EDMONTON — These are the moments. The small windows where you can say, ‘OK, we see something different here. It’s not the same as before."
The Edmonton Oilers walked out of the dressing room after 40 minutes leading the St. Louis Blues 2-1, with visions of closing out a hard, gritty win over the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Well, that lead lasted a mere two minutes and 12 seconds.
The reflex reaction in any matchup between the Oilers and the Blues was, "Hmmm, how many more will St. Louis get this period?"
But something funny happened on the way to St. Louis’ come-from-behind victory.
Leon Draisaitl scored a beastly goal just 121 seconds later — goal No. 29 for No. 29 — and the Oilers took the rest of the period away from the Blues, outshooting them until the final moments when the St. Louis pulled goalie Jake Allen.
When it was done, Draisaitl was celebrating a two-goal night, Josh Archibald a crucial empty-netter, and the Oilers a 4-2 win in a game they simply have not won many of over the past decade of mediocre hockey.
And they looked confident and comfortable while doing it.
"That team over there, they know how to win hockey games," Draisaitl said afterwards. "For them to tie it up, and for us to come back and win the game, it’s a big confidence boost for us."
Head coach Dave Tippett was without James Neal (foot), Joakim Nygard (broken hand) and Kris Russel (concussion), in a game against a lineup that plays hard, heavy hockey with some of the best structure in the NHL today.
"These are games where you learn a lot about your team," Tippett said, "because that is a good, deep team. Especially losing Nygard, Neal and Russell out of our lineup. There were opportunities for other people."
Caleb Jones slotted in for Russell, scored a goal and showed poise in his own zone. Archibald, who has proven to be a nice platoon player on Connor McDavid’s left side, stepped in and played well. And Mikko Koskinen was excellent in just his second start in nine games, making a series of huge saves. He was simply better than Allen, and that’s the difference in what was essentially a one-goal game.
St. Louis reduces the game to a calculated series of puck battles, because they know they’re going to win 75 per cent of them. They’re big, strong, and even their few smaller players have the market cornered on that hockey commodity known as battle level.
"They’re so structurally managed that they’re doing the same thing every single night," said Oilers defenceman Adam Larsson, who thrives playing this kind of hockey. "It doesn’t matter if it’s early November or late January, February, they’re doing the same thing and have a really structured team play. That’s where we’re getting at."
This was a prime example of why the Oilers are a far more dangerous team when McDavid and Draisaitl are deployed on separate lines. Since they’ve been separated the team is 7-1-2 and has outscored the opposition 44-28, by far the longest stretch of games they’ve ever played apart.
Draisaitl wasn’t great in a 4-3 shootout loss to Calgary on Wednesday, and against the Blues the Colton Parayko-Jay Bouwmeester pair did a pretty good job on McDavid and his line.
But against St. Louis Draisaitl, with Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on his wings, was the difference-maker. His second goal was a great solo effort after a sneaky good pass from Yamamoto.
"It was a big man’s game and he played well in it," Tippett said of Draisaitl. "Both of his goals were good goals, well-earned goals. That line has played well for us. It is good to see that Leo, he has his game turned back the other way and is playing very well."
Coming out of their All-Star break, Edmonton lined up against the Calgary Flames, St. Louis, and the Flames again in Calgary on Saturday night. Snaring four points in those three tough games is what a playoff-bound team should do, and this morning the Oilers awake with three points in the bank and a chance for five with a win on Hockey Night in Canada.
"Every game is huge. Standings are tight, points are tight," said Draisaitl. "Just have to keep grinding away, keep getting points.
"Hopefully at the end it will be enough."