LAS VEGAS — The location and opponent couldn’t have been fitting for the Edmonton Oilers considering how much was on the line.
Try as they might to downplay their lengthy winning streak heading into a road game against the Vegas Golden Knights, it was clear that’s not how they felt.
Beating their bitter rivals to earn a place in the NHL record books meant a ton to the Oilers, considering how the Golden Knights knocked them out of the postseason less than nine months ago.
Defenceman Cody Ceci said Tuesday morning how great it would be to “punch back” to tie the longest winning streak in NHL history.
The Oilers couldn’t land that big blow. They fell 3-1 to the Golden Knights and failed to tie the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins’ 18-game, league-best mark in the process.
“We lost to a team in our division that we’ve played a lot over the last couple of years,” defenceman Darnell Nurse said. “It’s going to leave a bad taste in our mouth.”
Chandler Stephenson’s goal at 1:24 of the third period proved to be the difference, as the Oilers came up one win short of matching Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, et al.
It was an unfortunate result for the Oilers, who carried the play for large portions of the game.
Connor McDavid opened the scoring by capitalizing on a Leon Draisaitl pass on a short-handed two-on-zero break just 4:35 into the game.
Connor McDavid on a 2-on-0 with Leon Draisaitl buries the shorty! 💪 pic.twitter.com/9RqFOxV5iF
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 7, 2024
Though Nicolas Roy tied the score on a rebound before the first intermission, the Oilers had the three best chances in the second period. Ryan McLeod missed a clear opportunity in front. Evan Bouchard hit a post. Draisaitl’s shot in tight hit goaltender Adin Hill’s head.
Heck, even Evander Kane had a great chance moments before Stephenson’s go-ahead goal.
“We couldn’t bear down on our chances,” defenceman Mattias Ekholm said. “In these tight games, those little details, those timely goals matter in a big way.”
“I liked a lot of parts of our game,” McDavid said. “We just don’t find a way to get a win.”
As well as the Oilers played — coach Kris Knoblauch called it one of their best games in two or three weeks — it was another disappointing outcome in Vegas.
It all goes back to last May when a playoff series loss really stuck in their craw.
“It left a bitter taste in our mouths the whole summer,” Ceci said.
It’s not hard to figure out why.
The Oilers had leads in each of the final two games of the series and lost both times. The Game 5 defeat in Vegas was particularly disheartening.
They allowed two goals against on a two-man disadvantage as part of surrendering three goals in 89 seconds and wound up losing 4-3.
“We’ve talked about grabbing those momentum swings, and we lost the game in 90 seconds,” McDavid said after Game 5.
No wonder McDavid mentioned after beating the Nashville Predators heading into the bye week that the Oilers owe the Golden Knights a good game in their building.
Had they won that game — or at least found a way to knock off Vegas in seven games — the Oilers could have won their first Stanley Cup since 1990.
“It was unfortunate to see them go on to win it when it was that close,” Ceci said.
“Early on this season, I still think there was some lingering effects of the disappointment of last year,” assistant coach Glen Gulutzan said last month.
There most certainly was. The Oilers, even with some unluckiness in October and early November in the form of poor shooting and save percentages, weren’t the same calibre of team they’d been under Jay Woodcroft. It ultimately cost the coach his job.
The loss to the Golden Knights was in their heads.
“We came out and put too much pressure on ourselves and not enough respect for the rest of the league,” Ceci said. “Everyone that didn’t win was coming back this year to try and win it. It wasn’t just us. We put too much pressure on ourselves to win it right away when the whole season’s a grind. You’ve got to get to the playoffs first. I don’t think we put enough focus on that.”
They’ve righted the ship under Knoblauch, improving to 26-7 under his watch since he was hired Nov. 12.
Along the way, they’ve played staunch defensive hockey. They’d allowed fewer than three goals in 14 straight games before Tuesday. That streak ended, albeit with an empty-net goal.
So often during this winning streak, the Oilers clawed back from deficits and pulled ahead in the third period.
“Last year in this building, we fell apart a couple times, and that starts with me. I fell apart a couple times,” goaltender Stuart Skinner said. “That was a huge learning lesson for us.
“You are seeing a pattern from us having a little more discipline mentally, being able to stick together through all of those moments when maybe it doesn’t go your way.”
That wasn’t the case in Vegas. They just didn’t have it in them Tuesday.
“We had a lot of things go right. Winning 16 straight, you have a lot of things go well, and you’ve got to get some bounces,” McDavid said. “For the most part, I thought we earned our bounces and earned our luck.
“Tonight, we didn’t go out and get it.”
Still, the Oilers have a lot to feel proud about even if they weren’t in the mood to hear it.
Having just lost for the third time in a row, the Oilers entered a Dec. 21 game in New Jersey at 13-15-1, two games below NHL .500.
They’re up to 29-16-1 now and are comfortably in a playoff position. Even with the loss to the Golden Knights, the Oilers are 7 points behind them with five games in hand.
“We did an exceptional job. To be in the position where we’re at right now, we have some breathing room,” Knoblauch said. “We’re not happy. We’re not content. We want to move up in the standings.”
It was more how it ended than anything else — in Vegas against this team — even though it had to end eventually.
Call it the latest bit of motivation for a team that’s fully back to being a Stanley Cup contender.
“It’s obviously fresh. We’re disappointed that we lost,” McDavid said. “It’s been a while since we’ve done that. You forget sometimes how much you hate losing. That’s a good reminder.”
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(Photo of Connor McDavid: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)