‘We’re not near where we’re capable of’: Another slow start dooms Oilers

EDMONTON — You can’t say the Edmonton Oilers are planning on waltzing through the regular season, waiting until the playoffs to stabilize their game.

Because in nearly every interview we did throughout training camp, it was The Great Qualifier: “Hey, we’ve got to make the playoffs first,” they said, to a man.

But if this isn’t a case of cocky or overconfidence, then what is it?

“We’re not near where we’re capable of (playing),” said head coach Jay Woodcroft after a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Saturday. “Certainly there are areas that we’ve got to get better at and we got to get better at it quickly.”

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For the second straight game, the 1-1 Oilers sleepwalked through the early part of a game, falling behind by three goals. It was 3-0 against Vancouver in the opener, a game Edmonton reclaimed by scoring five unanswered goals.

The Flames, however, are an entirely different animal. They are bigger and much better, and the 4-1 deficit the Oilers looked at not 11 minutes into this one was, in the end, insurmountable.

“We can’t spot a team three goals on back-to-back nights. It’s something that we have to address, obviously,” said Leon Draisaitl, who had a two-assist night. “Sometimes you start a season a little rusty. Hopefully that’s behind us.”

Calgary started on time, but it was calamity after calamity in front of Edmonton starter Jack Campbell, as Edmonton’s D-corps played soft, mistake-prone hockey, while the forwards weren’t much help either.

Flames veteran Mikael Backlund stood untouched in Edmonton’s slot to bury the first goal of the game just 1:13 in. Then Cody Ceci and Mark Stone traded goals before Brett Kulak, facing Nazem Kadri on a fairly basic two-on-two, blew a tire and watched Kadri walk in alone to score.

When Andrew Mangiapane made it 4-1 a couple minutes later — again, a smaller man with far too much time to operate in Edmonton’s blue paint — Campbell felt the hook for the first time as an Oiler, yanked after four goals on 11 shots in 10:18.

“That’s on us. That has nothing to do with him,” Draisaitl said of the pull. “He was amazing the other night. This is 100 per cent on us. It has nothing to with him.”

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Campbell doesn’t get the blame in this space, either, for the horrendous start. But to be fair, you can’t blame him for covering up many miscues in front of him.

Alas, Campbell was gazpacho Saturday — cold Soup.

“The breakaway (to Kadri). That’s the one goal I really want back,” Campbell said. “When it’s me and the shooter, I expect myself to save that one every time.”

Through his first two starts Campbell’s numbers are not so handsome — a 5.98 goals-against average and an .851 save percentage. He was fantastic in holding the fort in the opener, but never got the chance Saturday, pulled after allowing four goals in 10:18. And once again, two inside the opening five minutes.

“Once again, I gave up two quick ones, like in the first game,” Campbell said. “If you can make that save on the breakaway it gives the team a lot of life, and who knows from there? That’s just what I expect out of myself.”

For the final 40 minutes Saturday, Edmonton defended the way you have to against a team of Calgary’s calibre. The Oilers blocked shots, they took the man, they cleared the slot.

This isn’t a team where you look at the personnel and wonder, do they have the people who can do the job? They most certainly do, but those people have to show up to work on time.

What did the head coach see?

“I see what everyone sees,” Woodcroft said. “Around our net, we were not near as assertive or hard (as they can be). The way we normally can play. I thought we can be harder around our blue paint.”

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The bright spot was undoubtedly the goaltending performance by Stuart Skinner, who played just shy of 50 minutes and was perfect on 31 shots against. He was probably scheduled for a start Tuesday night against Buffalo, and after this tidy night of work he’ll be fine tuned to play behind a focused Oilers club when the Sabres arrive in town.

In the meantime, the Oilers get the day off Sunday and will hit the practice ice — and the video room — hard on Monday.

Twice in a row is exactly that — two bad nights.

If it happens a third night, then it’s a habit. And that’s something Woodcroft isn’t about to let happen.

“For me, there’s a lot of stuff to work on here,” he said. “We should have a captive (attentive) audience when we get back to practicing, because we haven’t started the way we wanted to in the last two games, that’s for sure.”

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