Well, they always say a hockey player is at his best when he’s playing guilty. How about a hockey organization?
On the day that the topic du jour in Edmonton was Andrew Ference’s organizational rip job, complete with charges that the team partied too much to have any success when Ference was their captain, the current edition of the team played clear-headed and to the point, spanking the Colorado Avalanche 6-4 in Denver. This one wasn’t as close as it sounds, as the Oilers twice led by four before a couple of late Avs tallies.
All of the sudden, instead of seeing glaring weaknesses in this Oilers team, some strengths are beginning to show. It starts in goal, where Mikko Koskinen was once again magnificent — not allowing a Colorado goal until the Oilers had a 4-0 lead — and that confidence radiated from the crease outwards.
This team is defending as a five-man unit better than it has in a long time, definitely a Ken Hitchcock trait, and now it’s starting to get the support scoring required to get to three or four goals. In its past three games Edmonton sandwiched seven- and six-goal efforts around that 1-0 win over Calgary, proving it can win either way.
The Oilers pulled into the top wild-card spot Tuesday and are two points out of second in the Pacific, with games in hand. They’re right where you need to be with Christmas approaching — playing well and right with the pack.
Other than the numbskull Colorado fan who bloodied his hand while breaking the penalty box glass, and the crucial loss of Oscar Klefbom seemingly long-term with a hand injury, this was a night of smart, opportunistic hockey.
Here’s how we saw it:
Mile high goalie
Koskinen can’t play any better than he did in the first 35 minutes. The Nathan MacKinnon line was bringing it, and with 25 minutes of hockey left to play the score was 4-0 Edmonton — despite 24 shots on goal for Colorado to that point. It could have been 4-4, but with Semyon Varlamov getting the hook Tuesday, there’s no doubt which team had the better netminder.
When Koskinen first arrived from the KHL this fall, his glove was like a bad motel. Pucks went in there, but never stayed for long. He was leaving rebounds all over the place, and his ability to get to shoot-ins behind the net was also suspect.
As he’s become comfortable to the North American game, so too has his glove security improved. So, he’s catching pucks he’s supposed to catch, and a few he shouldn’t. The rest of the time he’s playing an economical style, getting behind his net to stop pucks better than he did in October, and giving his club a chance to win every night.
Klefbom out “weeks”
This injury is really going to hurt.
Klefbom’s left hand was gripping his stick when struck by a slapshot, and Hitchcock intimated after the game that the injury was serious, which sounds to us like a broken bone. They sent Klefbom home to Edmonton while the team heads to Winnipeg, and “he’s going to be out weeks, not days,” Hitchcock said post-game.
That’s crushing to a team that’s light on high-end defencemen with an offensive bent. Klefbom ranked fourth in the NHL, averaging 25:54 of ice time per night — a huge whack of time to spread out around the rest of this group.
Darnell Nurse took his spot atop the No. 1 power-play unit and scored a goal Tuesday. He’ll see his 22:05 per night extended, to be sure.
Stars vs. stars
When you get two lines like this going head to head, it’s not surprising they pumped home 10 goals.
The Colorado super-line of MacKinnon (0-2-2), Mikko Rantanen (2-2-4) and Gabriel Landeskog (2-2-4) accounted for 10 points, scoring three of the four Colorado goals. The Oilers top line — Connor McDavid (1-1-2), Leon Draisaitl (1-2-3) and Alex Chiasson (scoreless) — had half as many points, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins chipping in two goals and an assist off the second line.
The two top units ran the show, with neither team walking out of the rink claiming to have defended either unit very well. It’s what fans pay to see, though the decisive factor was likely Nugent-Hopkins’ production, as well as goals by Kyle Brodziak and Nurse.
If the top lines are a wash, then the support scoring wins the day.
One for the road
The story in Edmonton on Tuesday was Ference’s carve-job on the Oilers of 2013-15, of which only Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, Draisaitl and Nurse (played just two games) remain on the Edmonton roster.
Ference appeared on Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek’s “31 Thoughts” podcast, where he said the team he captained was not committed to winning.
“You had a group of players that talked about how they wanted to make the playoffs, and talked about how sick they were of losing,” Ference said. “And then by Game 3, after losing 6-1, they’re straight out to the bar till three in the morning, lighting up the night life scene in Edmonton. Like, come on, give me a break.”
Nugent-Hopkins, who had a two-goal night, spoke to the Edmonton Journal at Tuesday’s morning skate.
“I’m a little surprised that he would come out now and say these things. It’s strange. I always got along with him, too,” said RNH. “To say that guys were going out all the time and were showing up hungover, I don’t remember guys doing that at all.
“I don’t know about that. Guys had every intention of working hard and getting better. Guys tried.”