EDMONTON — You could hear the commentary from around the National Hockey League, as the Edmonton Oilers built up a 5-2-1 run under new coach Ken Hitchcock on the strength of just 16 goals in eight games.
"They’re playing Hitchcock hockey," they said, as if the coach was asking his team to stop each night at two goals. "This is what you get with Hitch."
The reality in Edmonton is this: this team lacks scoring depth — especially on the wings — so the only way for Hitchcock to succeed is to coach the puck out of the Oilers net. Make ‘em confident enough in their defensive game, ensure you don’t need more than three to win, salt in a good break or two, and presto!
As Teemu Selanne always said, the ketchup bottle always finds a way to flow. And flow it did, in a 7-2 win the Oilers cooked up Friday night against the Minnesota Wild.
"First of all," began reclaimed goaltender Cam Talbot, "knowing that we can win those tight games (builds confidence). Then, knowing we can come out and when we play the right way we get rewarded on the odd night?
"It’s good to know that we can check for our wins, but it’s also good to know we have that firepower that we can get some depth scoring."
The Oilers had scored two regulation goals, or less, in six of eight games under Hitchcock. But the goaltending was good, and their defensive game has begun to solidify.
Like the pitcher that fills from the bottom up to the top, they’ve taken on Hitchcock’s identity in the defensive zone, and gone to work on their neutral zone play. Hitchcock has largely left them alone in the offensive zone, and the Oilers have run dry — until Friday.
"Offence is something that comes in waves, and for whatever reason we haven’t been able to find it — but we’ve been solid defensively," said Connor McDavid. "It doesn’t really matter how good your offence is if you’re only giving up two a night. You’re going to be in the game."
The Oilers have a terrific Corsi under Hitchcock, but all those shots and all that possession time somehow haven’t translated to goals. We still wonder how much of that is bad luck, and how much is a reflection on the roster, but at times like these, every team in hockey simply hopes for the former, and averts its eyes from the latter.
"We have a lot of faith in each other, and we’ve been battling really hard a lot of games and they’ve been one-goal games," said winger Jujhar Khaira. "A game like this, it shows that all the hard work we’re putting it is working.
"We know we have (offence) in us."
Of course, McDavid led the way Friday with three assists and a goal you’ve likely seen 19 times on the highlight shows already. Leon Draisaitl was really hopping, rifling home a lovely game opening goal, another in the third, and adding an assist on a plus-4 night.
The blue line chipped in five points, the fourth line scored, the second line slammed one home, and Talbot gave the Oilers his second straight Grade A performance. He’s won two straight now after losing six straight, and with Mikko Koskinen unbeaten at Rogers Place (5-0), Edmonton suddenly looks very solid in the pipes.
Sure, Devan Dubnyk gave up a freebie for the second goal, and once Dubnyk got the hook Alex Stalock didn’t exactly lock things down. But have no doubt: this was a game between a team that’s gaining confidence, and one that’s heading the other direction.
Talbot appears to be back in form. Dubnyk, meanwhile, had another stinker, just when it looked like he might be stabilizing his game.
"To say I’m not concerned, I’d be lying to you," said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau. "I am concerned about a lot of guys on this team right now. He’s not the only one."
"It’s a test of character now," Boudreau emoted. "You either bounce back or you start blaming everybody else. We have to look at ourselves. This has been the same group for almost three years now. We have to right the ship and go from there. We have to be ready for the next game and play the right way."
Here in Edmonton, with a new coach, it doesn’t seem like the same group at all. It may turn out Edmonton can’t score enough, but for now, it’s been a long while since we’ve an Oilers team clamp down defensively like this.
"I thought we played so well for each other in the third period," said Hitchcock, who made a rare post-game oration to his players Friday. "I told the players that at the end of the game, the things we did, the way we covered our own net, the way we got out on transition… I thought we did a heck of a job and we were rewarded for the goals.
"When you continually spend time in the offensive zone, eventually things like this happen. We haven’t finished. We had way more opportunities in St. Louis than this with in-zone time but today we scored on our chances.
"But when you spend that much time, good things happen. We’re trying to stay with it."
That’s what they always say. That the ketchup bottle will always flow, eventually.