EDMONTON — Every once in a while, we are treated to a playoff game in November.
It takes the right two teams, playoff combatants from last spring, and an in-season back-to-back in which the team that got swept in the playoffs is looking to prove a point.
Doesn’t five straight wins — a playoff sweep and a 5-2 drubbing Tuesday in The Peg — give us all the evidence we need?
“That’s the type of game we needed,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett, whose team amazingly killed Connor McDavid’s four-minute high-sticking penalty assessed at 19:16 of the third period, lasting well into the overtime period, en route to a 2-1 shootout win.
“We’ve been trying to challenge our team about defending better, and some situations where we need to be harder.
“We competed hard, and when we did make a mistake the goaltender cleaned up the mess for us. It’s a good step in the right direction to get our goals against down.”
This was one of those nights where both teams checked at playoff-level intensity, and two goalies simply refused to make a mistake. As the minutes — then the periods — passed with the score still 0-0, it became one of those games that became extra important for both sides.
At 0-0 after 40 minutes, Edmonton knew it had to beat this opponent that had won three overtime games in last year’s playoff series, always manufacturing the big break, the crucial goal where the Oilers simply could not.
And the Jets knew that old adage: never give a sucker an even break. A win in a game like this would allow them to live rent free in the Oilers’ collective head until their final meeting of the regular season on Jan. 16. Or maybe, just maybe, another series sometime in June.
This was the night that Stuart Skinner officially entered the equation as a plausible answer to Edmonton’s long-term goaltending issues. He stopped 46 shots, was a major part of the Jets going 0-for-5 on the power play, and outdueled Connor Hellebuyck in the shootout, thwarting Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor.
“I’ve been preparing for this for a long time,” said the local product. “The whole team played fantastic. Really good defensively.
“I’m super grateful for this moment.”
With 39-year-old Mike Smith on the shelf for a long time, this marks one of those intersections between preparation and opportunity for the 23-year-old Skinner. Mikko Koskinen is 33, and Edmonton GM Ken Holland has been looking to get younger at the position.
Maybe he doesn’t have to look as far as he thought.
How good was Skinner on Thursday?
“Not just good. He was really good, right through the shootout,” marvelled Tippett, who could quite likely give Skinner another start on Saturday against Chicago. “He’s worked hard, waited for his break. And tonight he jumped in there and did a hell of a job.
“Smitty is going to be out for a while. This is a good opportunity for him.”
Before the game, McDavid was shaking off questions about how few penalties he draws. He was not on the podium after the game to address yet another Play of the Week goal he had authored, tying the game late when he walked through three Jets and beat Hellebuyck high-blocker.
The goal was eerily similar to the one-on-four goal he scored against the New York Rangers two weeks ago, a Superman effort that tied the game late for the Oilers. McDavid and Kyle Turris scored in the shootout to secure two points for Edmonton against the Jets.
But is Connor McDavid human…? pic.twitter.com/GCbCoOtzT3
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 19, 2021
“It’s surreal, right? It’s the NHL — everyone is a good player,” Turris said. “He’s so fast, so quick in his movements. For him to pull off goals like that at clutch times — that’s why he’s the best player in the world.
“You’re surprised, but not surprised. You see it every day in practice.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 19, 2021
“It’s great to score crazy goals like that,” added Zach Hyman. “But it’s even better to score them in the timely manner the way he does.”
We talked before the season about how McDavid was trying to improve his shot; at how the game’s best player was still looking for ways to be even better.
What we missed was when he invented that solo dash at an entire group of unsuspecting defenders. A fortnight ago it was four Rangers standing there, unable to handle McDavid’s speed. On Thursday, it was three Jets, including poor Logan Stanley, the Oilers captain’s Last Dance.
“He has a sense for when he can do it and when not to,” Turris said of the outmanned scenario. “As you mature as a player, as you grow, you figure out those times. Both those goals he was the in the middle of the ice, picking up speed, and the other team was coming at him. A situation where he can wheel and deal.
“The rest is magic.”
The Mouth That Roared, John Tortorella, said earlier in the week that McDavid should just “shut up” about all the infractions he suffers that go uncalled. McDavid did draw a penalty Thursday on a ticky-tack hook into his hands by Kyle Connor, but he entered the night leading the entire NHL in per-game possession time in the offensive zone (1:26), and possession in all zones (2:10).
Somehow, however, he was tied for 57th in the NHL in penalties drawn.
Asked about it his answer was blunt: “I guess I’ve just got to shut up about this, but… So, uh, ya know… Yeah… I’ll leave it.”
McDavid now has points in each of Edmonton’s 16 games this season. It’s a long ways from Wayne Gretzky’s record of 51 games off the start of a season, but when it comes to McDavid, who is betting against him?