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NHL Heritage Classic

Oilers finally on right track

After win against Jets in Heritage Classic, Edmonton appears to have turned corner

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

WINNIPEG -- The Edmonton Oilers did something we are not accustomed to seeing them do entering the third period with a 3-0 lead in the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday.

They locked down a win. And they locked it down hard.

The Oilers limited the Winnipeg Jets to two shots on goal over the first 13 minutes of the third period, keeping the puck in the offensive end more often than not and had 10 shots on Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck over those 13 minutes.

"I think in the past if we were up 3-0 on a team like that, we're not just giving up two shots on net," Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. "It's definitely a good sign. We didn't just shut things down in our own end, we put some more pressure on them, had some power-play chances and of course didn't give them too much in our zone. It's definitely a good sign and something we need to keep building on and being consistent on."

This is part of the transformation of the Oilers.

It is somewhat ironic that over the course of a weekend meant to embrace the past, with the Oilers and Jets alumni playing such a huge role and getting to interact with the current teams, Edmonton is in the midst of attempting to erase its most recent history.

This season for the Oilers has been about change, and when the final horn sounded on a 3-0 victory Sunday they were 5-1-0 and had the most points in the NHL.

Video: EDM@WPG: Letestu beats Hellebuyck shorthanded

It's early, but if the goal for the Oilers coming into the season was to break from their most recent past, they have done so in a big way.

Because not only do the Oilers have a great record, they have done it over their past three games with defense and goaltending, which for years has been their biggest weaknesses.

"Well, I think we have to give our players some credit, and you can't continually tie this group of individuals to the past because we're a different group, a one-player change makes us a different group," coach Todd McLellan said. "But we have done a fairly good job."

It might seem odd to identify turning points six games into a season, but the Oilers appear to have a clear one already.

Edmonton lost 6-2 at home to the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 16, and the players were so upset about it they decided to move a planned off day the following day and come in to practice. It was a decision that became a big talking point around the NHL because off days are supposed to be sacred, but the players felt it was important.

Video: EDM@WPG: Nurse finishes a two-on-one rush to pad lead

Exactly a week after that loss to the Sabres, the Oilers have three straight wins against the Carolina Hurricanes, St. Louis Blues and the Jets and gave up three goals total in those three games.

"I think one of the biggest things is the players realized that things needed to change as much as the coaches," Oilers forward Milan Lucic said. "That's why we decided to switch it. Sometimes the best thing to do is to watch it on video. Like Todd said, it wasn't about making us come to the rink and bagging us and proving to us on the ice that he's going to bury us if we don't play the right way. It was more so of a teaching game and nipping it in the bud before it turns into a two-, three- or four-game losing streak.

"That's one of the things that we talked about coming into this season that needed to change, was how do you respond after a loss? What's the attitude? What's the mentality after a loss? Just coming together as a group and seeing it on video and kind of looking in the mirror and realizing that even though we've scored 11 or 12 goals or whatever it was, we hadn't played that well in the past few games. I think that's why that was a great opportunity for us to clean that up before it got too bad."

This is Lucic's first season with the Oilers, a big part of the reason why this is a different group than it was in past years, as McLellan referred to. He comes to Edmonton from the Los Angeles Kings, where he played for one season after spending the first eight seasons of his career with the Boston Bruins.

Video: EDM@WPG: Talbot denies Laine with his right pad

Lucic has won a lot of games over that time, including a Stanley Cup victory with the Bruins in 2011, and it is that winner's mentality he will be leaned on to provide.

Nugent-Hopkins has been on the Oilers longer than anyone on the team except for right wing Jordan Eberle, and he can recognize the change.

On Sunday, the Oilers scored all three of their goals off careless Jets turnovers. What was striking about it was that it is usually the Oilers committing those turnovers, but Sunday they took advantage of them to get a win instead of falling victim to them in a loss.

"It's something we've needed to clean up ever since I've been here," Nugent-Hopkins said. "It's something we key on. It's definitely a big part of the game, not turning the puck over. And if we do turn the puck over there's guys reloading for each other and supporting each other. So it's not just a free for all."

Video: EDM@WPG: Kassian wires a wrist shot past Hellebucyk

Taking care of the puck is just one detail on a long list of things the Oilers are looking to change this season. They were 29th in the NHL standings last season, and the highest Nugent-Hopkins has ever finished since he joined the Oilers in 2011-12 is 24th, which was in 2012-13. They've finished 28th or 29th in every other season he has played.

That is the history the Oilers are trying to forget as they strive to live up to the lofty standards their alumni who were here this weekend set back in the 1980s and 90s.

They are a long way from getting there, but how the Oilers have responded so far to a last-minute decision to practice on an off day appears to suggest they are finally on the right track.

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