This was going to go one of two ways.
The Edmonton Oilers were going to start their midseason break early, with all the holidays booked and plans made, and mail one in at Las Vegas. Or preferably, they’d celebrate the 21st birthday of their captain, Connor McDavid, with the kind of effort that would allow them to spend a few days at the beach feeling good about themselves.
Thankfully for the several hundred Oilers fans who trooped to Sin City for their club’s first-ever game in Nevada, the Oilers chose the latter, battling hard to defeat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in overtime.
They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Well, here are our takeaways on Edmonton’s trip to the strip, a rare bright night in a season of disappointment.
Darnell Nurse. Who knew?
You can count on two fingers the number of Oilers having a better season this year than last: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who left with an apparent shoulder injury in the second period, and Nurse, who has taken a huge step in his development this season.
Nurse, 22, scored on two hearty blasts in a 4-2 win at Arizona Thursday, then rushed the puck to set up Pat Maroon’s game-opening goal in Vegas. As an encore, he stepped up to take a pass from Drake Caggiula in overtime, and walked in to beat Marc-Andre Fleury for the game-winner.
He has four goals and five points in his last four games, and you can just see him maturing as a defenceman, as rushes that used to end in confusion now have purpose.
How good can he be? Who knows? But with his size, ability to defend, toughness, wicked shot and skating ability, why can’t he be that Brent Seabrook to a Duncan Keith one day? That is, if Edmonton can ever find a true No. 1 D-man.
What if Edmonton scored the first goal in a game once in a while?
The Oilers have scored the first goal only 18 times in 46 games, and did so Saturday in Las Vegas. When they score first, they win at a .647 clip. When the opposition scores first, they play .286 hockey.
So, what is it? In Arizona on Friday, Edmonton allowed two goals inside the opening five minutes. Then the Oilers settled down, and were by far the better team in the remaining 55 minutes, against a Coyotes team that isn’t very strong.
Against the Golden Knights, they gave up the 1-1 inside two minutes, but battled hard against an excellent team, taking away an overtime win.
It’s about being ready to play. Score first more often, win more often. It’s as simple as that.
Poor Cam Talbot
On Friday, the Coyotes scored two early goals on no-chancers for Talbot, and he got the hook. Talbot batted Saturday in Vegas, stopping 34 of 36 shots and allowing his club a chance to win a road game.
In fact, we’re willing to say that his .900 save percentage is more a reflection on the Oilers defensive play in front of him than his own level of play. But, it must be said: teams that win get saves on a few more of those five-bell chances than Talbot has been giving the Oilers this season. Remember when GM Peter Chiarelli talked about “death by 1000 cuts?” The dip in Talbot’s play from last season is one of those cuts.
A good sign? Recent addition Al Montoya has stopped 32 of 33 shots he has faced in two relief appearances since coming over from Montreal. So, there’s that.
Anton Slepyshev is a microcosm of the Edmonton Oilers travails this season
He showed some promise last season with three playoff goals, has good size (six-foot-two, 220 lbs.), and a rather intriguing shot. Then this season rolled around.
Slepyshev hurt his ankle in the gym prior to training camp, missed all of camp and had the traditional slow start that ensues. Once healthy, he’s never been able to regain the momentum of last spring, and now finds himself on the trading block and a healthy scratch most nights.
Slepyshev just hasn’t given the Oilers a reason to believe the way, say, Jujhar Khaira and Jesse Puljujarvi have this season. He’s a restricted free agent after this season, but if things don’t change in his game, the Kontinental Hockey League is a real possibility for next season.