"Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard."
On the evening of January 22, 2013 the San Jose Sharks delivered this very important message to the young Edmonton Oilers, 48 hours after the Oilers earned a comeback victory against division rival Vancouver in their season opener. In their opening 20 minutes on home ice the Oilers surrendered 6 goals on 17 shots in what was, without hyperbole, one of the worst periods in the history of the franchise. The Oilers had come out looking to put on a show in front of the home crowd, comfortable that their talent would lead them to victory. So comfortable in their talent that they abandoned the structure and system preached by Ralph Krueger and his staff.
They got embarrassed, easily picked apart by a squad that was eager to pick on a team that wasn't playing like one. After the game, conversations with a number of players yielded responses like this:
"This shows us that we can't play however we want and expect to be able to win the game."
"This is a wakeup call that we aren't at the top of the league yet, that we aren't entitled to anything."
After following that up with an emotional victory against Los Angeles that saw the team stick together through great confusion and adversity, the second half of the lesson was delivered on the 26th of January in Calgary. A Flames team that is well back of the Oilers on paper (and already in the standings) reinforced the old "100% for 60 minutes" cliche and left the Oilers behind as clearly the 2nd best team on the ice that night. Discipline issues, lack of even strength offense and an absent hunger for shots on goal highlighted the disappointment.
Thankfully, the team earned a couple of wins to go with those two losses to keep the start to the season workable as a "teaching moment" for the coaches instead of a "huge hole to climb out of".
The response from the team to their opening week stumbles has been excellent. On Monday, they took a lead for the first time in 5 games and the powerplay continued to be lethal as they survived the Avalanche. Devan Dubnyk faced an onslaught of action in the 3rd period that allowed him to regenerate some of the numbers that were lost in the San Jose debacle. A couple of nights later, the team started a 3 games in 3.5 days road trip with a date in Phoenix. After an early 5-on-5 goal from Lennart Petrell (the first depth scoring of the season), they gutted it through against a stifling and ugly Coyotes squad, and almost hung on all the way. After the Coyotes tied it with 19 seconds to go in the 3rd period, the Oilers promptly regrouped and won the game in OT.
And then, San Jose again. 9 days after surrendering 6 goals in 20 minutes, it was time to show that the lesson had indeed been learned. They were playing their second game in as many nights and facing the only undefeated team in the league. On top of that, they were missing Shawn Horcoff (injury) and Magnus Paajarvi (roster move to make room for Anton Lander to replace Horcoff). After a strong first period that saw the Oilers outshoot the Sharks 11-7, the boys in blue had a couple of brain cramps in 39 seconds that led to a 2-0 deficit. 9 days earlier when the snowball started to roll in the wrong direction, Ralph Krueger didn't use his timeout. He made a different decision this time, calling a halt to the action and addressing his troops sternly.
The quick breath worked to stem the tide and the Oilers proceeded to come back against a very strong opponent. They could have folded, could have abandoned their structure, could have chalked it up to a loss and saved their legs for Colorado...but they didn't. They gutted it out, eventually equalizing and then going toe-to-toe with the Sharks for the 3rd period and overtime. In highly difficult circumstances, the point they earned was extremely impressive.
The talent worked hard, and were rewarded with a point that many wouldn't have expected them to earn.
*I see no reason to stop playing Devan Dubnyk any time soon. He's the goaltender of the future here, he's young and has shown no signs that the entire workload is too much for him. His SV% is back up to 0.921, which puts him 9th in the NHL amongst starting goaltenders.
*The puck hasn't been going in yet for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but it will. He's missed the net by a hair a bunch of times with that quick release snap shot and had Antti Niemi at his mercy last night in the shootout before putting the puck just wide. He's generating a lot, and it will come. On top of that, his defensive zone play has been excellent. He's supporting his defencemen very well, and has erased any fear that the coaching staff might have had in throwing the line over the boards in any situation.
*Amongst regular centremen (70 faceoffs or more), Shawn Horcoff is ranked 21st in the NHL in faceoff percentage at 56.2%. Eric Belanger has also been elite in the dot at 51.4%. Both of these players took a lot of heat from fans last year but have started this season performing very well in their 3rd and 4th line roles respectively.
*Taylor Hall (9 points) and Sam Gagner (8 points) both have 7-game point streaks to start the season. The consistency, especially for Gagner, is impressive.
*Justin Schultz is leading the team in average time on ice per game with 22:46. He's got 5 points and a +2 rating through 7 games. His time on ice average is good for the lead amongst all rookies and his 5 points is tops amongst rookie defencemen.
*Lennart Petrell doesn't get talked about much, but he's a coaches best friend. Before he came over to the NHL last season, one scout for the team told me that he might be the best penalty killing forward in Europe. So far, there's no reason to dispute that the statement was true. He's a horse on the PK and his 5-on-5 minutes are as consistent as anybody. He's not flashy, but he's reliable, and a critical part of the puzzle on a winning team.
Dan Tencer is the host of 630 CHED's Inside Sports which can be heard weeknights from 6 to 9 pm.