Even though Edmonton Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock realized very early that his team had “zero in the tank” against the Florida Panthers Thursday night, he still leaned on his big wheels, his drivers up front and on the back-end and they didn’t look gassed at game’s end.
There was Connor McDavid tying it 3-3 with eight ticks left off a feed from Leon Draisaitl with the captain playing 27 1/2 minutes, and his sidekick Draisaitl a minute more than that as they eventually pulled out a 4-3 shootout win. On defence, Darnell Nurse scored and set up one of McDavid’s two goals and almost played half the game, 31:49 of the 65 minutes. An absolute monster night by Nurse.
But for much of the night, the Oilers not only didn’t look like they were firing on all cylinders.
It took them 35 minutes to get to 10 shots. Through 40 minutes, only five shots by forwards on James Reimer.
Through 60 minutes, they had just 18 shots total.
But they had six in the overtime, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins beat Reimer in the shootout.
They could have buckled when Henrik Borgstrom’s blind backhand into the slot pin-balled off two Oilers–Caleb Jones and Adam Larsson– with six minutes left, but they didn’t.
So, yes this was winning UGLY. Capital letters.
McDavid had his 25th and 26th goals and an assist on Nurse’s sixth.
“Most night’s Connor’s dynamic and explosive,” said a visiting pro scout, “and tonight he’s quiet and he still gets three points…good for him.” We used to say that about Gretzky every now and then, too, when you looked at the score-sheet afterwards or you were thinking one of his checkers was all over him.
In this one, Sasha Barkov, a Selke candidate, did a fine job on McDavid until the last shift of the third. For some reason, the Florida captain and first-line centre, his buddy Jonathan Huberdeau and first-pairing defenceman Mike Matheson left McDavid in front of the net to move toward Draisaitl when all 18,500 fans and Panthers’ coach Bob Boughner knew McDavid was the most dangerous player in the building.
“We looked at that (video) …kind of saw some (players) chasing,” said Hitchcock.
“We caught a break. But it’s so crazy in that zone (goalie pulled). We had the puck in the goal-crease five times.” Hitchcock said.
“It’s six on five and you lose guys (as a checker). It’s such a scramble and it’s Connor finding the soft ice,” said Nurse. “He and Leon have a connection that not many have.”
McDavid seemed pretty matter-of-fact as he described the goal later but was excited on the ice.
“Leon did a good job of finding me and I was able to tap it in,” said the Oiler captain. “Some good timing on both of our parts. He waited for me to get open behind three guys. Great pass, maybe caught them sleeping for a second.”
That’s what the Oilers looked like for most of the night, but a W is a W when you’ve lost eight of your previous 10 and five straight at home.
“Definitely wasn’t pretty but we found a way to get one late in the second, then found a way to battle for the third goal,” said Nurse.
Hitchcock gave his team big props for hanging in on a night when they didn’t have their A or B game.
“We were exhausted,” said Hitchcock. “Worst case scenario, four-game road trip, travel back yesterday (San Jose) and play tonight (fourth game in six nights).”
“Halfway through the first period we had nothing, but the players stayed vocal on the bench and any good thing that went on guys were cheer-leading,” said Hitchcock.
“When you see skill players lose pucks in the middle of the ice with nobody around that means they have no legs, they have nothing. First, you’re hoping they don’t get hurt because their awareness isn’t there, then secondly you’re hoping you get points out of the game. To come out of it with two and not get discouraged…we got the chances at the end of the third because we refused to shut down on each other.”
Especially after Borgstrom’s goal, the third own-goal in the last two games.
“At first I didn’t know what happened there. I had to watch the replay,” said Talbot, who stopped Huberdeau and watched as Barkov hit the post in the shootout.
“It hit Jonesy first, then went off Larsson’s stick. I’ve never seen anything like it. You get pucks going off skates towards the net but on that one, the puck was being pushed away from the net. We could have folded and hung our heads but we didn’t.”
As Hitchcock said, his best players played the best and the most. And they’ll rest on off-days.
On Twitter: @NHLbyMatty
Latest Oil Spills podcast: Jekyll & Hyde Oilers looking less like an NHL playoff team
NHL beat writers Jim Matheson and Derek Van Diest talk to podcast host Craig Ellingson about the Edmonton Oilers’ inconsistent, Jekyll & Hyde performance and about the grabs, holds, shots, interference, etc., Oilers superstar Connor McDavid endures many times per game.