EDMONTON — The Oilers had coughed up a late 3-1 lead to the Winnipeg Jets with some soft, careless play in their own zone — sound familiar? — before Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins saved the day.
Draisaitl saucered a long backhand pass across the Jets zone that landed on Nugent-Hopkins’ blade, and he deposited the puck behind Eric Comrie for a late, 4-3 Oilers win.
What a pass by Draisaitl, eh coach?
“He threw a lot of backhands tonight — some to our team, some to the other team,” said coach Dave Tippett after the game. “The problem is, when that happens in the playoffs it usually goes against you. And that’s the problem I have with it.”
Tippett’s Oilers picked up right where they’d left off the previous playoff season. Soft, loose and with a lack of attention to detail, their skill had rescued them the way it does all season long — until the playoffs, when the cavalry annually disappears.
“We were red rotten,” spat Tippett.
We showed the video of Tippett’s quote to Draisaitl, who took the high road:
“I know how to play in the playoffs. That’s all I can say.”
Look, there’s no feud here. Just a coach trying to install habits in October that will win games in May, and players who still haven’t reached that place where they don’t let their foot off the gas now and again.
Connor McDavid can see it from both sides.
“There’s a message that we’re all giving to each other: start with good habits right away,” said Connor McDavid. “It’s not a light switch that you can turn on in Game 1, Game 50 or come playoff time.”
A soft and ineffective camp by would-be NHL centreman Ryan McLeod has thus far not impressed anyone. Young defenceman Evan Bouchard, handed a job before this camp began, has reached this point after the Jets game:
“I didn’t think he was very good tonight,” Tippett said. “He’s still got to get stronger. He’s got to get harder with the puck. There is some puck play that has to improve. Some critical area stuff that still can improve.”
And Josh Archibald, who avoided the vaccine in favour of tweets about the “plan-demic” and questioning Dr. Anthony Fauci ended up with the heart condition myocarditis. Caused by, wait for it, a case of COVID-19 over the summer.
He’s out long-term, and has quite possibly played his last game as an Edmonton Oiler.
Saturday’s game was only preseason. We get it, and so do the players.
“At this point, we’ve just got to figure it out,” said winger Kailer Yamamoto. “Our team, we’ve learned so many lessons, we just need to put them to use. There’s no point in re-learning lessons over and over and over again. We just need to figure it out.”
We asked him about Tippett and his take on a 4-3 win.
“It means he wants it,” said Yamamoto. “For him to be that sour just shows how much he wants to win this year. How serious he’s taking it.”
The Oilers have been dealing with them ever since a team full of Hall of Famers in the 80s played the game with an offensive flair and joie de vivre that took them to five Stanley Cups. They’ve tried to play the same way ever since, with a tenth of the talent.
Here in Edmonton, folks have always coveted that long, floating saucer pass over a crisp 12-footer. They want their young draft picks on the team and playing on the top line, usually well before the player is ready. And they covet that same creativity that the old Oilers had — even though they may be about five Hall of Famers shy of that roster.
Mention that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl need to focus on their defensive play, as we did in this space over a year ago, and the fans flip their lids. Then, when McDavid and Draisaitl admit that is indeed their focus, fans are still apologetic to their stars, they should be asked to take care of their own end of the rink.
Today, we’ve reached a point where Tippett can see the potential of his team — if only they can figure out the less sexy areas of the game. He doesn’t need another pre-season, 4-3 win.
He wants a team that can protect that 3-1 lead in the first place.
“I didn’t like the way we played (Saturday) night at all,” he said Sunday, after sleeping on the result. “There wasn’t enough second and third effort. We’re trying to build our team game. You can have structure to your play, but no structure works if you don’t do the details right. We were turning pucks over… Just not enough urgency in the things we were doing”
This team could win the Pacific Division this season, but it doesn’t mean the coach will be altogether happy.
Certainly, a pre-season win over the Jets wasn’t worth much.
“You’re just trying to get your game in order for the coming year,” he said. “I’d rather get mad (Saturday night), or disappointed in how we played, than two weeks from now.”
Or seven months from now.