EDMONTON — There is no such thing as the perfect game in hockey — and we’re not even talking about this crazy COVID era, and all the drama that preceded Thursday’s tilt in Montreal.
Take any normal game. Dig into the game sheet hard enough, you can always a flaw or two.
But the effort the Edmonton Oilers laid down in Montreal Thursday — a 3-0 win in which they were in control for a full 60 minutes — was as close as you’ll ever see to regular-season perfection.
Missing first-line winger Jesse Puljujarvi and backup goalie Mikko Koskinen due to COVID protocol, with the start time pushed back an hour so everyone could be re-tested, the Oilers threw a game at the Montreal Canadiens that was, frankly, as good as Edmonton could be expected to play on their final game of a four-game road trip. Maybe as good as they can play — period.
“Trip was a pretty good one,” understated head coach Dave Tippett said of the 3-1 journey. “In Calgary (a 6-4 loss) there was some positive things we took out of that, but not the score obviously. Ottawa we battled (won two) ... there’s a lot of people contributing right now. We’re hanging around hockey games and doing enough to win. The thing I liked was we didn't give up a lot of goals on the trip, that's our mindset right now.”
The Oilers got a third-line goal (Jujhar Khaira), two more goals from the defence, perfect goaltending from Mike Smith (38 saves), and in no way were they carried by Connor McDavid (two assists), Leon Draisaitl (a powerplay assist each) or the one-for-three powerplay. They’ve allowed three goals in their past three games.
“Everyone wants to chip in,” said Khaira, who scored and has points in four of his last five games (2-3-5). “The guys on the third and fourth line, they’re not going into the game thinking they’re not going to score. They’re trying to produce as well. If anything we just take some pressure off the top guys that produce day in and day out.”
It was Edmonton’s third straight road win and their sixth ‘W’ in the last seven games. With goals from Darnell Nurse and a powerplay blast by Tyson Barrie that salted this one away in Period 3, the Oilers have now had five of their past six goals delivered by defencemen.
After a 3-6 start, the Oilers have found their mojo, and their first brush with COVID had literally no effect on their game night performance.
“It’s strange,” said Khaira, “but it’s something that we’ve been preparing for and it’s something that can happen. Everybody knows that and for all of us it was still a game day. We were focused right when we got up and went through the day and got ready for the game like usual.”
As for Puljujarvi, we’re not entirely sure of his status, other than he was placed on the NHL’s COVID protocol list. The best-case scenario is that it was a false positive, and he can fly home this weekend after testing negative twice. Worst case, he is positive, and will have to quarantine for a while.
Everything is going in for Darnell Nurse this season. And we mean, EVERYTHING.
On Tuesday he opened the Oilers scoring with a long, low slapper that inexplicably got under Marcus Hogberg’s pads and stick in Ottawa. Then, against the Canadiens, he watched as Habs defenceman Shea Weber rifled the rebound of a Nurse shot off his own defence partner and into the Montreal goal.
“He continues to mature,” said Tippett. “He's getting extra minutes because of the (Oscar) Klefbom situation, and he's taking advantage. He's one of our leaders and you love it when one of your leaders backs it up with his play.”
Nurse played 24:38 and was a plus-one. With the goal, he became the first Oilers defenceman to notch six goals in the opening 16 games of a season since Paul Coffey some 35 years ago, back in 1985-86.
When Tyson Barrie scored later on, the Oilers moved into the NHL lead with 13 goals from their defencemen.
It’s Smith... Mike Smith
OK. Raise your hand if you thought Mike Smith would return from injury and post a 2-0 record, a 0.50, goals-against average and a saves percentage of .985?
Like, the puck must look like a beach ball right now for the big Oilers netminder, no?
“A little smaller than a beach ball, but I’m seeing it pretty good,” he said. “I wanted to come in after missing a month and be really solid for the group. A lot of hard work has gone into the off-season. You want to come back and feel like you’ve not missed a beat. The first two games have gone really well for me.”
His toughest work on a 38-save night may well have been the Canadiens very first shot on goal — a clear-cut breakaway for Nick Suzuki. Smith thwarted him with the glove hand, and would not be beaten the rest of the night.
“It’s big. It’s a 0-0 game at the time,” Smith noted. “Not the ideal start, but to make a save there was huge for our group and we were able to score some goals there and get a big win.”
Smith continues to seek new training methods, and different ways to remain a viable NHL goalie, as his 39th birthday nears next month. Someone should tell this guy that NHL goalies aren’t supposed to improve with age. Not when they’re pushing 40.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” Smith said. “I feel great. Every year I’ve gone home at the end of the year and found out little things I can improve on. I’m always looking to find ways to get better. Until I lose that drive to get better and play a long time in this league, I’ll keep playing and keep doing what I can to help this team win.”
Smith has given up one goal in six periods, a top-shelf bullet by his own defenceman, Adam Larsson. This was his 40th career shut out, something only 45 NHL goalers have accomplished.