SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers lack October intensity

The Oilers loss Thursday was against a team -- the Phoenix Coyotes -- that they're fighting against...

The Oilers loss Thursday was against a team -- the Phoenix Coyotes -- that they're fighting against for a playoff spot. (Reuters)

Robert Tychkowski, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:57 PM ET

Same players, same uniforms.

But anyone who thinks this is the same Edmonton Oilers team that began the season has not been watching.

The hard-working, resilient and energetic group that gave rise to those high expectations with its hot October start has been replaced by a lethargic and easily discouraged group that looks more suited for the draft lottery than the playoffs.

It’s not just the losing — although 5-11-1 in their last 17 is reason enough for alarm — but the apparent lack of will and passion is even more disturbing.

The Oilers, in recent head-to-heads with teams they’re fighting with for the last playoff spot, Calgary and Phoenix, were pushed out of games by opponents who simply wanted it more.

“Those are the type situations where we need to get to a different level and we didn’t get there on a lot of fronts,” said general manager Steve Tambellini, as Edmonton practised in preparation for Saturday’s game in San Jose.

“We have to get to a different level in those must-win games in December against the middle-pack teams.”

They can’t put their finger on exactly why it’s slipping, but they can all feel it slipping. Who can’t? In back-to-back lifeless outings, they were shut out 3-0 in Calgary and outshot 42-20 in a 4-2 loss in Phoenix.

“Last game was just (lack of) intensity and will,” said defenceman Ladislav Smid. “We weren’t physical, we were really flat. We know it. We need to wake up. Teams like Phoenix, teams around that eighth spot, those are the teams we have to beat.”

It used to be that when a goal needed to be scored in the third period, Edmonton scored it. Now they’re the ones giving it up.

The talent has been upgraded, but it doesn’t appear that the will matches the skill.

Tambellini doesn’t think a heart transplant is necessary yet.

“We have game changers,” he said. “We have people who can do it offensively, we have some heavy bodies who can play hard with Ben Eager and Darcy (Hordichuk) and Andy (Sutton), who’s not in the lineup right now.

“And we have a couple of goaltenders who, when they’re on, can win games on their own. So the pieces are there.”

They’re just not connecting like they were before. Secondary scoring, since Ryan Smyth shifted gears from phenomenal to realistic, is drier than a chalk sandwich. Shawn Horcoff is scoreless in nine games, Ales Hemsky has one goal in 10 games and Smyth has one in his last 12.

Team defence, the foundation upon which they built their quick start, is leaking badly — 61 goals against in their last 17 games (after 23 goals against in their first 14 games).

“We don’t do the things we say to do before the games, we don’t execute our game plan,” said Smid. “There’s just so many breakdowns. We’re turning the puck over way too much. It’s just killing us.”

It’s a hard, disciplined and often painful game plan, the “everything-starts-with-defence” system they employed in October, which might be why they’re straying from it.

“I know that when our players are committed to what the plan is, we’ve been more than successful,” said Tambellini. “There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into it, whether it’s blocking shots or sacrificing your body defensively when you know you’re tired.

“There’s a lot of things that go into sustaining winning hockey in the NHL and we’ve got to get back to that commitment to detail.”

Soon. Because for all that’s gone wrong, and all that looks bad, they’re not dead yet … just a couple points out of eighth as they close in on the Christmas break. But with the Sharks, Wings and Wild up before Christmas, and a seven-game road trip after it, eighth place could disappear in a hurry if they don’t figure things out.

“We had a pretty tough schedule in November and somehow survived it,” said Jordan Eberle. “Now we have to make up some ground. It’s early in the season, but these next few and then that long trip are a big, big deciding factor in where we’re going to be.”

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI


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