EDMONTON - You could hear the collective groan from the 16,839 in attendance all the way up in the press box.
For the eighth time in the past 11 games, offence was scarce as the Oilers, once again, came up on the wrong end of a low-scoring decision. Matt Cullen registered two goals and an assist as the Minnesota Wild defeated the Oilers 3-1 Thursday night at Rexall Place.
After 16 games, Edmonton is looking up at 12 other teams in the NHL's Western Conference with a 6-7-3 record; and that nightmarish, nine-game road trip is right around the corner.
Making matters worse, Oilers forward Taylor Hall was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for kneeing when he caught Cal Clutterbuck with a questionable hit at centre ice. Hall, who has no prior suspensions, will almost surely get a call from Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's Vice President of Hockey/Business Development and head disciplinarian.
Uh oh. On both accounts.
"What I saw is a player that didn't even look at the puck and it looked like he was trying to hurt a guy," said Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo post-game.
Clutterbuck was carted from the Wild dressing room and into an ambulance on a stretcher after the game. It's unknown what the injury and the extent of it is, but the 25-year-old's thigh (more so than his knee) was heavily wrapped.
"It's unfortunate," said Hall. "I didn't feel like it was knee-on-knee at all. I felt I got him with my hip or torso area. It was a weird play. With the ice how it was at the end of the period, I thought the puck was going to bounce to him.
"I felt I got a good chunk of him with my hip. It sucked to see him down on the ice. I didn't want to bury him too bad. I thought the puck was right there."
"I only got one good look at it," added Head Coach Ralph Krueger. "I didn't see any uncharacteristic movement. I've never seen Taylor think about something like that."
The hit was the furthest thing on Krueger's mind. It simply followed an uninspired second half, resulting in the Oilers' sixth loss on home ice.
"We came out with and excellent opening 20 minutes and positioned ourselves for the opportunity to win," said Krueger, noting that the Oilers led the Wild 8-3 in shots after one. "But we didn't sustain what had made us successful. It's a painful statement and it feels like this picture has happened before. That second half or last 25 minutes, we need to be extremely angry.
"We've had 15 tight games, but that doesn't matter at all. All that counts are the W's."
"I thought we came out strong and played pretty solid for the first half of the game," added Sam Gagner who, for just the third time this season, was held pointless. "When they scored, it took the life out of us and we didn't battle through the adversity. We're working hard, but it's a matter of staying with the game plan and playing smart. It's something we've got to learn here quick."
Minnesota nearly went up by a one near the seven-minute mark of the second period when rookie rearguard Jonas Brodin sifted a long-range wrist shot on goal. The puck was redirected en route but, fortuitously for the Oilers, rang off the base of Dubnyk's glove side post.
It was the second time in the game the Wild has struck iron. Dany Heatley missed an open-net chance earlier on when Mikko Koivu fed the veteran with a no-look, behind-the-back feed in the opening 20.
Celebrating his 37th birthday, Smyth put the Oilers up 1-0 at 12:26. Smyth, who came into the game as the most productive Oiler vs. Minnesota after having scored 19 goals and 41 points in 57 career games against them prior to Thursday's encounter, beat ex-Oiler Tom Gilbert to the puck and tucked home his second of the season with a patented, old-school wraparound.
Of the 36 goals the Oilers have scored this year, Smyth's was just the 19th tallied at even strength.
The Wild got it back 2:26 later. A neutral zone turnover allowed Minnesota defenceman Ryan Suter to spot Matt Cullen up ice. Once the pass connected, Cullen turned on the afterburners, cut around Mark Fistric and deked to his backhand.
"That 1-1 goal broke us," said Krueger.
Just seconds after Cullen hit his second post of the night (and Minnesota's third total), the Wild converted and grabbed their first lead at 2:20 of the third. Devin Setoguchi quickly corralled a pass in the slot and wasted little time, rifling a low shot past Dubnyk on his club's 20th shot.
The Oilers had plenty of chances to cash the equalizer in the third, but often passed up (literally) as they searched for something better. Ales Hemsky was a prime culprit, ditching a chance in the slot and sending a pass into the feet of Hall on the left side.
"We have a lot of guys that are pass-first, but that has to change," said Gagner. "I think we had chances in scoring areas that we passed up and we looked for pretty plays."
The Oilers collected a three-period total of 28 shots on Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who stopped 27 and improved to 23-3-1 in 29 career starts vs. Edmonton.
"Everybody saw it," said Krueger. "There were offensive opportunities there and we got complicated on those opportunities."
Cullen put the game away when he cashed an insurance marker on a 2-on-1 late in the third.
Devan Dubnyk made 25 saves on 28 shots in the loss.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick