Oilers’ penalty-kill woes, undisciplined play prove recipe for disaster in St. Louis

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If your penalty kill is struggling, you’d better play a disciplined brand of hockey. If you’re undisciplined, your PK better be at its best.

And if both of those things aren’t up to snuff, you’re doomed. The Edmonton Oilers found that out the hard way in a 6-3 road loss to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday.

“We’re very frustrated with the calls that went against us,” coach Kris Knoblauch said. “It puts us in a difficult position to win the game, especially when you’re behind where we’re needing goals and here we are killing penalties.”

The defeat was the Oilers’ third in five games since the All-Star break. Thursday’s outcome was secured when the Oilers allowed two goals while short-handed late in the second period.

The goals by the Blues’ Jordan Kyrou and Pavel Buchnevich were the final two of four unanswered the Oilers surrendered in the frame. That turned a 2-1 advantage after the first into a 5-2 deficit heading into the third.

Stop those two St. Louis power plays and perhaps the Oilers remain down just a single goal heading into the intermission and have a real chance to win.

“When you look at through that (pre-All-Star Game 16-game winning) streak, a lot of things were going well,” Knoblauch said. “But probably the highlight of it was our goaltending and our penalty kill.

“Our penalty kill, we definitely have faith in it to kill penalties and be one of the strong parts of our game. There have just been a lot of breakdowns — and different kinds of breakdowns.”

The Kyrou goal occurred at 15:32, just seven seconds into a Blues power play. Untouched, he tapped in a rebound with ease.

Buchnevich’s tally was a backbreaker as it crossed the goal line with 25 seconds left in the period. A lost faceoff and failed clear by Connor McDavid started things off before Buchnevich tipped in a pass from Robert Thomas.

The Oilers have allowed seven goals while short-handed on 15 opponents’ opportunities in their last four games.

They’ve had the NHL’s worst penalty kill since the break after holding down the eighth spot in the league beforehand.

“That’s a small sample size,” PK mainstay Derek Ryan said. “We’ve been really good for a long time. We maybe haven’t been getting the bounces and haven’t been as structured as we were before. But it’s a confident group. We know we can kill penalties.”

Case in point, the one bright spot. The Oilers took four minors in the third, including an elbowing and unsportsmanlike conduct double minor to defenceman Vincent Desharnais — two of four penalties he took on the night. They didn’t allow a single goal.

That work kept the Oilers in it. That they tasked their penalty killers so much basically all but removed any hope of a comeback.

“It makes it really hard when you take that many penalties,” Ryan said. “It gets you out of a rhythm. Our PK’s been struggling a little bit, too, so it’s hard when you keep putting us back out there again and again and again.”

The Oilers were whistled for eight minors, including the final seven in the game. Some were iffy. Others were earned.

Sure, they could have been afforded another power play or two, but they did have three in the game — and three of the four in the first period.

The referees had their eyes on the players wearing white sweaters for a reason. The Oilers put forth one of their worst efforts in a long, long time.

“That’s just a symptom of not having the puck a lot,” winger Zach Hyman said. “We were defending too much. When you’re defending that much, you get tired and take penalties.”

The PK and the parade to the penalty box highlighted a lousy night for the Oilers.

Stuart Skinner — sound for so long — didn’t make enough saves. He made 24 of them but allowed five goals.

The top line of McDavid, Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — one of the most dominant trios for weeks — struggled mightily. They were on the ice for the first three goals against.

By the third period, Knoblauch took out his line blender for the second straight game. This time it was set to max as even the McDavid grouping was mixed around.

McDavid wound up centring Leon Draisaitl and Ryan McLeod, whereas Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins got Evander Kane as their new linemate.

Though Corey Perry scored his first goal as an Oiler in the final frame, it was too little, too late.

It was the first time since Dec. 16 — almost two months — that the Oilers allowed five or more goals in a game. They’ve allowed at least three goals in each of their five post-All-Star Game games after going 14 straight contests allowing two or fewer.

“We have to clean up our defensive zone,” Hyman said.

The Oilers have alternated losses and wins since returning to action Feb. 6 from the break. They haven’t looked like the same calibre of team as they did for the most part when they were laying waste to their opponents from Dec. 21 through the end of January.

They have two more games on this trip — Saturday in Dallas and Monday in Tempe, Ariz. — to get back on track.

“We knew that the month of February was going to be very difficult with the amount of travel, especially the first two or three weeks, and the quality of opposition that we’re going to be playing,” Knoblauch said.

“It’s good for our team. It’s what we need.”

(Photo of Alexey Toropchenko and Vincent Desharnais: Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

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