It’s crazy to think that you can snap a six-game losing streak on Feb. 7, win for just the sixth time in your past 21 games, and find yourself two points out of a wild-card spot.
Such is the way in the mild, mild West, and the Edmonton Oilers won’t apologize to anyone. They played a very complete game on the road Thursday, winning 4-1 at Minnesota to breathe some much-needed oxygen into their playoff hopes.
It’s not rocket science: You get a little early luck, clean up the defensive zone, mix in some excellent goaltending by Cam Talbot, win most of the physical battles, then combine all of that with a power play that has been lethal of late.
Sure, the news that captain Mikko Koivu has been lost for the season was a body blow for the Wild. But that’s even more reason to believe, when you get to play a team within hours of them hearing news like that. You’ve got to win those games, and the Oilers did what it took Thursday night in Minny.
Here are few thoughts on that:
It always takes a few games for a player to regain form after an injury, and this was only Oscar Klefbom’s second game back after missing 21 games with a broken pinkie finger on his left hand. But he looked very much like the Oilers’ lead defensive dog in his own zone, playing a heavy, steady game for a team-leading 23:55 of ice time.
What you notice with Klefbom is he has the size and courage to win the battle, but then the skill to make the right play once the puck is on his stick. Too many Oilers defencemen have just one of those qualities without the other, so they’ll win a battle then give the puck away, or not win the battle at all.
“This just shows you what Klefbom is worth to this hockey club,” head coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters in Minnesota after the game. “You get a player back who’s that dominant, it’s an awfully good feeling for the team.”
We’ve said it before: When the top D-man goes down, everyone else has to play too many minutes. Against the Wild, Klefbom’s 23-plus minutes positioned Darnell Nurse (22:16) and Adam Larsson (21:13) into realistic minutes, and kept Kris Russell (19:52) where he should be — below 20 minutes.
And the third pairing was in the mid-teens. Perfect.
It’s been a rough week for Talbot, who had a fantastic 40 minutes versus Chicago on Tuesday before succumbing to goalie abuse, as the Oilers broke down in front of him like an old Skoda on a 33-degree day.
Talbot was pulled, had some choice words for Hitchcock on his way to the room, and we suspect that the reason Hitchcock went right back to Talbot on Thursday is that — on second thought — he decided that hook against Chicago was a bit unfair.
This time, Talbot gave his team the same level for 60 minutes, and his team gave him 60 minutes of proper defensive-zone coverage in return. It’s a workable combination, eh?
“This was a good team win. We needed this one,” Talbot said after the game. “Huge for our confidence.”
Devan Dubnyk whiffed on Darnell Nurse’s early, long slapper as the first shot of the game went into the opponent’s net, a welcome change for Edmonton. It was a lucky goal, the type the Oilers haven’t seen much of lately.
At the other end, Talbot was allowed to simply make all the saves that would be expected of him, and not asked to steal five or six sure-fire scoring chances due to sloppy defensive work in front of him. With two huge stops on Mikael Granlund in the final moments of the game, we’d bet Talbot will take the fourth start in five games since the All-Star break, when San Jose comes to town Sunday. And the newly-signed Mikko Koskinen will sit.
“I don’t care which guy it is who gets on a roll. He’s the guy who is going to play,” Hitchcock said.
With a power play this hot, it shouldn’t take much for Edmonton to get to three goals every night.
Leon Draisaitl (32 goals) and Connor McDavid (31) make Edmonton the only club in the NHL with two 30-goal scorers. McDavid (31-49-80) is one point behind Nikita Kucherov in the Art Ross race, while Draisaitl (32-34-66) is seventh.
The power play has scored five times in its past 11 chances. So the goals are there, to the point where it shouldn’t take a ton of support scoring to win games.
The problem? This was just the second time in eight games the penalty kill was perfect, and of course, the goals-against at five-on-five has left Edmonton in a position where they need four or five goals to win.
With Klefbom back, it’s time to lock down defensively. Give the goalies a chance to be the best netminder in the game, and you never know what could happen.