Hot Oilers trying to prove they’re moving in right direction

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Back in December, Edmonton GM Craig MacTavish got a little heated while trying to defend the woeful Oilers. Less than a week later head coach Dallas Eakins was fired. Edmonton didn’t see an immediate or dramatic uptick once Todd Nelson took over as the team’s bench boss, but they have an opportunity to finish on a high note thanks to their current 5-1-1 stretch.

“First and foremost, it’s a pride thing, so it doesn’t matter where you are in the standings, losing is never fun. There are a lot of guys playing for contracts, playing for a lot of different things,” goaltender Richard Bachman noted to the Edmonton Journal. “We want to show people we are coming together as a team and that we are trending in the right direction.”

Bachman, along with fellow Oilers goaltender Viktor Fasth, is among those that are scheduled to test the unrestricted free agent waters this summer. There certainly are plenty of players on Edmonton playing for contracts or trying to make a strong impression to help themselves ahead of the 2015 training camp. Beyond that though, as Bachman said, there’s also a need for Edmonton to prove that there is a light at the end of this tunnel. That breaking up this core isn’t the franchise’s only possible path to success.

Not that they can accomplish that with a handful of strong weeks at the end of the season. The Oilers have struggled for far too long to get the benefit of the doubt by going on a winning streak long after they’ve been eliminated from the playoffs. Still, the Oilers seem upbeat and perhaps that’s a start.

“I feel that the atmosphere in the dressing room has changed since I was last in here,” defenseman Brandon Davidson said, who was previously summoned in December. “That’s a big part of it. Guys are having fun doing things the right way.

“We don’t have a playoff, but for us, this is everything, especially for most of us going into next year.”

Whether or not this is a sign of things to come for Edmonton in 2015-16, one thing we can say is that this hot streak has hurt their chances of winning the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.

“I’m sure there’s a whole group of fans hoping for us to lose, but we’re having fun winning,” said Oilers forward Taylor Hall. “Game 1 or Game 75, it is still fun to go out there and win — and we’re playing good teams, teams that have full lineups and teams that are chasing playoff spots. … I know I’m having a really good time with (Miller and Anton Lander). We play hard and we play with energy.”

Contrast that with where he was three months ago when he wondering what he did wrong after watching yet another one of his coaches get fired. Or against captain Andrew Ference calling out his teammates over their lack of pride.

Maybe times have changed. Then again…

Related:

In Edmonton, Yakupov’s future seems bright again

Inconsistency is the only consistent thing about the Canadiens

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The 2017-18 edition of the Montreal Canadiens has been underwhelming at best. The only thing that’s been consistent about them is their lack of consistency.

On some nights, they look like a team that should have no problem making the playoffs. Other times, they look like a squad that should be picking in the top five of next summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

Through 31 games, they own a 13-14-4 record, but how they got there is the most interesting part.

Let’s forget the fact that five of those wins have come against the Sabres (three times) and Red Wings (twice). Hey, in the NHL, a win is a win. But the Canadiens have rarely not been on some kind of positive or negative streak this season.

After opening the season with an overtime win in Buffalo, Montreal went on to lose seven games in a row. They ended that skid at home against Florida, followed that up with a loss to the Los Angeles Kings and then went on to win five of their next contests.

That hot run came to an end with a 3-0 loss at home to the Minnesota Wild. In fairness to the Canadiens, they didn’t have Carey Price, Shea Weber and Jonathan Drouin in that game. But after beating Buffalo in their next game, they went on to lose five in a row to Columbus, Arizona, Toronto (they were obliterated 6-0 in that one), Dallas, and Nashville before snapping the skid against (you guessed it) the Sabres.

The game against Buffalo was the night Carey Price returned to the lineup. Price’s return sparked the Canadiens and they went on to win their next four games over Columbus, Ottawa and they beat Detroit twice, including a 10-1 drubbing at the Bell Centre.

After the blowout win over the Wings, a lot of people thought they had turned the corner. Instead, they followed up the win over Detroit with home losses to St. Louis, Calgary and Edmonton. Saturday’s loss to the Oilers was beyond embarrassing, as they were totally dominated in front of their fans.

“Well, if I knew, I certainly would’ve done something about (the Canadiens’ streaky play),” head coach Claude Julien said after the loss to the Oilers. “It is frustrating. We had a good stretch there, but this week has been a tough week for us. At the end of the day, you have to be better than you were tonight.”

There’s a number of reasons for Montreal’s lack of consistency. They’ve dealt with injuries to key players like Drouin, Price, Weber, David Schlemko and Artturi Lehkonen, but every team goes through that.

Their goaltending was brutal early on, and that certainly didn’t help during their tough start to the year. Also, the fact that 5-on-5 scoring doesn’t come easy to them is another reason why they don’t produce with any regularity. They’re also lacking some mobility on defense, which isn’t exactly ideal for today’s NHL.

And, of course, the fact that their two streakiest scorers have been “off” more than they’ve been “on” has really hurt them. Both Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk haven’t scored nearly enough. Pacioretty has eight goals in 31 games, while Galchenyuk has seven goals in 31 contests. Both have scored 30-plus goals in recent reasons.

The one thing going for the Canadiens is that the third spot in the Atlantic Division is up for grabs. Yes, the Bruins currently have four games in hand on Montreal and a two-point lead in the standings, but those old rivals will be going head-to-head three times in just over a week during the month of January.

As ugly as the season has been at times, the Habs still in it.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL ON NBCSN: Lightning, Blues square off in battle of NHL’s best

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Wednesday night, as the St. Louis Blues host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 8 p.m. ET. You can stream the game by clicking here.

The Lightning and Blue have consistently been two of the best teams in the NHL since opening night.

A healthy Tampa side has scored at will with a league-best 110 goals through 29 games and the Blues have been powered by Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn and the now-injured Jordan Schwartz. Both teams have the fire power, but they also have played some very stingy defense, thanks to goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Jake Allen.

The Blues enter Tuesday night’s game banged up and missing Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo, who was placed on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, so depth will be tested. Schenn’s production may also be affected as Schwartz has assisted on half of his 16 goals. And as Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic pointed out this morning, St. Louis averaged 3 goals per game with Schwartz and 2.36 goals when he wasn’t in the lineup.

[WATCH LIGHTNING-BLUES LIVE ON NBCSN]

Tampa hits the road following an undefeated four-game homestand. Their last road trip away from Amalie Arena ended with a 1-3-0 record and only seven total goals scored. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper won’t have last change to get his preferred matchups on the ice, so will he find himself splitting up Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos at times to spread out the offensive threat?

“We’ve done what we had to at home,” Cooper said via the Tampa Bay Times. “Now we have to do it on the road, and it’s much tougher with all the travel we have to do, especially where we are here. So, we have to learn from what we did on the road before, what we have to do to prepare, but this is a good way to jump-start that.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blue Jackets’ Cam Atkinson hits ‘reset button’ after healthy scratch

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The reset button has been hit and Cam Atkinson will return to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ lineup Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers.

Atkinson, who has six goals and nine points in 25 games this season, was made a healthy scratch on Saturday, three weeks after signing a seven-year, $40.25 million extension. John Tortorella’s decision to sit the forward who scored 35 goals last season wasn’t a hard one for the head coach, mainly because the player forced the issue.

“This isn’t to kick a player,” Tortorella said on Monday. “Cam Atkinson is a very important player, and especially for this coach. He’s in every situation, and that’s what I think of him as a player.”

It wasn’t an easy past couple of days for Atkinson. An embarrassing scratch not long after inking a big extension wasn’t an ideal way to show off his worth to the franchise. But on Sunday he received a text from Martin St. Louis, an off-season Connecticut golf buddy and someone who knows pretty well how Tortorella operates. For more than a half hour the former Tampa Bay Lightning star reminded the 28-year-old that he’s a good player and that the franchise has an incredible amount of confidence in him, as displayed by the contract they just handed him.

[Blue Jackets bet big on Cam Atkinson]

Since Saturday’s scratch, Atkinson had stayed on the ice after skates working on his shot and getting extra touches with the puck to try and restore his confidence. There was time spent watching video, too. And just as important, there was plenty of communication with Tortorella.

“It’s one of those things where once you go down that dark alley, one thing leads to another and it’s hard to get out of it,” Atkinson said. “It’s not so much pointing the fingers, but sometimes you tend to blame your teammates or linemates and that’s something you can’t do. It’s something I’ve tried not to do… Being a healthy scratch was probably the best thing for me.”

There’s more than one Blue Jackets player struggling at the moment, which Tortorella admits is a failure on his part to find a way to get them going again. To the head coach, scratching a player isn’t a form of punishment, it’s a way to help.

Atkinson has hit the 20-goal mark in each of the last four seasons, so it’s not like he’s a lost cause or being crushed under the weight of his extension. Now, after a night in the press box, he knows he needs to respond.

“Obviously, you never want to be a healthy scratch, but it gives you a chance to reassess and hit the reset button, realize where you are at that point in time in the season and what you need to do to get better,” Atkinson said.

“It’s a wake-up call. I take full responsibility. I know I need to be way better, and I will be.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Cooper’s reinvention; Pietrangelo on IR

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• How Jon Cooper helped reinvent himself and bring the Tampa Bay Lightning back to elite status. [Tampa Bay Times]

• Days after losing Jaden Schwartz for six weeks, the St. Louis Blues placed Alex Pietrangelo on injured reserved with a lower-body injury. The good news is that he’s expected back by early next week. [Blues]

• Six skaters on Russia’s Sochi Olympic women’s hockey team — including its captain and leading points scorer — were banned from the Olympics for life by the IOC. [NBC Olympics]

Drew Doughty on the Los Angeles Kings doubters: “Yeah, you know, obviously, people are still going to doubt us. There’s always going to be people who don’t believe in the success we’re having, but we’re not too worried about those other people.” [LA Daily Times]

• The New York Islanders unveiled their plans to develop land by Belmont Park race track, which includes an 18,000-seat arena. Bidding against MLS side NYCFC, it’s unknown when the winner will be announced. [Islanders Insight]

• How the returns of Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg will affect the rest of the Anaheim Ducks’ lineup. [OC Register]

• Don’t trade Erik Karlsson. No, really. Just don’t do it. [Silver Seven Sens]

• Canada’s World Junior entry got a big boost on Monday when the Montreal Canadiens announced they will be loaning the defenseman to the national team. [Canadiens]

• What to make of these Columbus Blue Jackets? [The Cannon]

• The New Jersey Devils have made the most out of having some very hard practices. [NJ.com]

• So you wanna rebuild the Chicago Blackhawks? Well, about that… [Second City Hockey]

• It’s not been the greatest season in Philadelphia, but Sean Couturier is certainly shining. [TSN]

• What do the Dallas Stars need to do to find more success on the road? [Defending Big D]

• Are smelling salts actually dangerous for players? [The Star]

• Would a transatlantic hockey league be a successful one? [British Ice Hockey]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.