Normally, the Heritage Classic outdoor game on the 20th anniversary of the ice-cold original would be the only thing hockey fans in Edmonton would be focusing on right now.
But what we’re seeing from the Edmonton Oilers is not exactly normal, is it?
Not for 2023, anyway.
This tepid trail of frustration would fit right in to 2007 through about 2019. If the Oilers were still muddling their way through the Decade of Darkness nobody would bat an eyelash at what we’ve been watching so far. Not with draft lotteries to be won and coaches to be fired (four lottery wins and 10 different coaches if you’re scoring at home).
But things are supposed to be different now. The Oilers are supposed to be a contender, not a bottom feeder. Yet here they are, disjointed and rattled, pleading guilty to lack of effort and intensity while serving up someone of the most lifeless defeats we’ve seen from this team in years
So, the outdoor game, understandably, is lost in the shock and anger of an October crisis. There is no time to fawn over a wonderful piece of art on the wall, grossly overpriced as it might be, when the house is burning down.
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Listing all the things that are going wrong with the Oilers right now is just being cruel at this point. Suffice to say that just about everything on this team is bad. And that’s not an exaggeration — offence, defence, goaltending, penalty killing, effort, the ability to count how many players are on the ice and knowing not to drop F bombs on television all need serious work.
Even the vaunted power play is in a 2-for-13 (15.3 per cent) dip.
Thursday against the Rangers was another low in a season that has already sunk below 30 other teams. Remember, this was a must-win statement game on home ice with a rink full of Stanley Cup alumni watching. It was an Oilers team that vowed to come out hungry and determined because it was fed up with losing.
First period: Oilers don’t get their third shot till 15:00.
Second period: Rangers score three goals and hit two posts. Oilers booed off the ice.
Third period: Oilers shut out in the third period for the sixth time in seven games and get booed off the ice again.
“It’s not who we are,” winger Zach Hyman said in a shell-shocked Oilers dressing room after the game. “It wasn’t a level of work ethic that will dictate play. We’re a fast team, but we weren’t playing with pace. We weren’t getting in the corners. We weren’t working to get pucks back. It was not good enough, obviously.
“This is not on coaches or management, it’s just on the guys in the locker room showing up and going out there and playing.”
If this isn’t rock bottom, it’s deep enough that the Oilers can hear the walls of their submarine groaning under the mounting pressure.
It’s still early, there are still 75 games left, but when your team is already trailing a worst-of-seven series 1-5-1 it’s time to get moving. They need at least 50 wins in those 75 games to even finish second in the Pacific.
So one of three things is going to happen in what is turning into a fascinating study.
ONE: They beat Calgary at Commonwealth Stadium on Sunday, Connor McDavid comes back next week and they put together a couple of 7-2-1 runs to calm the masses. They become the team everyone thought they would be and spend the next five months getting to say ‘I told you so.’
TWO: They muddle along like this all year. They pull out of the tailspin and win more than they lose the rest of the way, but the weaknesses and holes in their game are still there and it becomes obvious they won’t make it past the second round of the playoffs.
THREE: This is not a glitch in the matrix. Something is fundamentally flawed and this becomes an implosion for the ages. The bottom six takes another seven games off, the goals against don’t come down, their top six remains a bunch of minus players who are good on the power play and the goaltending remains a nightly coin toss.
‘We don’t have time to hang our heads’
Which way will it go? I’d wager somewhere between ONE and TWO. There is no way this team doesn’t get it at least partway together. This is basically the same group from last year and that team had heart. That team worked.
This year’s team, if it thought things were going to come easy, has been slapped to attention.
“We have to flip the page from last year,” said Hyman. “We are this year’s team and we have great players in this locker room who can elevate their game. If enough guys do that we start winning hockey games.”
They have to because nobody even wants to think about what happens if this turns into THREE.
“We don’t have time to hang our heads here or get frustrated and go ‘woe is me,’” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “It needs to happen now.”
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