EDMONTON - They might as well have spent the whole night playing with tissue paper stuck to the back of their skates.
Because when you’re supposed to be several years into a rebuild and you’re still playing in a 29 vs 30 home game while everyone else in the hockey world sits back and laughs, it’s embarrassing.
Win or lose, this was not a game the Oilers wanted to be playing at this stage of their development.
Your own fans making jokes about the Toilet Bowl, some of them hoping for a loss that might improve your odds in the draft lottery. Having to worry about being caught from behind by a team with just 13 wins in its first 51 games. Missing the playoffs for the sixth year in a row. Being part of the worst three-year stretch in the history of the franchise.
It was The Titanic vs The Edmund Fitzgerald.
Tom Renney is right, does anyone give a ship?
“Obviously not the position you want to be in, battling it out for 29th place,” said Sam Gagner, whose club posted a 3-0 victory on Better Win or Else night. “It’s been three years now in the bottom two in the league. It’s not a fun situation to be in, but the only way to get out of it is to continue to push forward.”
They pushed well enough on Wednesday night. With their ears still burning after Renney’s public scolding, the Oilers dominated Columbus, winning on second period goals from Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a third period empty-netter from Linus Omark and a 22-save shutout from Devan Dubnyk.
“That was up there with the most complete 60 minutes we ever played,” said Ryan Jones, after the Oilers ended their five-game home-ice losing streak. “The fans deserve to see some wins — they’ve stuck by our side through a couple of tough seasons. We owe it to them to win some hockey games down the stretch and give them something to be excited about.”
There is precious little of that to be had, though, when a team that was supposed to be much farther along in its development is still 29th, with no hope for 28th.
“It’s disappointing to look at it that way,” said Dubnyk. “But for us right now, we need to just look at every single game as a chance to get out there and play and get better as a group because this is probably a lot like what this team is going to look like next year, so every single game for us is important.”
This one even more so, because had they lost at home to the 30th place team in the league … hoo boy.
“We needed to get this one, we talked about that,” said Dubnyk, adding these are the little things down the stretch that will keep them sane. “There’s not that many games left, but there’s enough that if things go ugly it’s certainly not a lot of fun.”
For the players who’ve been Oilers for a while, this is a painful time because it’s been going on for so long. For the newcomers, it’s painful because they’re not used to being losers.
“I wasn’t here for this last year, I was hurt, so this is the first time I’ve really been a part of this,” said Hall, who has four goals in his last four games. “I never experienced this in junior. It is tough. When you’re in a playoff race, every goal is big for your team, every killed penalty is huge. Now we’re just kind of playing for nothing.
“But at the same time there is a lot to play for. You want to play for your confidence. I couldn’t imagine going into this off-season thinking back and knowing I didn’t really give it my hardest. I’d have a feeling of regret. As much as they’re meaningless games, there are still parts of the game you can shine in.”
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