EDMONTON — It was a circuitous route to a win that was 13 years in the making, but as the Edmonton Oilers enter their All-Star break they look like a team with depth that is beginning to figure themselves out.
A 5-3 win that featured a 3-0 Oilers lead by the 5:07 mark — but would eventually be won on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ shorthanded goal with 4:03 to play — was whacky. But wins in five of their past six and a road trip where Edmonton secured five of six points was anything but out of whack to Nugent-Hopkins, who added an assist and an empty-netter for a three-point night.
“You’ve got to find a way to win games,” reasoned Nugent-Hopkins, who is looking rather comfortable with five points in three games since returning to his familiar spot as a centreman. “We found ways early in the season to win, and then we found ways in that tough (15-game) stretch to lose. We put ourselves in a good position early in the game tonight, and it’s not like we just stopped playing. They just had a push, and they fought their way back in the game. But we stuck with it as much as we could and found a way to get it done.”
Leon Draisaitl (goal No. 32), Evander Kane (2nd) and Connor McDavid (23rd) scored on three of the Oilers’ first four shots on Ilya Samsonov, who got the hook from Caps head coach Peter Laviolette.
With 30-year-old journeyman Pheonix Copley thrust between the pipes for the first time as a Capital, Washington pecked away, eventually tying the game 3-3 early in the third. Then, a late Tyson Barrie penalty set the table for the Caps — who were without Alexander Ovechkin (Covid protocol) — to finish the job on the power play.
Alas, that’s where Zach Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins took over. They stole a puck and finished off a scrambly two-on-one for the rare shorthanded game-winner, Edmonton’s fifth shorty of the season.
“It’s frustrating to get back in there, and then not having it get completed,” admitted Laviolette. “I thought we took the game over. It’s tough the way it ended. Frustrating. Disappointing.”
Edmonton hadn’t notched a regulation win in Washington in 13 years. That made this the first one in Nugent-Hopkins’ 691-game career, and the crafty vet’s cerebral game was on display from the drop of the puck.
“He’s awesome. A great player, great guy, and I'm having a blast playing with him,” Hyman said of his new centreman. “We’re on the ice together a lot, and he's just so solid in all aspects of the game. It was a big night for him on the scoreboard, but even when he’s not on the scoreboard he’s doing all the right things.”
That line (with Derek Ryan at right wing, for this game) changes the mix for the depth-challenged Oilers, on a night where all three top lines scored. In wins over the Caps and the Montreal Canadiens on this trip, Edmonton scored 12 times with Connor McDavid recording but a single point.
Don’t worry about McDavid, he’ll produce. What this team needs is to win more games when he’s not all over the score sheet. Guys like Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman working on separate lines makes the coach more comfortable, for sure.
“When you look on the bench and you’re looking for somebody to get a certain job done, (Nugent-Hopkins) usually fits the criteria — no matter what you’re looking for,” said Tippett, who changed his lines as soon as Evander Kane showed up and stepped on in McDavid’s left side. “Him and Hyman have been real good together, and look at the (road) trip. We had five of six points and he had three goals on the trip. He’s come around, he’s really playing well.
Edmonton’s penalty kill has been awful of late, but couldn’t have been more stingy Wednesday. With Ovechkin out, the Caps did not get a shot on goal in three powerplay attempts, then gave up the dagger late in the game.
“The PK has struggled a little bit, and it's by no coincidence that those two guys (RNH and Hyman) were out for a while,” said Tippett. “So they’ve come back and really kind of settled things down for us, and tonight got a huge goal for us along with the kills.”
Kane scored again, and was physically involved all night long. He’s arrived as advertised, a big, strong winger who can score and make your team tougher. He took a couple of big hits and looked injured at one point, but kept coming, a dose of physicality that this lineup dearly needs.
“Both his goals have been on deflections, but he's a big guy in front of the net and he gets rewarded to go there,” said Tippett. “So far I’m really, really pleased with what we’re seeing.”
So the Oilers head into their shortened break on the high end of a roller-coaster first half.
They opened the season at 9-1, and were 16-5 through 21 games. Then they sandwiched two lonely wins between losing streaks of six and seven games. Now they’ve won five of six, and will have the weekend off before embarking on a second-half that features 40 games in 82 days.
Where does Wednesday’s win stand in all of that? We’ll tell you sometime down the road.
“It’s a long, 82-game season,” began Hyman, “and you have different moments that define your team … (but) you don't really know until later on (which ones they are). So yeah, it was a big, important win for us to go into the All-Star break feeling good about our game.
“Then we'll come back it's going to be a jam-packed schedule.”