EDMONTON – With playoffs out of the question and a top-two lottery pick in mind, some fans of the Edmonton Oilers want losses instead of wins for the balance of this season. That’s not a sentiment shared in the Oilers dressing room.
In the upside-down race in the standings that will land the 30th-place team no worse than the second pick in the NHL Entry Draft, and a chance to select Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, fans on websites around the Internet were lamenting the two-game winning streak the Oilers took into Tuesday’s game against Ottawa.
Likewise, they weren’t unhappy about a 4-1 loss to the Senators, dropping the Oilers to 21-39-6, six points back of the 29th-place Toronto Maple Leafs, who beat Boston 4-3.
The same people point out a loss to the Maple Leafs on Saturday in the second game of a four-game road trip that begins Thursday in Montreal, would all but secure 30th place.
“Sure, you hear it,” defenceman Tom Gilbert said. “As an organization, you look at teams like Pittsburgh, who’ve managed to get players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and how great they’ve become.
“If you go out there and you want to get that first or second pick and you want to lose, that’s a loser mentality. As a player, you don’t want that to sink into you. You play to win regardless of what place you’re in. Anything else is a loser mentality.”
With Hall and Seguin consensus blue-chip prospects in the 2010 draft, the only silver lining in a difficult season for Oilers fans is the chance to get a crack at one of them.
Under lottery rules for the bottom five teams in the standings at the end of regular season, the 30th-place team can’t drop more than one place in draft order. If the Oilers were to catch the Maple Leafs in their final 16 games and finish 29th, they could drop a spot to the third pick.
“That doesn’t cross your mind,” Sam Gagner said. “Every game, you go out with the same attitude, and that’s to win every game.
“A lot of guys here now are going to be here in the future and we don’t want to be guys who give up. You look at teammates and you’re constantly getting a read on their battle level.
“As a player, for myself, I don’t want to be going into the off-season with guys thinking you quit or you didn’t battle right until the end.”
With the Oilers facing a fourth consecutive season out of the playoffs, some fans are touting short-term pain for the long-term gain of landing a franchise player. They don’t want any late-season heroics.
On several websites, Edmonton’s plummet in the standings – a fall aided by season-ending injuries to Ales Hemsky, Sheldon Souray, Nikolai Khabibulin and Ladislav Smid – has been dubbed the Fall for Hall or Beggin’ for Seguin.
“The last thing on your mind is that,” Mike Comrie said. “It’s been frustrating for all of us, but you still have to play the game to win. Play the game the right way. Play for each other.
“You can’t just pack it in. We all do this because we love it. You don’t just stop trying. The last thing on your mind is how you’re going to do in a lottery pick.”
Before the loss to the Senators, the Oilers had been playing some of their best hockey of the season. They beat Minnesota 2-1 March 3 and made it two straight wins for the first time since the first week of February with a 2-0 shutout of the New Jersey Devils.
“It’s obviously not been a great year as a team and for a lot of the guys individually,” Gilbert said.
“When it comes down to it, you still want to build some kind of character for this team. We have nothing to play for when it comes to the playoffs, but we have lots to play for when it comes to pride.
“When you don’t make the playoffs, the summer is long. If you leave it on a sour note, if you’re going nowhere but downhill, it feels even longer. There’s no feeling you’ve built team chemistry.”
There will no laying down, players insist, going into road games in Montreal, Toronto, Columbus and Minnesota.
“You play to win games,” Gagner said. “There’s pride in that. You want to feel good about yourself.
“That’s what we’re pushing for. We want to get better every game and feel good about ourselves going into next season.”