Oilers’ defence trending in right direction at crucial point in season

Vegas Golden Knights' Jonathan Marchessault (81) and Edmonton Oilers' Oscar Klefbom (77) battle for the puck during first period NHL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Saturday December 1, 2018. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — Even as the Edmonton Oilers sport the only two 30-plus goal men on the same team in the National Hockey League, the fallacy is that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should carry a team to the playoffs.

“How can a team with the best player in the world miss the playoffs?”

Tell us you haven’t heard someone say that in reference to the Oilers? Or that you haven’t said it yourself?

Then you watch them play, and you see the minus-22 goal differential. And it brings us back to the Taylor Hall years, when they’d draft an offensive superstar first overall and then force him to spend most of every night playing his own end.

Look at McDavid: He has 80 points, one back of Nikita Kucherov prior to Friday’s games in the race for the Art Ross Trophy. Yet, he had just a plus-3 defensive rating. Draisatil had 66 points and was also plus-3.

In Tampa, Kucherov was plus-13, Brayden Point (66 points) is plus-16. In Calgary, Mikael Backlund — who has 50 points less than McDavid — is plus-27.

I get it — plus-minus is an antiquated stat that doesn’t tell the whole story. In this case, it doesn’t tell us that McDavid is derelict defensively. Not at all.

It tells us that you can be right in the hunt for your third straight Art Ross Trophy, but the team you are on lets in so many pucks that McDavid can be one bad game away from being a minus player.

“Obviously we’ve been getting scored on way too much — it’s no secret,” said Draisaitl. “We’ve got to find ways to keep the puck out of our net, and find ways to put it into their net. That’s actually all hockey really is. You try and keep the puck out of your net, and try and put it into their net.”

Ah, wisdom dropped.

The fact that a team with a minus-22 goal differential sits two points removed from a wild-card spot is testament to what has happened to the Western Conference this season. Remember, when Edmonton last made the playoffs, two springs ago, they were plus-35, and allowed just 212 goals against.

This season they are on pace to let in 271 — but that’s a big picture stat. With 28 games to play, and siting right in the playoff hunt, what matters is how they play defensively from here on in. And after a solid defensive effort in a 4-1 win at Minnesota Thursday, and with No. 1 defenceman Oscar Klefbom back in the lineup, perhaps the Oilers have the makings of a team than can allow two or less more often than not.

“That is the level we need to stay at and play for the remaining 28 games here,” said centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “Since the break we’ve done a real good job at that — for two periods every night. Last night it was good to see 60 full minutes of defending the right way.”

Yes, imploding in the third period tends to undo any good work accomplished in the opening 40. But does that change with Klefbom back in? It did Thursday in Minnesota, the second game for Klefbom after missing 21 with a busted finger.

With their lead dog back in the lineup, everyone’s minutes returned to where they should be versus the Wild. Here was the ice time among Oilers defencemen in a 4-1 win on Thursday: Klefbom – 23:55; Darnell Nurse – 22:16; Adam Larsson – 21:13; Kris Russell – 19:52; Matt Benning – 16:04; Brandon Manning – 13:54.

When your third pairing plays around the 15-minute range, and your top pair no more than 22 or 23 minutes, traditional hockey logic says everyone can be expected to carry their portion of the load. That no one is being asked to do too much.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock saw something Thursday, when it comes to the defensive game the Oilers will need to play down the stretch.

“The start of it, yes,” he said. “We were harder on pucks in our own zone, harder at our net harder on the forecheck… A step in the right direction. It’s a hard game, but that’s what’s necessary if you want to collect points at this time of year.”

If it’s a 3-2 league, and it is, Hitchcock knows his team can get to three most nights. Especially with a powerplay that has scored five times in its past 11 attempts. It’s keeping the other guys to two that has been the problem.

“Our power play, if I’m the opposition, looks like it can score all the time. Like it’s going to get quality chances,” he said. “But we can’t make our power play try to save us … because we’ve let in too many chances. We have to cut down on the working chances at the net. There have been too many games where we’ve lost the red zone battles at both ends of the rink, and we’re trying to take the next step.

“(Thursday), at least we broken even.”

Can the Edmonton Oilers keep the puck out, and at least go even in goal differential through to Game 82?

If they do, they’ll have a chance to advance.

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