Oilers goalie Anders Nilsson takes a third period penalty on David Perron of the Pittsburgh Penguins at Rexall Place in Edmonton on Friday.SHAUGHN BUTTS / EDMONTON JOURNAL
It’s been almost 10 years since the Edmonton Oilers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in regulation time on Jan. 6, 2006, sparking an unforgettable post-game rant by then-Penguins coach Michel Therrien that skewered his players after Shawn Horcoff’s one and only NHL hat trick.
Games have been close in the last 10 meetings, none more so than the latest 2-1 loss Friday night.
Oilers forwards Nail Yakupov and Leon Draisaitl both slammed shots off the iron in the third period. Winger Benoit Pouliot almost beat the Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff from below the goal-line with a prayer shot as the clock ticked down.
Alas, the Oilers fell to the Penguins. It’s a loss against a team that right now is even hotter than the Montreal Canadiens: Nine wins in the last 10 games after starting 0-3, only giving up 15 goals in those 10 games.
Oilers coach Todd McLellan was relatively upbeat after the game. After an unremarkable first 20 minutes, his team played better than they have in some of their wins in the first 14 games.
The Penguins simply are better than the Oilers. That’s not just because they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; they have a much sounder team defence than the Oilers.
“I don’t want us to accept losing but the buildup throughout game … the not folding our hand, the resiliency, those were all positives,” McLellan said. “That said, I don’t want our team to acknowledge that losing is fine. It’s not.”
The lone Oiler goal came five-on-five, an Oscar Klefbom ripper that Zatkoff waived at and should have stopped. It was only the 14th even-strength goal the Penguins have surrendered all season long. That’s an incredible stat.
The Oilers can take solace in a close loss to a team that’s only lost once in the last 23 days, to the Dallas Stars. They’re heading out on the road as the Canadian Finals Rodeo kicks them out as usual at this time of year. They’re 5-9, and wins should be all that matters. But, they didn’t go down quietly.
“The positivity is still with this group but we want to win games and this is hard to swallow right now,” said winger Matt Hendricks, who had a shiner on his cheekbone after taking an Ian Cole stick to the face.
The game ended at 9:40 p.m. in the first P.M. Oilers game, Post McDavid.
They could have used the 18-year-old, especially early when Connor would have pushed the pace with an Oiler team that was in full chase mode against the Penguins, who had 15 shots.
But, they were a reasonable facsimile of the team that had McDavid flying. They certainly didn’t throw up their hands and yell, “Now what?” There’s still belief in the room.
“Maybe it’s more outside,” McLellan said. “Don’t get me wrong, Connor would have been a great asset for us against the Penguins, especially early in the game.”
The first period was sobering for the Oilers, who got three shots from Klefbom, out of their five. “When they got us stopped in our defensive zone, we couldn’t move the puck. We’d be forced to punt, and chip it out. They were in great defensive structure,” said Hendricks. “They’d corral the puck and pound it back into our zone … that’s a good team over there.”
It was 1-1 after 40 minutes and it was a matter of which team cracked first.
The Oilers did. Penguins winger Phil Kessel caught a fortuitous break as his powerplay 25-foot shot midway through the third period smacked off defenceman Brandon Davidson’s left glove and the puck fell like one of Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey’s deliveries, eluding Anders Nilsson’s mitt
”A bobbled, knuckle-puck,” said Nilsson.
Passed ball if it had been on the diamond. A hockey goal with a chorus of mutterings from Nilsson and Davidson after Kessel scored. Or, maybe it’s just the kind of goal that a goal-scorer gets. If that’s Sergei Plotniknov, the Russian rookie on the Penguins, it doesn’t go in.
Nilsson, who made 15 saves on 15 shots (about six of them high-grade) in the first 20 minutes, and 31 saves overall, deserved better in his second straight Oilers start with Cam Talbot watching.
“The puck dropped. I saw the release and thought the shot was going high. The puck went off (Davidson’s) hand and I kind of froze on it. It was a really good effort by him to try and block it,” said Nilsson, who had taken the penalty to set up the Kessel-winning score when he tripped David Perron just outside his crease, likely stopping a goal.
“He was going way wide,” Nilsson said. “I put my stick down and he fell on it. He’d have put it into the open net. I had to do something, and the refs saw it. It was a good call.
“Sometimes you get away with it. You have to take your chances.”
Nilsson was holding his breath like everybody else at Rexall Place when Pouliot’s shot went to video replay in Toronto. The referees on the ice said it was no goal and the NHL war room agreed. The hopeful shot by Calgary Flames’ Michael Frolik on Talbot last Saturday went in with nine seconds left. This one didn’t.
“It was tough to see where the puck was (under Zatkoff),” Nilsson said. “It’s a tough angle, but those plays are tougher for goalies than what they appear. They shouldn’t go in but sometimes the shot throws you off guard even if you’re at the post or the puck squeezes through. That’s why you see quite a few of those goals over a season.”