Oilers playing out the string on season that started with big expectations - InfoNews

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Oilers playing out the string on season that started with big expectations

March 30, 2018 - 1:53 PM

VANCOUVER - Veteran left-winger Milan Lucic considered the question a moment. Would the Edmonton Oilers' season have gone differently if the team had lost its opening game against the Calgary Flames?

"Could have been," Lucic answered with a chuckle.

There hasn't been much to smile about for the Oilers this year. Back in October, expectations were high with some hockey observers even predicting that Edmonton could battle for the Stanley Cup.

Heading into their game Saturday night against the Flames, the Oilers were 13th in the Western Conference standings with a 34-38-6 record for 74 points.

Edmonton has four games left and will miss the playoffs.

"It hasn't gone our way," sighed captain Connor McDavid, a splash of colour in an otherwise dark Oilers picture. "We haven't been good enough. That's what it comes down to."

The Oilers dropped a 2-1 decision to the Vancouver Canucks — another team out of the playoff picture — on Thursday night. It was Edmonton's second consecutive loss after going 3-0-1 in their previous four games.

It's hard to imagine any team's season hinging on what happened in the first game, but head coach Todd McLellan traces some of the Oilers' problems back to a 3-0 win over Calgary on opening night.

"We had concerns coming into the season that we would be forced to deal with high expectations, something the organization hadn't dealt with for over a decade," said McLellan. "I thought the training camp went off fairly well. The first game was very good against Calgary.

"I think at that point, that's where we began to relax when we didn't need to relax. We needed to push a little more. Once you begin to spiral it's hard to come out of it."

The Oilers followed that win with a four-game losing streak, dropping seven of their first 11 overall. Edmonton won four straight before the Christmas break to improve to 17-17-2 before fading in the new year.

Second-year defenceman Matt Benning said it was like trying to climb a mountain but constantly slipping and losing ground.

"The first game we played really well," said Benning. "After that we would have some winning streaks but then we'd follow that with an even bigger losing streak.

"We just couldn't put an end to the losing streaks."

Last season, Edmonton finished fourth in the West with 103 points from a 47-26-9 record. That ended an 11-year playoff drought.

Edmonton beat San Jose in the first round of the playoffs before losing to Anaheim in seven games.

Several factors contributed to the Oilers' downturn this season.

Entering Friday night's games, the Edmonton power play was ranked last in the NHL while the penalty kill was fourth-worst overall.

Goaltender Cam Talbot had a 2.39 goals-against average and .919 save percentage over 73 games last season. In 63 games this season, Talbot has a 3.02 GAA and .907 save percentage.

Edmonton had five players who scored 20 or more goals last season. Two of those players, Jordan Eberle (traded to the New York Islanders) and Patrick Maroon (traded to New Jersey), are no longer with the team.

This season only McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl have 20 or more goals.

Draisaitl's numbers (24 goals, 44 assists) are similar to last season (29-48) but Lucic has struggled. He had 50 points (23-27) last season but has just 34 points (10-24) in this campaign, with only one goal in the last 42 games.

"After the Christmas break I can't really put a finger on what has gone on as far as not being able to produce," said Lucic, who won a Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011. "At the Christmas break I was on pace for a career high in points and assists.

"Everything seemed to be going in the right direction as far as my game individually. After that it has gone a complete opposite way."

McDavid, meanwhile, is in the hunt for his second Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer. He scored against the Canucks for his 41st goal of the season and an NHL-leading 103 points.

He's also chasing Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer.

Individual awards "are nice" but McDavid had his sights set on another trophy this year.

"At the end of the day we're not where we want to be and that's what matters," he said.

In trying to analyze what went wrong, McLellan keeps returning to the first game of the season.

"After that game I think we took our foot off the gas, not thinking it was going to be easy, but just thinking we could play at a lower level than what we needed to have success," he said.

"That doesn't happen in this league. Lesson learned, I hope."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2018
The Canadian Press

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