There’s still a week left in October, but it already feels like the Oilers are in dire straits.
Their latest loss wasn’t all that surprising considering it came in Minnesota, a place in which they never win. The way the 7-4 outcome was reached, however, represented another new low.
The Oilers carried a 3-2 lead heading into the third period without captain and all-time great Connor McDavid, who is sidelined with an upper-body injury. All they needed to do was get it across the finish line.
Instead, they stood around and watched their advantage turn into a two-goal deficit not even 11 minutes in thanks to shoddy defensive work. Including an empty netter, they surrendered five goals in the final frame.
They’re now 1-4-1 and just a few days away from the national spotlight being thrust upon them when they host the Heritage Classic against the hated Calgary Flames on Sunday.
“I don’t think there’s anything to be proud of. We’ve got one win,” winger Warren Foegele told media in Minnesota when asked about his two-goal performance. “It’s back to the drawing board, but I believe in this group.”
Foegele and the Oilers had better hope this is rock bottom because, if it isn’t, what had the makings of a dream season could lose all meaning very quickly.
The way things unravelled Tuesday was perhaps their biggest failure of many just two weeks into this campaign.
It’s not often a goaltender allows six goals on 30 shots and is on the shortlist for a team’s player of a game. Jack Campbell was in that category. There might have been one or two goals he’d want back — Ryan Hartman’s hat trick tally is front of mind — but he kept the Oilers in it with a few big stops.
His teammates flat-out let him down.
There was so much chatter during training camp about the Oilers wanting to be a tougher team to play against in the neutral zone and a more structured unit on their blue line. A switch to zone defence from man to man was supposed to be the ticket to lowering the goals against that ballooned to 3.5 per game in the playoffs and led to their demise.
Maybe they should revert to their old ways. It sure beats whatever the heck they’re doing now. They’re even easier to play against.
The Oilers look like they’ve never played together before. There’s routinely a man open for a chance in the home-plate area when a goal is allowed. That’s what happened almost every time the red light went on in Minnesota, and each time it happened over the final 20 minutes.
“In the third, there were a couple easy goals against,” Foegele said. “We’re hurting ourselves on those ones.”
A sloppy line change led to a three-on-two down low for the Wild. Two passes and the puck landed on Hartman’s stick outside the crease without an Oiler around. That tied the score 38 seconds in.
Six minutes later, Evan Bouchard couldn’t handle a rim around and coughed up the puck. Partner Mattias Ekholm was behind the net to serve as an outlet, so he was out of commission. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ended up covering the post as Mats Zuccarello was wide open in the slot. Zuccarello scored to give the Wild their first lead of the game.
Neither Nugent-Hopkins nor Darnell Nurse covered Joel Eriksson Ek to the side of the net on Minnesota’s fifth goal. He had all day to pull the puck around and over Campbell.
Bouchard was then caught in no man’s land and didn’t take the man or the puck, which led to a two-on-one on Hartman’s third goal — a shot he flubbed.
Throw in the two first-period tallies they allowed, and it was a defensive trainwreck for the Oilers, on par or maybe even worse than their horrendous display in the season opener.
There are so many things wrong with this team right now.
The Bouchard-Ekholm pairing was almost flawless for the final 21 games last season after Ekholm was acquired from Nashville, posting a 27-8 on-ice five-on-five goal differential together. They seem completely out of sync.
Bouchard has made error after error while coming off as indecisive. Ekholm, who missed all of camp and the first game with a hip flexor/groin injury, looks like he’s a step behind. The Oilers have been outscored 6-3 with that pair on the ice so far, a brutal situation even if the underlying numbers aren’t that bad.
Their franchise player is sidelined for awhile, leaving them with precious few forwards who are pulling their weight. Sans McDavid, just five forwards have recorded a point. There are also pressing deployment issues on the roster — namely Mattias Janmark continuing to be rolled out in the top six in place of a younger, faster play-driver like, say, Dylan Holloway.
Nugent-Bowman: Dylan Holloway needs a more prominent role with Connor McDavid out
The penalty killing and goaltending mostly have underwhelmed this season. They’ve now been outscored 10-1 in the third period, their first goal coming on Tuesday.
The Oilers are so out of sorts that they took not one, not two, but three too-many-men penalties against the Wild. How does that happen?
This team is nothing like the Stanley Cup contender many thought it would be. The way things are trending, something drastic needs to happen — either from within or from a jolt to the roster — just to make the playoffs.
McDavid won’t be back in the lineup for a least one more game and probably a few more after that. The Oilers can’t get timely goals. Their goalies aren’t giving them enough stops. The defending in front of them is downright porous.
“No one’s going to replace someone like that,” Foegele said of McDavid. “We need everyone in here to buy in and bring a little bit more, each of us.
“If we have everyone doing a little bit more, I like our chances of being competitive.”
That better happen quickly because there’s a lot that needs fixing.
Time is ticking.
(Photo: Brad Rempel / USA Today)