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No more time for moral victories as the Oilers continue to run out of runway

The Oilers played quite possibly their best game of the season Sunday, but fell 1-0 to the Maple Leafs. And with mid-season quickly approaching, there isn’t enough time left to be satisfied with coming close.

If the Edmonton Oilers end up missing the playoffs in a season in which they were expected to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup – and let’s face it, they might have already run out of runway – they shouldn’t look back at games like Sunday night’s and lament what might have been. What will, however, cause them to knock their heads against the wall is that there haven’t been enough like them.

When all the dust settles after this season, there’s a really good chance the Oilers will fall into the ‘Biggest Disappointment’ column for a lot of people. Heck, we at THN picked them to go to the Stanley Cup final this season. But unless they go on some kind of ridiculous run, they won’t even have a chance to compete for it.

And it won’t be because they lost 1-0 in a game they dominated on Sunday night in December, although they desperately needed the points. The only thing that the Oilers’ loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night will have in common with their season is that both represented a wasted effort by the player who is rapidly becoming the best player in the world. “You don’t get anything for being close,” said a frustrated Connor McDavid after perhaps the most dominant game in which he’s been held scoreless in his NHL career.

No, you don’t. The Oilers can talk all they want about how they dominated the game, which they did. They can talk about hit goalposts and crossbars and how Maple Leafs backup Curtis McElhinney turned in one of the best performances of his career. But there are a couple of flaws there. First, teams that truly have championship aspirations find a way to win these games, particularly when your opponent is without its best player and playing its backup goalie. Second, if the Oilers hadn’t been so bad earlier in the season, this loss would not have been nearly as devastating. Third, your goalie has to stop the shot that went in 34 seconds into the game. Fourth, when you have a 5-on-3 power play, it’s often a good idea to shoot the puck and get traffic in front of the net. (To that end, Mark Letestu matched McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with 5:48 in power play time. Meanwhile, a proven scorer who has displayed a talent for putting pucks in from in-tight with lots of activity around him, Michael Cammalleri, got 12 seconds of power play time.)

So here the Oilers sit after 30 games. They’re 14th in the Western Conference and 28th in the NHL, seven points out of the last wild card playoff spot. But that’s not what’s going to kill them this season. What will do them in is the fact that there are six teams between them and a playoff spot in a league where it’s so difficult to make up ground. And when it comes to the Pacific Division, there are four teams between them and a top-three finish. Consider the Oilers are 5-4-0 in their past nine and they’ve lost a point in the playoff race.

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A team that has yet to win three games in a row is going to have to go on some kind of tear here. The Dallas Stars, who hold down the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, are on pace for 90 points this season. For the Oilers to even tie that total, they’ll need 64 points in their final 52 games.

“Seven points, that’s three-and-a-half games,” said Oilers coach Todd McLellan. “And, yeah, there’s a lot of teams ahead of you, but we just played our 30th game. Now, don’t take that as, ‘Hey, the coach is relaxed and he thinks there’s a lot of season left,’ because I said 20 games ago that we’ve got to get our group together. But I’m not posting the lineup and doing math and educating our group on how many games and who we need to beat. We need our team to improve and if we continue to improve, we’ll look at the standings as we evolve.”

All right, so let’s go from that point, then. The Oilers are indeed playing better. In fact, their 6-2 win over Montreal Saturday night and the loss Sunday night might have been their two best games of the season. McDavid, who has suffered a couple of illnesses this season that have zapped him, looks to have his legs back. Boy, does he ever. McLellan believes his group, one that looks in many ways to be built for a style of hockey that no longer wins, is beginning to increase the tempo of its play. Of their 52 remaining games, the Oilers have 39 games against Western Conference opponents, including 24 in their own division.

Those are what you call moral victories. The Oilers need real ones. And they need them now or they won’t be selling tickets to people to watch playoff games from the concourse of Rogers Arena this spring.

“I don’t think we’re completely out of runway,” Milan Lucic said. “But at some point you’ve got to put together a pretty big and pretty good win streak to get yourself back in the mix. We have a lot of divisional games left and if we take care of that, we can get ourselves back in the picture. But also we know it has to start sooner than later because if .500 hockey continues, there’ll be no chance we get ourselves back in the playoff race.”

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