Now that they’ve used up much of the ink in the dabber against the designated free spots on the Bingo card, otherwise known as the Ottawa Senators, we’ll get a more realistic look at exactly how the Edmonton Oilers stack up in the North Division over the next six games, starting tonight against the Montreal Canadiens.
That’s not to completely dismiss a 5-1-0 record over their last six games, with four of those wins against the 2-11-1 Sens, but neither is it cause to get carried away. The next half-dozen, tonight against the 8-3-2 Habs, two against the 7-4-1 Winnipeg Jets, two more vs. the 6-5-1 Calgary Flames and one against the 6-10-1 Vancouver Canucks, comes with must-have points banked and a tougher test still to come. That said, after a 3-6-0 start, I’ll take 8-7-0 going into tonight every day of the week.
While this latest stretch came largely at the expense of a team just about everybody beats, the Oilers are finding ways to win instead of ways to lose. Tuesday’s 3-2 win in Ottawa marked the first time in forever and a day (225 games) the Oilers have won a game with both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl held off the score sheet – ending 10-game points streaks for both.
The Oilers continue to get scoring from the blueline, most notably from Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie, and they have coaxed more offence from forwards not wearing No. 97 or No. 29. Simply put, they’ve hung around while stretching Mikko Koskinen too thin awaiting the return of Mike Smith and with a penalty kill that’s not nearly as good as it was last season. Warts, Sens and all, they face the next half-dozen in reasonable shape.
We know McDavid, who leads league scoring with 27 points, and Draisaitl, right behind him with 25 points, will continue to produce despite that blip the last time out. Outside the top six, it looks like Jujhar Khaira, Tyler Ennis and Josh Archibald have something going. You’d like to think the PK will tighten up. If Koskinen and Smith can get in sync splitting the crease again rather than having to ride one of them into exhaustion, maybe this next stretch and the schedule beyond won’t be so daunting after all.
“We’re getting a better feel for our team and with Smith coming back it will give us more balance,” coach Dave Tippett said after the last win in Ottawa. “Hopefully, we’re pushing in the right direction. I think there is still lots of growth left in this group, but we’re moving in the right direction.
“It’s a big factor. We’ll have a fresh guy going every night. That’s when both of our guys were at their best last year. Koskinen came in last game and gave us a really strong game.” Smith, who made 27 saves in a 3-1 win in his return Monday, will make his second appearance tonight against the Habs.
The Habs beat the Oilers 5-1 and 3-1 in the first two meetings of the season and sit second in the North Division at 8-3-2, but after a 5-0-2 start they’ve lost three of their last six games. It looks like the Oilers will get Jake Allen, who boasts a gaudy .940 save-percentage, in the Montreal net as Carey Price played last night.
The toughest test of the next six games comes tonight. While I’m not expecting they’ll replicate that 5-1-0 mark during this stretch, I won’t be stunned if the Oilers manage it either if they can kick things off with a win tonight. Right now, they’re finding a way.
AND . . . The Oilers held Jesse Puljujarvi out of today’s morning skate for what they’re calling precautionary reasons. He will be assessed this afternoon. James Neal took shifts with McDavid in Puljujarvi’s absence.
WORLD’S LONGEST GAME
The players taking part in the World’s Longest Hockey Game at Saiker’s Acres continue to power through brutally cold conditions as they attempt to play for 252 straight hours and raise $1.5 million for the Cure Cancer Foundation between now and Monday. Suffice to say, this group is awesome. As of this morning they’ve already surpassed $1 million in donations. If you can, please go to their webpage and donate.