EDMONTON — It is, in a perverse way, the curse of this Edmonton Oilers team.
A franchise rooted in the obscene offensive feats from its Glory Days in the 1980s has only ever been about one thing:
Offence. Twine tickling offence.
It’s been that way since the night Bill Barber — bedecked in the splendour of Philadelphia’s black Cooperalls — slid across the ice in vain, trying to block Wayne Gretzky’s 50th goal in 39 games. Since Gretzky’s understated patting of his hip pocket, as the Oilers rolled over Richard Sevigny and the Montreal Canadiens later on in that 1980-81 season.
Since becoming the only franchise ever to score 400 goals in a season — and the Oilers did it every year from 1981-82 to 1985-86 — it’s been about goals for here. Never goals against.
It was almost never a 6-1 or 4-0 game back in those days, however. It would end 8-4, or 7-5, as the opponents caught the Oilers cheating for more offence.
Even in Wednesday’s 6-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, as complete a game as can be played, guys like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have always derived more pride and satisfaction from the “six” than he ever got from the “one.”
That’s been the history. But today?
“We take just as much pride in the six as the one. Or the zero,” Nugent-Hopkins promised. “To stop good teams from getting good chances, just making it hard on teams every single night to come through us and make plays make plays around our net. We just want to make it tough on teams.
“Even at 5-0, 5-1 and 6-1, we were still tracking back hard. The D were standing up, and we were giving them no time and space.”
History tells us, that before those great Oilers teams of yore could actually win Stanley Cups, they had to learn to defend. In fact, there are two metaphors for that pursuit:
• Remember the Miracle on Manchester? When Los Angles won a best-of-five, Round 1 series from the heavily favoured Oilers back in ’82?
Edmonton won two games in that series, both by 3-2 scores. In the games they lost the scores were 10-8, 6-5 and 7-4.
• The win known as the biggest in franchise history was a 1-0 victory on Long Island in Game 1 of the 1984 Cup Final. Not 6-3, but 1-0, on a third-line goal by Kevin McClelland.
Edmonton began its current five-game winning streak with a 5-0 win at Washington. Solid.
Then they beat Anaheim 8-2. Not 8-5, but 8-2. Solid.
Edmonton let its guard down late in a 5-4, shootout win over Vegas, but then went into Winnipeg and nursed a 1-0 deficit for 53 minutes before winning 3-1. Solid again.
Wednesday was the coup de gras, a game where Edmonton led 2-0 just 41 seconds in and 4-0 after 20 minutes. That game has always ended up at 6-3 or 7-4 around here, but not this time.
This time the Oilers played proper defensive hockey to the buzzer, rather than cheating to try and turn a 6-1 game into something more.
“Part of us truly getting out of the funk we were in at the beginning of the season is … not just relying on goals to win this games, but our actual team game. Our overall play,” said Evander Kane. “We’ve talked about it a lot. It’s nice to see us doing it..”
It’s a mindset that has been near impossible to install here, those retired numbers and Stanley Cup banners overhead serving as some kind of tinfoil hat for generations of Oilers who insisted on trying to play like Mess, Gretz and Coff — without an eighth of their talent.
“It’s just a commitment to limiting turnovers and errors,” Zach Hyman said. “Errors happen, but limiting them… If there’s a 5050 puck maybe you don’t take it. Understanding when to take on risk. I think we have limited risk in our game.”
Kane references the 3-1 win at Winnipeg as the game that, if repeated, will take his Oilers to the next level.
“Nobody was feeling great offensively, but we hung around, hung around, hung around… And we end up winning the game,” he said. “I feel like Vegas last year, they did a lot of that. That’s what good teams do: when you don’t have your best some nights, you find ways to win games. You hang around.”
If there’s a common theme here, it is of a team that has never won enough on its worst nights. A team that knows it can not win on a two-goal night, and the simple act of trying to get to four has opened the door for the opponent to score five.
They’ve never been good at closing the door here. The quest for more offence has always held it ajar.
Is it possible that has finally sunk in?
“You help yourself by not giving up a heck of a lot,” Kane said. “You have the belief that it will only take one or two plays to win tonight, and you hang around.
“With the team belief we have, and the type of guys we have, I like our chances a lot when we just hang around.”