EDMONTON - It’s not a great feeling when the goal is to reach 28th in a 30-team league... and you can’t make it.
Neither is playing a home game against the last place team in the Eastern Conference, with its backup goalie in the net, and looking up at the clock at the end of the night and realizing you’re second best.
Twenty-ninth best, actually.
Thursday was the first “meaningful game” the Edmonton Oilers have played in months, a chance to actually move up in the standings, and they choked.
“I don’t know if we think it’s going to be easy against these (weak) teams, which would be ridiculous, because we’re in 29th,” Oilers defenceman Ryan Whitney said after they gave up three third period goals in a humbling 5-3 loss to a bunch of guys wearing Montreal Canadiens uniforms. “But we’re just really not prepared to play.
“And when we get away with being tied (after 40), we just don’t have a good third and that’s kind of it.”
Standings don’t matter much when you’re this far back, and moving up to 28th is hardly a milestone worth celebrating, but when there’s nothing to look forward to in the spring and the only thing that can temporarily ease the sting of 29th is the feeling you get from the odd win, it hurts to let one get away.
“At this point in the year, winning games is all we really have,” said Taylor Hall. “We don’t have a playoff race to look forward to, but when we win games we definitely feel good, we’re excited to win for our fans and our team.”
They did neither against the Canadiens, who’d lost seven of eight coming in.
It was 1-1 after 20 and 2-2 after 40 before Edmonton found a way to lose. Tomas Kaberle got one on the power play at 3:00, Lars Eller scored a cheesy one from behind the net two minutes later. An empty netter put it out of reach.
The game, and 28th place.
“We have to have a better game overall, but especially that third period,” said Whitney. “We were tied going in and it just wasn’t good enough in that third period.”
Hearing half of their own building, clad in CH red, white and blue, cheering their latest defeat was another twist of the very deep knife.
“As professionals there’s a sense of pride, and when you start piling on these losses it starts to eat at you,” said Theo Peckham, who took three minor penalties in the defeat, two of which resulted in power play goals. “If you’re a true professional it starts to bother you. We need to string a few together here.”
Not because of the standings, but because this much losing, year after year after year, is hard to erase from the memory banks. Losing might be great for draft lottery purposes, but learning how to lose is fatal for a team on the rebuild.
“This is the group we’re going to start with for the most part next year, so you want to build some chemistry and learn to face adversity as a group so when you face it again you can deal with it in a better way,” said Ryan Jones. “And at the end of the year, wherever that puts us, then that’s where it puts us. It’s hard look at eighth and say we’re this many points out, you just have to try and win games and push forward. We owe that to the organization and the fan base that’s supported us all year.”
The standings might not matter, but that doesn’t mean the games don’t matter, either.
“That’s something we all have to get our heads around, we can’t be thinking about the holidays in April,” said head coach Tom Renney. “We have a five weeks of hockey to play and a lot to prove.”
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