EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers returned to practice Tuesday minus the 300-pound gorilla on their backs.
The Oilers won their first game of the season Monday, ending a spectacular face-plant out of the starting gate that had left a fragile fan base teetering on the abyss of despairing deja vu.
“For the group, (the win) was more of, ’OK, everything that we’ve put in place here will work and it can work and there’s no need to change anything,”’ Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins told reporters after the optional skate at Rexall Place. “That was the one thing we were really hammering home as a (coaching) staff.
“We’re comfortable with our systems, the way we’re teaching it, the progress that we’re making it, and we’re not going to change it.
“It’s going to work.”
The Oilers, galvanized by a electrifying penalty-shot goal by winger Taylor Hall, defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 Monday for the first win.
The victory vaulted the Oilers out of the league cellar past the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, and Winnipeg Jets into a tie with the Colorado Avalanche for 26th spot.
The Oilers opened the season with a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames, followed by a shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks and punishing beatdowns at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings and the Arizona Coyotes.
Hall said things began to turn around in last Friday’s 2-0 loss to the Canucks.
“We tried to eliminate those Grade A (opposition scoring) chances from our game, and it seemed like in Vancouver that happened,” he said.
Eakins agreed. He said the Oilers needed to improve their defensive play but were undone in the early going by some bad bounces.
“We’ve had some pucks go right through us, where we’ve been in good positions — stick, skates — (but) somehow it got through,” he said.
“We’ve continued to try to look after that red zone as much as you can, and we’re (now) finding a way to get our sticks and our feet in a way of those pucks.”
Eakins has also been matching his top line of Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle against the other team’s best trio. Against Tampa Bay he matched them against Steve Stamkos’s line and came out on top.
“I thought (Nugent-Hopkins) was by far the best player on the ice and was driving the game,” said Eakins.
Nugent-Hopkins’ line has also been matched up against the Sedin twins in Vancouver.
Bring it on, said Hall.
“It’s fun to go up against the guys. And we took it as a challenge last night to go up against a player like Stamkos,” said Hall. “The best way to play against those (top lines) is to play in their end, and make them play defence, and go at them that way.”
Eakins said the top line may be matched up against Alexander Ovechkin when the Oilers host the Washington Capitals Wednesday.
But while the dark clouds have receded, the Oilers know they’re still in a storm.
Offensive leaders from last year like Eberle and David Perron have yet to score this year.
Goaltender Ben Scrivens has been erratic and the Oilers are still prone to getting caught running around in their own end of the ice.
They need success now as they enter the mid-point of a seven-game homestand before heading east on a five-game trip in early November.
The Oilers are also dealing with a fan base that, after eight consecutive seasons of empty promises and no playoffs, has gone from twitchy to downright jumpy.
As the early losses piled up, fans took to social media to carve the team: too many youngsters, not enough focus in training camp, fire the coach.
Eakins was ridiculed as some kind of eggheaded Mr. Peabody looking to X and O his way out of a game that is often no more complicated than who wants the puck more.
Perron said they’re not out of the woods.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of nice things so far that people are talking about, but it’s only one win out of six games.”