Oilers finding defensive identity under new coach Jay Woodcroft

Stuart Skinner made 20 saves for his first NHL shutout as the Edmonton Oilers blanked the San Jose Sharks 3-0.

Usually, the “bump “ a new head coach provides is about goals and energy. A new boss brings new opportunity, and that translates into an extra goal, an extra step.

Here in Edmonton however, the requirement was quite the opposite, and the coaching change — firing Dave Tippett and bringing Jay Woodcroft up from the farm team last week — was about figuring out how to defend better.

After a wobbly 30 minutes in his debut, Woodcroft’s first two games behind the Oilers bench have mostly resulted in a calm, defensive-minded effort — and only one goal against. An Edmonton team that went Tippett’s final 28 games without allowing less than two goals against in a game has now done it twice under Woodcroft, with a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders and a 3-0 win in San Jose against the Sharks on Monday.

Monday’s effort in San Jose was just this side of perfect, with Stuart Skinner needing to make only 20 saves to collect his first NHL shutout. It was the first shutout for the Oilers all season, while the team down the road in Calgary leads the league with 10.

“There are principles that we want to have within our game, habits that we want to have each every night. Tonight we had them,” said Darnell Nurse, who scored his 50th career goal on a lucky carrom. “You’ve got to continue to do that night after night. It was good to execute on the game plan.”

Perhaps the coaching bump came to fruition in two first-period goals that were almost identical, as Evan Bouchard’s point shot was deflected by Derek Ryan before going in off Warren Foegele’s shin pad and into the net, while Nurse’s wrister banked off a Sharks defender and in. The goals came just 65 seconds apart before the game was eight minutes old.

From there it was a rare defensive clinic.

San Jose had two shots on goal in the second period, just 10 in the final 40 minutes, and only 20 on the night.

This is the game you have to replicate. The kind of air-tight hockey that this Edmonton Oilers franchise has struggled to execute — then duplicate — for literally years now.

“We felt we needed all 20 guys for a full 60 minutes, and I thought we played a full 60 minutes,” the coach said. “We really, really liked the commitment to the defensive side of the puck. The commitment to working back to our end. It was impressive to see those players put in the work that they put in. It's not easy to play like that.”

Sure, they’re not all going to roll out as perfectly as this dominant road win against an average Sharks team that hadn’t played a game in 13 days. But the essence of this game is what the Oilers have been chasing for oh so long, and found for the first time in a long while Monday night.

Nurse was stellar defensively, playing 23:11. When he stays at home and buckles down, it provides a foundation for a defensive game like the one the Oilers accomplished Monday.

“Darnell is money in the bank with being able to play big minutes on the back end against the best players in the world,” marvelled Woodcroft. “I would use the term ‘he burns with purpose.’ He comes to the rink every day with a purpose in mind to be the best that he can be. He's someone that is serious about his craft, and I really believe that he's only scratching the surface.”

Skinner was as good as he needed to be in his maiden goose egg, making three or four big saves. But for the most part, simply saving the shots he would expect to stop would have been enough on a night that would best be described as a “team shutout.”

At 23 years old, Skinner got the first end of a back-to-back, with the Oilers in Los Angeles on Tuesday night. A rested Mike Smith will face the Kings, while Skinner gets a chance to let his first shutout sink in.

How will he remember it?

“I am definitely going to think back with gratitude,” he said. “Just being able to play in the NHL is just such a such a privilege for anybody. And to say that I got an NHL shutout is something cool. Something that you dream of as a kid. So definitely, a really special moment. I'm very grateful for it.”

How good might Skinner become? With goalies you never really know, but there is no doubt he could open next season as Edmonton’s No. 2, once Mikko Koskinen’s deal expires this summer.

He is young, has paid his dues, and is well liked. Is there any reason he couldn’t be a No. 1 some day?

None that we can think of…

“Great person,” Nurse of his goalie. “He comes to the rink every day with a mindset to work. On top of that, he’s always got a smile on his face, asking how you’re doing, asking about your kid or your fiancee. He’s a guy who just cares about the guys, and then he comes out and plays the way he did… It’s fun to see.”

Connor McDavid scored the important third goal that took the wind out of the Sharks' sails just 1:50 into the third period, capping a dominant shift. For the second game under Woodcroft, McDavid skated an average shift of 53 seconds, a healthy change, down almost 10 seconds from his average under Tippett.

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