Blackhawks lineup missing Connor Bedard (broken jaw), seven other regular forwards and Seth Jones on defence, still managed a 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames on Sunday. “If we want to be a playoff team,” said Flames captain Mikael Backlund, “that’s a game we have to find a way to win.” 

“They were hungrier and harder than we were,” added Flames head coach Ryan Huska. 

The thing to beware of when you face a club that has six or seven players who never expected to be getting NHL ice time this season — and that’s what Edmonton gets tonight — is that those players play like it’s their last ever NHL game. Because it just might be. 

“It’s hard to get in the league and it’s even harder to stay in the league,” said Chicago’s Colin Blackwell, who had two goals including the game-winner against Calgary. “For a lot of guys … you don’t really know if you’re ever going to get some of these opportunities. You have to make the most of them.” 

Blackwell is a five-foot-nine, 190-pound seventh-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks. He came out of Harvard and played four years of pro before he got a shot with Nashville. Now, at age 30, he climbed over the 200 NHL game mark with the Blackhawks during this run of injuries. 

“I didn’t get my first NHL game until I was 25. There are always people watching (scouts, GMs), and you never know. You could impress the right people,” he said. “When you get a group of guys who working for each other, working for playing time, it’s definitely extra motivation. We don’t take that those opportunities lightly.” 

With Jones not quite ready to return on the blue-line, Chicago will look like this: 

Tinordi-Murphy 

Vlasic-Megna 

Korchinski-Zaitsev 

It’s a real bummer that Bedard is injured. But credit the Blackhawk players, they’re not hanging their heads — even if some fans are. 

“No one’s going to be able to step out and play like Connor Bedard,” defenceman Connor Murphy said. ‘‘Everyone has to play to their strengths and how they can and realize that … you’re still going to have a chance to win.’’ 

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