When they lost on Monday, they said it was so “painful,” it hurt them to their “soul.” When they lost on Wednesday, their wounded refrain was: “It’s disappointing … very disappointing, a tough loss to swallow.”
Pained, soul-struck, disenchanted, the Edmonton Oilers are running out of ways to describe their emotional state as quickly as they’ve gone from playoff contender to a team with a serious case of the outs.
Ten days ago, a season-best five-game win streak had the Oilers thinking eighth place in the Western Conference. Since then, four consecutive losses have sent them speeding Thelma and Louise-like to the edge of a high cliff.
With six of its last eight games at home, including Saturday’s tilt against the Calgary Flames, Edmonton has to win all it can while hoping the clot of teams ahead of it somehow comes away with next to no points, a virtual impossibility that has the players saying the only thing they can. “There’s nothing we can do but come out and produce,” forward Taylor Hall said, “against Calgary and against those other teams.”
That they stopped producing when all was going so well is the question that should hound the Oilers through the off-season.
During their win streak, the Oilers scored 25 times and allowed just seven goals. They were hitting and moving, flash and dash. They pushed the play from the opening faceoff to game’s end. In their last victory, an 8-2 flogging of the Flames, they shrugged off a 2-0 disadvantage with speed and confidence. Hall finished with a resounding five points.
But like his linemates, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Hall has lost his touch. The Oilers’ top trio has zero points in its last four games and, as Hall admitted, that not only makes it difficult for the team, it “makes it hard not to feel some kind of pressure from that.”
Dealing with pressure situations remains a part of the young Oilers development. This is the first time in three years they’ve been in a playoff fight this late in a season. They’re facing determined, desperate opposition every other night. Their top players are drawing extra attention and tighter checking. What the Oilers are being taught is how to cope with the emotional highs and lows of a close game.
Sometimes they’ve been able to deal with the strain. Lately, a missed scoring chance or a bad goal against has been enough to rattle their faith.
“When we get momentum, we’re very good with it,” Edmonton head coach Ralph Krueger said. “In a game where the ball falls on the other side and we have to recover, we struggle. There’s a level of frustration that comes in that we need to learn to manage. The patience that comes in a game evolving through 60 minutes is still not at the level we’d like it to be at.
“That’s just continuing to mature. The only thing that gives you that confidence is a longer period of winning or having success. That’s part of the in and out we’re going through.”
With the big line not scoring, other problems have popped up. Only Nail Yakupov has provided any semblance of secondary scoring. The veterans, such as captain Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky, have been unable to produce with any regularity. [The oft-injured Hemsky has one goal in his last 19 games while Smyth has gone goalless in his last 24.] That’s made it difficult for the Oilers to shake off their bad moments and fire back, which is why they find themselves where they are today, on the outside of a playoff berth, trying to say the right things.
“Give up? We will not. Understand the difficulty of our situation? We will,” Krueger said this week, tapping his inner Yoda. “We’ve got to keep this picture small. The pain I’m feeling is what the team is feeling. It hurts your soul. … We need to take this pain with us and accept it and try and find growth out of it.”