Oilers optimistic they have what it takes for extended playoff run

Gene Principe recalls how a new and revived Oilers team figured out how to get Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl going separately and how hope and belief for a Stanley Cup has returned to Edmonton.

EDMONTON — As the players filtered into position for the faceoff that would open the second period of a Jets-Oilers game on that fateful Wednesday evening, Blake Wheeler skated a little closer to Leon Draisaitl, leaning in to hear the Oilers centre. From the press box, you knew what the topic was, on a night when the NBA had abruptly postponed its first game and had a player test positive for COVID-19.

“He asked me if I had heard about the NBA?” Wheeler said after the game, a 4-2 Jets win on the last night of the National Hockey League schedule before ‘The Pause.’ “The refs were talking about it too. It’s an usual kind of night overall. I was talking to (Jets winger) Andrew Copp before the game, saying it’s going to be wild looking at our phones after the game. We barely got the puck dropped and the dominoes were already falling.”

There were five games played on the night of Wednesday, March 11. By the time they were completed, we knew the chances of seeing any hockey on the Thursday, let alone that Maple Leafs-Bruins, Jets-Flames doubleheader on Hockey Night in Canada, were poor.

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In Edmonton, when you mused that perhaps we wouldn’t see NHL hockey again for a long while, the reaction was universal. “We waited this long to have a good team, and now they’re cancelling the playoffs?!?”

It is a cruel, cruel twist that after all those barbs about wasting Connor McDavid’s prime years on a team that couldn’t make the playoffs, an Oilers team that appears to have finally turned the corner would have its post-season called off. Edmonton has missed the playoffs in 12 of 13 seasons, but then spent this season near (or at) the top of the Pacific Division. How could fans be denied the excitement they had earned over 71 games?

Well, with NHL teams now in mid-summer training camps ahead of an August 1 return to play, let’s take a look at where Edmonton stands heading into this weird, 24-team, ghost game post-season.

No question, Edmonton’s weakness is 5-on-5 play — not a good thing when power plays get harder to earn in the playoffs. No playoff team has a worse “goals for percentage” at five-on-five than Edmonton (47.32 per cent), according to Natural Stat Trick.

The Oilers have lived off their power play this season, a unit that has led the league virtually wire to wire, posting a 29.5 per cent success rate that threatens the NHL record of 31.88 per cent set by the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens.

So general manager Ken Holland set out to help his team at 5-on-5 at the trade deadline, bringing in speedy winger Andreas Athanasiou and puck-moving defenceman Mike Green. Neither one were destined for the first power-play unit, though it was hoped for that both would improve the team in all of those important minutes played at even strength.

Green played two games before getting injured and he opted out of the summer playoffs. Athanasiou struggled with his new team and a re-start in Edmonton would do him some good.

Edmonton’s formula has been pretty simple: Connor McDavid tends to be able to orchestrate a goal by himself most nights; the Leon Draisaitl-Kailer Yamamoto-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins line usually finds a goal; and the power play is good for a goal in about 80 per cent of their games.

That means Edmonton is fairly adept at getting to three goals each night. Important, in a 3-2 league. Add one every second night from the Bottom 6, or a defenceman, and you’ve got a club that can score enough to win a playoff series or two.

The question the Oilers have to answer is simple: can they keep the puck out of their net enough to win games at a time of year when offence is traditionally more difficult to create?

The good news is, Edmonton has the best penalty kill at the dance, finishing the regular season second (84.4 per cent) behind only San Jose. Meanwhile, they have two options in goal in case one of Mikko Koskinen or Mike Smith does not return from the pause in form.

We know, traditional hockey lore states that a team goes with its hot goalie exclusively in the playoffs. That would be the case with Edmonton’s proposed first-round opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks, who would ride Corey Crawford if he’s healthy, though he’s been deemed “unfit to play” and absent from camp so far.

However in Edmonton this season, Smith started 37 games to Koskinen’s 34. They were a true tandem, so the question for head coach Dave Tippett would be: does he pick one and go with him, or does he continue with the platoon system that left the Oilers as the second-best team in the Pacific this season?

We’d bet that Smith gets the first start, and Tippett goes with his gut from there.

It’s put his Oilers in a good position so far this season.

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