Oilers lose sight of defensive aspirations in defeat to Canucks

EDMONTON — They’ve been talking about goals against and 5-on-5 play since Darnell Nurse told us this in late December:

“5-on-5, obviously, we have to get our goals down,” Nurse declared. “We talk about it far too often in the last five years that I’ve been here.”

Then Connor McDavid arrived in camp and swiftly remarked, “No one’s putting their head in the sand here. Everyone understands where we’re at, and we’ve got to keep the puck out of our net if we want to be successful.”

Then opening night arrived, and Edmonton gave up five.

Five, 5-on-5 goals in a 5-3 loss Wednesday — a game that showed exactly what team the Edmonton Oilers are trying not to be.

“We haven’t played in a while,” said the less-than-trusty defenceman Adam Larsson. “I don’t think we expected the perfect game, but this was far from it. There are certain areas where we have to get a lot better.

“The greasy areas, we have to do a lot better work.”

The goaltending was average and the defensive zone coverage well below that, as the Vancouver Canucks exploited goalie Mikko Koskinen for three goals that were some version of a breakaway, and another one-timer by a wide-open Adam Gaudette left to make a sandwich between the hash marks.

Look: Vancouver was the better team, no doubt. They deserved the two points, unequivocally.

The Canucks can score, and when they’re skating in alone on your goalie shift after shift, they’ll beat you for fun. That’s what happened in the season opener, as Vancouver held leads of 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, 4-2 and 5-3.

Braden Holtby was better than Koskinen, but wasn’t left to his own devices nearly as much as the big Finn. Edmonton’s loose play from the qualifying-round loss to Chicago never missed a beat versus Vancouver.

“Just poor reads and poor puck play by some people,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “Grade-A chances against. Give up enough of them and they’re going to capitalize.”

Was it the number of chances allowed that disturbed Tippett? Or the quality of chances?

“Both,” he began, “but the quality of the ones they scored on, you’ve got to find ways to defend better on those. Larsson made a poor read on the first one. (Zack) Kassian made a poor read on the fifth one. Caleb Jones made a poor read on (the fourth one). Those are puck play errors compounded by poor reads, mistakes by players that lead to Grade-A chances against.

“Those are the ones,” Tippett continued. “If we want to be a better team, a harder team to play against, those are the ones that have to come out of our game.”

McDavid went pointless in 25:42 of ice time, but created more than enough opportunities. It was his opposite number, the once defensively accountable Larsson, whose duty was derelict.

Is Larsson finished as a shutdown-type defenceman? He was poor last season, brutal in the qualifying round, and on opening night he made two reads that resulted in Canucks walking in all alone to score on Koskinen.

There used to be a strong defensive defenceman here, and may still be one. But a season that begs for a major bounce-back began with a thud for Larsson.

“It was a couple of breakdowns today that cost us goals,” Larsson said. “We still believe in our team we still have really good players I’m really confident we’ll get this fixed tomorrow.”

There is no need to overreact, with a rematch Thursday against Vancouver. In fact, starting the season this way is an excellent reminder that this flashy, offensive-minded Oilers team won’t win squat until they learn to figure the parts of the game that never make the highlight reel.

Tippett has been preaching that for the entirety of training camp. We’d say he should have a receptive crew at this morning’s video session.

“We had a very receptive team at the beginning of camp and we still have a receptive team,” he said, clearly miffed post-game. “It’s a matter of doing it.

“It’s a matter of getting the job done.”

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