“A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it.” –Alistair Cooke
There’s something to be said for the teams that are still laying it all on the line every night even though they have nothing to play for this season. There’s honor that comes from hard work when the significant goals are out of reach—for each of us in our everyday lives and professional athletes alike. There’s something noble that comes from respecting the process. In sports, there’s something dignified about athletes taking pride the integrity of the game.
Welcome to the Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets circumstances these days.
It would’ve been easy for the Oilers to pack it in after watching the San Jose Sharks take a 2-1 in the second period. It would have been predictable for the Oilers to fold up shop after they were dominated for most of regulation against a perennial Western Conference powerhouse that was desperate for a win. That would have been the easy way out for a team that’s enduring yet another rough season.
But instead of looking like a team that had nothing to play for and fading down the stretch, the Oilers fought back. They quickly answered San Jose’s second goal and managed to survive the rest of regulation. Then at the end of 60 minutes, Edmonton turned the tables and dominated overtime before prevailing in a shootout.
The performance is even more impressive when the game against the Sharks is put into its proper perspective for the Oilers. Edmonton entered the Shark Tank a night after getting destroyed in the third period against the Ducks in Anaheim. The Oilers withstood a flurry in the first period and dominated the Ducks in the 2nd period, only to have the doors blown off in the third.
That’s the kind of game that can be tough for any team to recover from—even a team that is in the middle of a playoff dogfight. But a team that is playing out the string and looking April tee-times? It would have been understandable if the Oilers coasted into the game in San Jose under the same dark cloud that they finished the game under in Anaheim.
Instead, they scored early and found a way to win against one of the most desperate teams in the league.
“If you’re the San Jose Sharks, a conference finalist playing at home and fighting for your playoff life, you’re wondering why you can’t beat the Edmonton Oilers.
And if you’re the Edmonton Oilers, slumping, terrible on the road, playing on back-to-back nights and without any power plays to speak of, you’re wondering ‘Hey, how did we just beat the San Jose Sharks?’” –QMI Agency
Not bad for a team that doesn’t have anything to play for. But the Oilers weren’t the only team with little (apparent) motivation on Tuesday:
“Enter the lowly Blue Jackets – the oh, so wretched Jackets, who must have looked like a blessed bit of scheduling to grant the Coyotes a reprieve. Four points in the bag, boys! Home and home and we’re right back on top!” (Courtesy of The Cannon)
Yeah, about those four points that were in the bag…
Columbus’ most recent victory over the Coyotes marks their first three-game winning streak of the season. The moral victory may ring hollow since their about 83 points out of a playoff spot, but it shows that the guys in the room are still bringing effort instead of coasting down the stretch. Just take a look at who they’ve beaten over the course of their modest streak: the Coyotes twice and the Avalanche. Before that, their last victory was against another team battling for one of the final playoff spots—the San Jose Sharks. Fans might want to keep that in mind as the Los Angeles Kings come calling later this week. There are no gimmes at this time of year in the NHL.
There are plenty of reasons the Blue Jackets could have quit on the rest of their season. The campaign started with the greatest of expectations—this was supposed to be the team that pulled the franchise from cellar dweller to playoff contender. Offseason acquisitions and optimism from fans and players alike said this spring would be different.
It’s not. In fact, it’s worse than it’s ever been.
New acquisition Jeff Carter whined his way out of town and mainstay captain Rick Nash has finally had enough. Not only is it tough for Nash has he plays out his lame-duck captaincy, but for the teammates who are only left with questions and uncertainty. Still, everyone is still doing it the right way. Derick Brassard summed up the Blue Jackets’ state perfectly:
“He’s our captain, he’s our best player. Hopefully he’s going to stick around us next year. I don’t know what’s going to happen but from what I see right now he’s just a guy who wants to play and show us the way.”
Not many captains would be willing to “show the way” after everything that Nash has been through over the last month. And not many teams would be willing to follow after a tragic season and knowing that he probably won’t be there when training camp kicks off in August.
No matter what happens with Nash in the offseason, the majority of this year’s roster will be back for next season. On that note, it’s important for the current edition of Blue Jackets to find their footing before the long summer vacation:
“We want to finish strong with confidence. Guys individually are playing better. The addition of Jack (Johnson) has been huge for our defense. It’s good to see our potential and have some belief back in the room.” -RJ Umberger
A casual observer will tell you that winning games down the stretch for teams like the Oilers and Blue Jackets is pointless. An objective analyst would go as far as to say that Columbus and Edmonton winning games is in direct conflict to their long-term goals. They need to think about the future—and a higher draft pick in June is far more important than a meaningless victory in early March.
After all, there’s a reason that fans adopt mottos like “Fail for Nail” or “Suck for Galchenyuk.”
But that’s not the point. The point is that both of these teams have come out—and both have been prepared to play. Even though both teams saw their playoff aspirations blow up in their collective faces months ago, both teams respect the game enough to put it on the line when the games matter for all of the playoff contenders down the stretch.
Hockey players – at least the ones most of us would want on our team – don’t understand the concept of giving less than their very best effort. They don’t comprehend an ulterior goal of anything other than winning every time they lace up the skates. And they sure as hell don’t give up when the standings tell them that they won’t be playing a meaningful game again until next September.
The Blue Jackets and Oilers have heard their fair share of criticism over the course of the 2011-12 season. Let’s be honest: they’ve each earned just about every one of the criticisms aimed their way. The Blue Jackets have been a dumpster fire from the front office to their goal crease—and everywhere in between. The Oilers have demonstrated with their play on the ice that no matter how many high draft picks an organization has acquired, not every porous team can be expected to immediately transform into the Blackhawks or Penguins.
Yet their collective endeavors to put forth their best efforts and knock off Western Conference contenders should be appreciated by more people. While it’s the toughest stretch of the season for teams battling for the final playoff spots, it’s must be an even tougher stretch for proud athletes that are competing without the allure of the playoffs.
Those don’t sound like the type of players who are concerned with the “Fail for Nail” movement, do they?