|Eric Belanger is denied by Niklas Backstrom (and the goal post) during Thursday's 2-1 shootout loss to Minnesota.
Tony D'Amato nailed it back in 1999. Al Pacino's character in Any Given Sunday was a football coach, not a hockey coach, but his words sure do ring true through the first six games of this Oilers season:
"One half step too late or to early, you don't quite make it," D'Amato says in the famous "Peace by Inches" speech. "One half second too slow or too fast and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in ever break of the game, every minute, every second."
Truer words couldn't be spoken about the loss last night to Minnesota, a heartbreaker with Dany Heatley forcing overtime at the 19:59 mark of the final frame. Last night is the most exasperated example of a trend that we've seen develop early in this season for the orange and blue: letting the lead slip.
It's a good news, bad news sort of happening, to be honest. The good news is that the Oilers have had a lead in each of the previous five games. The bad news is that, with the exception of the 3-1 win over Nashville, the team has failed to extend the lead to greater than one goal and haven't been able to cling to that narrow margin.
That's four losses, all against divisional opponents, all in games that featured an Oilers lead. Even harder to swallow, the last two games have been leads late into the third period.
I wrote here previously that the first step for the Oilers was to play in more one goal games. Last season, it won't surprise you to learn, the Oilers were 29th in the NHL in number of one goal games played (only Minnesota played fewer).
As the last place record might suggest, the Oilers might have been competitive most nights last season, but teams invariably found means to pull away by the end of the night. This season, at least in the first six games, not only are teams finding it difficult to pull away from the Oilers, they're having to fight and claw to come from behind in these games.
Having the lead in these games and forcing other teams to come from behind is a fantastic start. The dificulty, through six games anyways, has been to find the finish. Fundamentally, it's one of the following two things, or perhaps a combination of both: The team is playing too much on its heels and not enough on its toes. All of the forwards not named Ryan are snake-bitten.
I would like to see the team more aggressive when having the lead. I'd like to see them push for that second goal, making sure to give all the ice time possible to the young, skilled players. They're the future of the team and that's why they're here.
That said, I'm likely not lobbing that critique if Eric Belanger
scores on that shorthanded breakaway last night and Jordan Eberle
scores on the powerplay in Calgary on Tuesday. We have to admit, I think, that the chances to score these goals are there. The belief inside the dressing room, I can tell you, is that the chances will be rewarded sooner rather than later and that the scoring drought won't last long. If they're right, they will start winning these close games. If they're wrong, they'll need to do more to use their offensive weapons and push.QUICK HITS
* An elite start to the season for Nikolai Khabibulin
, who currently leads the league with a 0.95 GAA and is second with a 0.962 SV%. He has stopped 75 of the 78 shots and has a 1-0-2 record, earning the team points in each of the three starts that he's made.
* Who figured this team to be lights out defensively and unable to score? The Oilers are 3rd in the league, allowing an average of just 1.67 goals per game and 30th in the league by only scoring 1.67 goals per game.
* Props to the PK: 7th in the NHL with 88.9% success rate.
* Of the ten goals that the Oilers have scored, forwards named Ryan account for eight of them. Nugent-Hopkins has four, Smyth and Jones have two. Taylor Hall
and Tom Gilbert each have one to account for the other couple.