You can’t win them all. That’s the reality of being an NHL team. The schedule is long, hard, and gruelling, and you’re always going to have some bad games. The difference between mediocre teams and contenders, though, is the ability to make a bad game just that — one bad game.
That’s been a key to the Oilers’ success a quarter of the way through the season. While the team has had some bad games where they look sluggish, low-energy, or unable to execute, they haven’t let it spiral into anything more than just one bad game.
Last night’s win against the Avalanche was a statement. Coming off a forgettable 6-3 loss to the Sharks in San Jose, Edmonton returned home looking for a rebound. The Avs opened the scoring, but the Oilers then responded with four goals of their own before the end of the first period. Colorado was reeling with injuries, with both of their goalies and key players like Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen on the sidelines, but the Oilers showed no mercy and completely buried them.
Responding after a bad game is a big reason why the Oilers are sitting at the top of the Pacific Division with a 13-6-2 record right now. Think back to pretty much all of the team’s bad games this year and what happened immediately afterwards.
After getting dropped 3-1 to the lowly Blackhawks, the Oilers came back and slammed the Flyers 6-3. After losing 3-0 to a horrible Wild squad in Minnesota, the Oilers edged out the Capitals, the best team in the league. After a frustrating loss to the Red Wings, the Oilers went into Columbus and hammered the Blue Jackets 4-1. After a 5-2 loss at home to the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Oilers picked up their first shutout of the year against the visiting Devils.
Only twice have the Oilers had a losing streak this year. They dropped back-to-back games on the road to Winnipeg and Minnesota in October and they lost to Arizona and St. Louis last week. Otherwise, the team has done a great job of responding after poor showings to avoid any kind of prolonged losing streaks.
[Oscar] Klefbom says the tone [in the dressing room] is entirely different. I’ve heard from a few people now that Holland gave a stirring speech the night before training camp began. Klefbom didn’t want to go deeply into it, although he did say that the GM “talked about how he’s won Stanley Cups, but isn’t satisfied and wants more.” (I believe a lot of the message was about Detroit’s path from NHL afterthought to Stanley Cup champion, and how Edmonton can follow the same path. From what I heard, players were willing to run through walls when it was over.)
Since then, it’s been about “building confidence in us,” Klefbom said. “(The coaches) want us to make plays, not just off the glass when we’re in trouble. But when something goes wrong, it’s a lot quieter.”
The Oilers have to build depth, but know cornerstones are in place. Got to make them believe.
In the past couple of seasons, the Oilers would find themselves in a funk and struggle to pull out of it. If it was a slow start to a game, the team would often get dejected and the game would quickly spiral out of control. One bad game would often lead to another and another and the team would suffer from prolonged losing streaks. Five different times last season the Oilers had losing streaks of at least four games. I’m not sure that’ll be an issue this year.
Of course, a lot of Edmonton’s success is the result of superhuman play from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. There are a lot of contributing factors to the team’s success beyond those two, but, these two are the co-MVPs. Draisaitl is on pace for 160 points and McDavid is on pace for 145. It’s really something incredible to witness.
There’s been quite a bit of talk about how the Oilers’ success is unsustainable because they’re riding so hard on two players. While there’s absolutely no doubt the Oilers need more depth — a third-line centre and another top-six winger would be ideal — assuming their success is a mirage because the team is top-heavy isn’t entirely fair.
Nobody looks at the Boston Bruins and says “hmmm, they get offence from one line, that isn’t going to work!” The Bruins sit 11-3-4 through 18 games and are rightfully labelled a contender. But they lean entirely on one line for offence. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, who are third and fifth in the league in points, lead the Bruins along with Patrice Bergeron. Those three have accounted for 44 of the team’s 64 goals. The next highest scoring forward on the team is David Krejci, who has nine points.
The key to being the Bruins is keeping the puck out of the net. You can get by with one elite line to drive your offence if you don’t need to score five goals every game. The Bruins are great at shutting other teams down, both with good defensive play and strong goaltending. Boston’s expected goals against per 60 (based on shot volume and quality) is 2.02 while Edmonton’s is 2.19.
It really isn’t that different. If Dave Tippett has the team bought into a system that works, there’s no reason the Oilers be something in the same vein as the Bruins. They might not be as good or deep as Boston is, but there’s a blueprint there. I think adding a third-line centre and a top-six winger could push the Oilers over the top, but riding McDavid and Draisaitl with strong overall team defence into the playoffs is doable.
There’s still a long way to go, but this team is really starting to look like one that you can believe in.