‘We need to be better’: Oilers continue to fight slow starts, costly turnovers

Nic Dowd, Lars Eller, and T.J. Oshie scored for the Washington Capitals to defeat the Edmonton Oilers 3-2.

EDMONTON — On the surface, it was just a 3-2 loss. Only Edmonton’s second loss in six games, with Arizona on the docket for Wednesday.

The Edmonton Oilers were tied 2-2 with Washington after 40 minutes, and then … “We made a critical error and ended up in the back of our net.”

That’s how Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft saw it.

And Evan Bouchard?

He saw it similarly — from his spot on the bench where he was pinned for the rest of the game. It was his unaware play that resulted in the breakaway that would produce the game-winner.

It would be his last shift of the night, and we can assume that assistant coach Dave Manson has reached his limit of watching a not-so-young-anymore defenceman who has such good vision offensively, play a defensive game that so lacks awareness of what’s going on around him.

But this wasn’t a “one mistake by one guy” kind of game.

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That the Oilers, outshot 50-30, were anywhere close to finding a point was miraculous. Stuart Skinner was off-the-hook good in goal, and the Capitals were the better team for pretty much the entire night.

It began right after puck drop, as a notoriously slow-starting Oilers team walked out of their dressing room like a guy greeting the morning sun out at the lake, wearing a bathrobe and slippers, a big cup of coffee in their collective hand.

Sleepy?

Edmonton has earned its reputation for being positively comatose to start games. It goes back to the Dave Tippett years, and no — it’s not getting any better.

“We come in here and we talk about it every day. We sit here after the game, talk about it over, and over, and over … ,” began assistant captain Darnell Nurse. “We want to have good starts each and every night. But, you know, we’re sitting here and it’s a part of our game. We’re almost a quarter of the way through the season.

“The more we just talk away and pester at it. … We need to just show up and play. Relax, pin our ears back and come out on the attack.”

At this point, with due respect to Nurse, talk is cheap. Somehow slow starts have wormed their way into the DNA of this team, and they can’t figure out how to expunge it.

But still, in the end this boiled down to a 2-2 game where someone was going to find a hero, while someone else was going to make a mistake.

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Bouchard took care of the mistake, and after a heady play by Aliaksei Protas — who had a contested breakaway and kicked a puck back to the trailing Nic Dowd, who scored — the Caps’ fourth line provided the heroes.

On a night where the Oilers were missing top-nine forwards Zach Hyman, Ryan McLeod, Warren Foegele and Evander Kane, they needed to hold an opponent to two goals or less.

Of course, the Capitals were without injured Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, defenceman Dmitri Orlov and starting goalie Darcy Kuemper. But they earned full marks for finding the third goal, something opponents have found against Edmonton for all but five of 26 games this season.

The Oilers defended well down the stretch and into the playoffs last season. This year, it has been a lost art.

“This group knows how to defend,” Nurse declared. “We haven’t done it well enough. We need to be better, to a man. It’s another one of the things like the starts: we talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. We’ve just gotta go out there and play, and do it.”

They’re at a hard point in the season, these Oilers, where they’re missing some bodies, and their structure is being tested. They’re passing the test on some nights, but on others — like Monday, when Connor McDavid (goal) and Leon Draisaitl have one point between them — they do not have sufficient defensive structure to fall back on.

It is, as they say, a work in progress. Like Edmonton’s light-rail transit.

“This is the way it is right now,” reasoned defenceman Brett Kulak, who opened the scoring. “We address it, and we’ve got to keep working away at it. You build your game, and it’s not necessarily right now when you want to be peaking. You want to build and get more consistent as the year goes on. You want to be at your best heading into the postseason.

“We’ve got to keep chipping away.”

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