“The stretch run, we have put ourselves in a position to be a part of it. Now we have to jump in with both feet and see what we can do.”
— Oilers head coach Dave Tippett.
EDMONTON — There have been seasons where the Edmonton Oilers had lost sight of playoff contention by American Thanksgiving. Hey, sometimes by Canadian Thanksgiving.
So reeling off a 6-1-1 run into their All-Star break, and sitting in a tie for first place in the Pacific as they walked out of Rogers Place on Saturday afternoon, well, it’s not lost on anyone around here.
They just dusted the Nashville Predators and Arizona Coyotes, two teams that have dominated this franchise for years, putting up seven in a 7-3 rout over the Coyotes on Saturday.
It’s an odd word to be using in Edmonton this late in January, but as the Oilers’ players disperse to all points warm on Sunday, they look, sound and play like a confident team.
There, we said it.
“You can’t just say ‘I am confident.’ You have to earn it. And you earn it by putting the work in, doing the little things right, and by winning,” said Tippett. “Confidence is built through the process you go through to win. If you play well enough to win and do the little things right to win, you earn that confidence.”
This Oilers team, through 49 games, is doing exactly that.
They are as good or better than anything you could have hoped for here in Edmonton, with another turnover in management and a passel of new players on the roster back in October. They have a 26-18-5 record for 57 points, and a 95-point pace. That would have landed them the third playoff spot in the Pacific last season.
On Saturday, the support scoring that we wondered about in the first 30 games continued to come. Riley Sheahan (one goal and three assists) had the first four-point night of his 491-game career, and Josh Archibald — filling in on Connor McDavid’s wing for the suspended Zack Kassian — had one goal and two assists.
Joakim Nygard scored, Sam Gagner scored, Kailer Yamamoto scored…
“When Connor and (Leon Draisaitl) were getting six points a night you didn’t really need it,” said Archibald. “But coming down the stretch, it’s a good time for everyone to start turning it on.”
McDavid and Draisaitl go into their break one-two in league scoring, both with a pair of points in the win over the Coyotes. McDavid has 27-49-76, and Draisaitl 27-48-75. Extrapolate that over a full season and you get 124 points for McDavid, 45 goals for Draisaitl, and over 245 points between the two players.
But we always thought the Oilers could score. Beating Nashville and Arizona back-to-back, outscoring them 11-5 in the process, is the biggest sign of change here.
It’s not about scoring. It’s about winning.
“These were always really close, low-scoring games,” Archibald said. “So to be able to put up what we did, how well we played, it’s a good direction for us.”
Taylor Hall and Oliver Ekman-Larsson got eaten alive on Saturday, both posting a minus-5. Netminder Mike Smith has won his last five starts and is giving Edmonton fabulous goaltending, while Arizona’s Antti Raanta, who is minding the shop while Darcy Kuemper is injured, did not give his club a big save through 40 minutes, allowing six goals on 18 shots before being replaced.
While the Oilers might prefer to just keep on playing, rather than enjoying a nice, 10-day break between games, Arizona needs a pit stop. The Coyotes are a leaky 1-4-1 in their past six games, averaging four goals against per night.
Rick Tocchet’s team didn’t suddenly become a Pacific Division contender by playing firewagon hockey — they want to shut things down more than most clubs. And you can see what happens when they find themselves trailing by a couple. When the ‘Yotes open things up it does not favour them.
Meanwhile, Edmonton’s game is coming together.
“I like the way our team is playing lately,” said Tippett. “We came out with purpose tonight. We knew we had to play well going into the break. I liked the way we checked. Our gaps on our D were pretty good. There were things that we did in the game that our group has been talking about here that are keys to us playing well and we have done a pretty good job at them.
“We are doing some things in the game that are building our confidence on how to win.”
It’s a new look, here in Northern Alberta. One the fans could get used to.