EDMONTON — It’s not garbage time here. Not yet.
No, we’re not here to tell you that the Edmonton Oilers are going to make the playoffs, no matter how well they play down the stretch. But as long as the games still matter, then what we see is for real.
It may last another four or five games. Maybe 10. And then the minute there is no reason to believe, you can stop watching for signs. Because the things we see in garbage time will trick you. We’ve learned that here in Edmonton, over the years.
So on a frosty Thursday in March, they rolled out of Rogers Place after watching a 3-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks by an Edmonton club that is playing, as they say, the right way, winning their third straight at home.
You know, like the good teams do.
Is Sam Gagner a major upgrade on Ryan Spooner? Definitely.
Is Mikko Koskinen perhaps the real deal, even if his contract seems ridiculously high for a goalie with such a small sample size? Well, he is now running a .926 save percentage in the 10 straight starts he has made since Cam Talbot was traded.
We’re not ready to say he can carry a team to the playoffs as a No. 1, but each time we see him play, the numbers suggest he’s getting closer. Or at worst, a goalie who could be paired with a B-plus backup to give you more than enough goaltending to win with.
We know. He’s notoriously a streaky player, and one who has always taken a bad penalty at a crucial moment in a game, often mitigating any good work he’d done beforehand. But if Kassian’s scoring is streaky, his presence as a very tough, unpredictable deterrent is an 82-game thing.
So if he’s clicking with McDavid, as he was again Thursday, we see no reason why he needs to be replaced — even if the Oilers could afford to upgrade.
“Any smart player knows to get (McDavid) the puck early and that’s what he does,” observed head coach Ken Hitchcock. “He gets him the puck early — he knows by the time he counts to four, it should be in Connor’s hands. That’s an easy thing to say but a hard thing to do … but he knows right now to give it up and knows he’s going to get it back and be in good spots. They work well together, they work really well together.”
Who’s kidding who? There are a couple of hundred wingers in the NHL who would figure out how to work well with McDavid. But give Kassian a nod here: He can skate, he scares people, he can shoot it well, and his game has risen in skill as he has risen through the Oilers lineup.
So the things we see in a 3-2 win over a Canucks team sidled right up next to Edmonton in the standings should count for something, shouldn’t they?
The points still count, even if the Oilers merely kept pace, rather than gaining any ground on a night when everyone around them also won.
“It’s a little bit like that feeling of two years ago,” said Oscar Klefbom, “when we could be down two goals in the third period but we had that good feeling that we could come back, that we could turn it around.
“We just have to keep it going. We’re still out of the playoffs — every game is like a playoff game for us. It’s important. There are a lot of teams in it right now and Minny won tonight in Tampa and Dallas won and they’re winning some games, too. We cannot be happy, we have to keep winning games because we’ve put ourselves in this situation and now we have to make sure we keep going here.”
We’re gun shy here in Edmonton. There have been too many lousy Decembers and Januarys, followed by a bounce-back March when the games don’t matter anymore.
Toronto comes in here Saturday, and by virtue of Thursday’s win, that game still matters to Edmonton.
Let’s see what we learn from that game, then take it from there.
It’s not garbage time here. Not yet.