Edmonton Oilers – far from perfect but even farther from boring

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Game Day 36: Edmonton at Calgary

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Tonight, the Edmonton Oilers will try to get back on the horse in a most appropriate place: the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. Both teams have had three days off the ice since they last saw an NHL game. For the Flames it was a 3-2 overtime win at Anaheim, for the Oilers a scrappy 5-2 home loss to the Vancouver Canucks. Those paired results put Calgary a point ahead of Edmonton in the race for Western Conference wild cards, where the two provincial rivals currently straddle the playoff cut-off line.

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Not shown: San Jose, Arizona, Anaheim and Chicago, all of which are already out of the race. But these six clubs are all in the game either for a wildcard spot or to break into the top three in their division and knock out another competitive team in a wildcard mix. Whichever way you slice it, there are twelve teams chasing eight places, with only the two division leaders looking stuck at this point.

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Some familiar teams on this list; the Oilers have faced all but Calgary in the fortnight before Christmas, losing their most recent game to all four:

  • a 2-1 loss at Minnesota on December 12
  • a 4-3 home shootout loss to St. Louis on Dec. 15
  • a 4-3 overtime loss at Nashville on December 19
  • a 5-2 regulation loss at home to Vancouver on December 23

A combined set of results that partly explains the predicament the Oilers find themselves in coming out of the Christmas break. Never mind a 4-3 home loss to lowly Anaheim and their NHL-worst -63 goal differential on Dec. 17, where points were squandered, but at least not for another contender. It’s fair to conclude that Edmonton’s 2-3-2 record in the two weeks leading up to Christmas was very disappointing.

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What to do ? The simplest answer is simply « play better », starting tonight. By tomorrow, the vacation roster freeze will end and GM Ken Holland will at least have the option to look elsewhere for reinforcements.

The Oilers have had their share of injuries so far, but all up front where they’ve lost wingers Evander Kane, Kailer Yamamotoand Warren Foegele with the center Ryan McLeod for long periods. Kane remains out indefinitely; the others are now back in the line-up.

Injuries haven’t been a problem at the back, at least in the top five, who have collectively appeared in all 35 games this season. The flabby belly was #6, where the back and forth Philip Broberg suffered no less than three separate injuries in the first three months. (We have long compared him to Oscar Klefbom but it’s ridiculous!) Number 7 of the house, Ryan Murrayis also injured, somewhat predictably given his own patchy injury history, leaving Markus Niemelainen as an automatic choice to fill the queue every night. He’s actually been fine in a limited role; the problems are further down the lineup where key defenders like Nurse Darnell and Evan Bouchard have been inconsistent, especially on the defensive side of the sheet.

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Then there is netminding, where the two Stu Skinner and Jack Campbell dressed up for every game. Skinner has been a pleasant surprise, playing far more than expected (20 starts), currently ranking 20th in save percentage among the NHL’s 50 goaltenders with at least 12 appearances. He also prevented about 4 goals more than you would expect based on the quantity and quality of shots he faced. On the other hand, Holland’s free market choice as the starting goaltender, Jack Campbell, had a disastrous start to his 5-year commitment to Edmonton. His .876 save percentage, 4.02 goals-against average and -13.6 goals over average rank 47th, 48th and 49th among that same group of 50 goaltenders.

Of course, there is a silver lining in Edmonton and we would be remiss not to mention it. the brilliant Connor McDavid has seemingly upped his game yet again and currently leads the NHL in goals (30) and assists (36), and obviously also in points. He’s on pace with 155 points, a spectacular number considering no NHL player this century even reached 130.

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The only player within 15 points of him is his teammate and sometimes his teammate Leon Draisaitl who collected 56 points on his own. Top Tier Attackers Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Zach Hyman have their own splendid seasons. The attacking quartet have teamed up with Tyson Barrie on a devastating power-play unit that, at this point, has converted 32.3% of his opportunities, which barely tops the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens who hold the NHL record in this department to 31.9%.

Scoring from depth has been less than ideal, but top-end production has been so strong that the Oilers rank third in the league on offense with 3.60 goals per game. The defensive record is a distant 24th at 3.46 GA/GP, and penalty kills a low 26th at 72.3%. Which brings us to the question of the evening: can the Edmonton Oilers overcome their mistakes?

It can be frustrating for Oil fans that their team still hasn’t established itself as a top-tier team in the NHL and is seemingly embroiled in a life-and-death battle just to make the playoffs each season.

One thing it’s not? Boring. The Oilers remain one of the most watchable teams in the NHL, with plenty of action at both ends of the rink and a large majority of games being played on the wire.

Tonight’s program

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Coach Jay Woodcroft is expected to play the same lines, pairings and starting goalie that faced the Canucks on Friday. Each of McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and McLeod will center their own lines, highlighting Edmonton’s extraordinary strength in the middle. Alas, this roster has only one winger, Hyman, who has scored up to 10 (ten) points on the season.

Skinner takes the start again. He played brilliantly in Edmonton’s first two games against Calgary, one of them coming in relief, stopping 71 of 73 shots in the process.

It’s not a decisive game: for example, three years ago on this date, the same two teams met in Edmonton, with the Flames scoring after just 11 seconds and leading to a 5-1 victory that made dropping the Oilers record to 20 wins. , 21 defeats. Edmonton rebounded in the new year and qualified for the playoffs. But it would certainly be nice to start this process a little earlier this time around.

Tonight’s encounter marks the third and final of the series of the season, with each side having recorded a regulation victory by one goal in the other’s barn so far. The Oilers would certainly welcome a continuation of that trend in that old-school four-pointer.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: The best thing about every Edmonton Oiler

LEAVINS: Oilers Christmas wishlist – 9 things

McCURDY: Oilers start strong, finish weak against Canucks

STAPLES: Nugent-Hopkins leads Oilers over Stars

LEAVINS: Oilers slip into Nashville in O/T

follow me on twitter @Bruce McCurdy

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