Oilers surprising many in downing NHL’s giants

Benoit Pouliot scored two goals and the Edmonton Oilers dominated the Washington Capitals.

EDMONTON — Poor Taylor Hall.

For years he fronted a flawed team in Edmonton that forced him to spend an inordinate amount of time in his own end because the Edmonton Oilers had nobody who could win a battle and get the puck cleanly to the forwards.

Today, with the addition of Adam Larsson (acquired in a trade for Hall), Kris Russell, and a healthy Oscar Klefbom, the Oilers are 6-1 and leading the National Hockey League in goals scored. Their zone exits are clean and the forwards play far more often in the offensive zone.

Hall, now a New Jersey Devil, was the bait used to shore up that blue line. Meanwhile, his replacement’s latest accomplishment came in helping to virtually shut down the Washington Capitals’ top line in an impressive 4-1 Oilers victory Wednesday night.

“This was the biggest test yet, and we played a helluva game,” Klefbom said. “I think me and Lars had [Alex Ovechkin] pretty much under control. When we played against [Vladimir] Tarasenko too, I think we have a good chemistry. Don’t give them too much time, or too much credit.”

Ah, credit.

Here in cautious Northern Alberta — where folks have been burned numerous times by buying into a rebuild that would show some promise, then quickly go up in smoke — they’re not real sure about how much credit they should give their Oilers right now.

“We’re seven games in,” cautioned the NHL’s leading scorer Connor McDavid, after another two-point night. “We’re 6-1 and that’s a good start, but that’s all it is.”

Really? Is that really all it is?

Down the hall in a Washington dressing room where the Capitals suffered their second straight regulation defeat — something that did not happen in the entire 2015-16 season — they saw a little more than that from Edmonton.

“Their structure is what’s really noticeable,” said Caps defenceman Karl Alzner. “They’re playing more aggressive. They’re playing rushes earlier and smarter. They’re battling really, really hard.

“The new building and everything, the team’s feeling good. You can see that with the urgency in their game.”

Goalie Cam Talbot, whose save percentage jumps to .927,  made 34 saves and was beaten only by Ovechkin on a rebound. He’s giving Edmonton lights-out goaltending, the caliber of which this team has not received in a decade.

McDavid had another two-assist night, marking his fourth multi-point night in seven games this season. He’s got 4-7-11 in seven games in an NHL career that spans only 52 games thus far.

And on Wednesday night, the cavalry arrived in the form of Edmonton’s second line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (two assists), between Benoit Pouliot (two goals), and Zack Kassian.

That unit went head to head with Washington’s top line and roundly won the battle, just another rarity that has not been seen in these parts in many moons. Stars like Ovechkin have been padding their league-leading stats against this organization for a long while, but on Wednesday, Ovechkin left with a goal and a minus-2, while McDavid hung on to his spot atop league scoring.

“These guys are a giant in the NHL, and we were able to … get a win. That’s huge for our team,” said McDavid.

While many may point to a November in which the Oilers play 10 of 15 games on the road and wonder what will become of this hot start after a couple of injuries — or when some adversity strikes — inside the Edmonton dressing room, the belief is becoming palpable.

“Coming with a confident mindset, coming to the rink expecting to win,” was how Milan Lucic described it. “When you come scared of the other team, you’re almost defeated before you even get out there. We’ve talked about that a lot.”

Beat St. Louis 3-1? OK. That can happen.

But win the Heritage Classic 3-0 at Winnipeg, then come home and handle the mighty Capitals 4-1? Well, maybe Klefbom said it best when he chuckled, “What’s going on?”

“Look, this organization has had some different coaches in the past couple of years [and some] different systems,” he said. “Everyone is buying in really good right now. We’re what, 6-1? We’re just going to keep our heads down and go here.”

Keep their heads down, and hope no one notices.

Fat chance of that.

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