EDMONTON — There is officially clinching a playoff spot, and then there are the crucial, late-season wins against the chasers that lead you to that point where you finally get that X beside your name.
For the Edmonton Oilers, this 4-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights was the latter. On the Saturday afternoon after a Friday night Slipknot concert here at Rogers Place, the Oilers left Vegas hanging back in fourth place in the Pacific, seven points behind Edmonton with six games to play.
“Vegas had been feeling good about their game, and went in and whacked a good Calgary team (6-1 on Thursday),” said Zack Kassian. “They come in here, and for us to put together a statement game like that, it helps our group confidence-wise.”
How about back-to-back 4-0 wins for Edmonton? On the road against a desperate Nashville team, and at home against a Vegas club that needed this one even more than the Preds?
Mike Smith was in between the pipes for both goose eggs, becoming only the seventh goalie in National Hockey League history to record back-to-back shutouts after turning 40.
The last guy? You might have heard of him ...
“I’ve said it numerous times,” said Smith, who has applied selective amnesia to the injury-plagues opening two-thirds of his season. “At this time of the season, you want to be on the top of your game and be a big reason why you’re headed to the playoffs.”
Is he ever.
In his last 10 games — nine starts, plus a relief appearance in that 9-5 debacle in Calgary — Smith’s numbers are all-world: 8-1-1, a .940 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average. He stopped 39 pucks on Saturday, after turning away all 30 on Thursday night in Nashville.
The Golden Knights came in on a 7-1-1 run but found the door to the castle barred shut by the 40-year-old, whose long hair would have allowed him to fit right in at the previous night’s soiree.
“Two really good ones for him in a row,” marvelled head coach Jay Woodcroft. “It’s not easy, but he's making it look like it is.”
Remember what we said about these Oilers when they were swept by the Winnipeg Jets in Round 1 last spring? They needed way more support scoring, everyone complained. They had to find ways to win games that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl did not win for them.
Well, in a pivotal stretch-run matinee Saturday, nine Oilers had just one point each — no one had two — and neither McDavid nor Draisaitl registered a point.
The game-winner was set up by fourth-liner Kassian and came off the stick of seventh defenceman Kris Russell, who had not scored an NHL goal since March 2019. That made this goal the first for Russell under GM Ken Holland, who is in his third season here.
“Now, he’ll stop telling me that he scored 35 in junior (37, actually),” Woodcroft said, joking. “I'm very happy for Kris, somebody who’s a team-first individual, someone who lays his body on the line. For him to score that big goal for our team at a critical time in the game, I thought it was excellent.”
The fact this team scored four goals with only one top-six forward registering a point (Evander Kane’s assist) is exactly what they need to see once in a while. And rather than push for points, as the superstars had been known to do in the past, Draisaitl (67 per cent in the circle) and McDavid (64 per cent) simply dug in and made sure that Smith’s sheet remained clean.
It has not gone unnoticed.
“Connor has been driving the bus,” said Smith, who has watched his captain evolve into a much more well-rounded, two-way player this season. “Whether he’s pointless or not tonight, the way he’s working away from the puck. ... I don’t think he gets enough credit for how he’s really committed to the defensive side of the puck and his battle level, the compete level.
“When you see your captain – who’s over 100 points (and first in) the scoring race – competing like he is, I think it doesn’t give you any excuse but to jump in and play the way he is. It’s been impressive to watch.”
One more good sign?
How about excellent games from two bottom-six bangers, Kassian and Warren Foegele, two modern-day depth forwards who have the speed and size that simply has to be on display in games like this one.
Foegele stole a puck and sped around Alec Martinez for the back-breaking breakaway goal that made it 3-0. Meanwhile, Kassian was physical and effective all night, traits that have gone missing for too long with this player.
“Zack Kassian played one of the best games I’ve seen him play since I’ve been here,” said Woodcroft. “He was simple, straightforward and direct. He was physical, and made a nice play on that first goal. He was very good for us tonight.”
Goaltending, depth scoring, defensive play ...
They’re putting a team together here in Edmonton, and at just the right time.