Oilers must focus on refining defensive approach before playoffs

Zach Hyman and Connor McDavid both scored twice for the Edmonton Oilers as they snuck past the St. Louis Blues with a 6-5 win in overtime.

EDMONTON  — Composure. 

The Edmonton Oilers can score like a Stanley Cup contender, of that there is no doubt. But can you say they can defend like a Cup contender?  

Do they have the defensive spine, the structure to win 2-1 and 3-1 games come spring? Do they have the composure to make an early lead stand up? 

After blowing period leads of 4-1 and 5-3 before winning 6-5 in overtime Friday — and choking on a 3-1 lead two nights earlier in a crucial divisional matchup versus L.A. — can you say that this Oilers team has what it takes to win at playoff hockey? 

“We have to learn how to play properly with the lead,” admitted two-goal scorer Zach Hyman, who has a career-high 24 in his first season as an Oiler. “In the LA game we were up 3-1 and it went to OT and the shootout. Then this game we were up 4-1 and 5-3, so that’s two leads that got away from us.” 

Of course, there is always a bright side. 

“Earlier on in the season we were playing from behind a lot,” Hyman pointed out. “Now we’re playing with the lead. We have to protect the lead and play smart.” 

It’s facile to simply blame the goaltending, especially on a night when Mike Smith allowed one smelly one out of the five, but Jordan Binnington got the hook after allowing four of the first 13 shots to pass. Edmonton was given the gift of a poor start by the opposing goalie, and couldn’t get it to the bank. 

“We need saves,” Blues head coach Craig Berube said of Binnington. “He’s got to play better.” 

Smith faced 25 shots in the final 40 minutes, and a ton of Grade A chances. Connor McDavid scored his second of the night on an overtime two-on-one with Leon Draisaitl, but might we remind you: 

When the playoffs begin, they don’t play three-on-three overtime anymore. 

Edmonton gave up nine last Saturday in Calgary, blew that lead against the Kings, and played another 6-5, firewagon special against St. Louis. They won in overtime and a shootout to collect four of six points, but we’ll remind you as well: There are no shootouts come May either. 

Right now Edmonton is bending a lot, and then finding their own break in overtime or a shootout. Bend like this in the playoffs, and there will be a lot of broken hearts in Northern Alberta. 

“Anytime you give up five goals against, you haven’t done what you wanted to do,” admitted head coach Jay Woodcroft. “We’re not burying our heads in the sand at some of the errors that have crept into our game. We’ll address them. 

“We gave up too much off the rush. I didn't think our back-check was where it needs to be. They got above us a few times. Most are correctible.” 

You can’t say this isn’t one of hockey’s most entertaining teams, as McDavid pushed to 39 goals and 102 points, burying a beauty pass from Draisaitl in OT. St. Louis won the opening draw in overtime and tried to play a four-corner offence until the Oilers duo left the ice. But after a minute, the Oilers finally got the puck, and at 1:11 of OT they were celebrating a win. 

Truly, McDavid and Draisaitl on a two-on-one has become the modern day version of Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. The only difference is, these two are more interchangeable than the Hall of Fame tandem was. 

“I never had the privilege of seeing those guys up close. I have seen them on video,” Woodcroft said the former greats. “In today’s day and age, I couldn’t think of two other players I’d want to have on a 2-on-1, with the game on the line." 

Draisaitl failed to score his 50th, settling for two assists on a seven-shot night. McDavid had 11 shots and two goals, while his left winger Evander Kane had a goal and two helpers. 

Offensively, with McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins helming separate lines, the Oilers are a real handful. They have scored four or more in five straight games — 26 goals in all — and tied a team record with their ninth straight home-ice victory. 

That’s nothing to sneeze at. 

But we all know that playoff hockey is not solely about filling the net, leaving one to wonder if these Oilers can buck the trend and score their way through a playoff round or two? 

Or are they the Toronto Maple Leafs, another high-scoring outfit with average goaltending and panicky defensive structure that simply can not succeed in any game where less than five goals are scored? 

Whichever it is, they’ve got 13 games to figure it out. 

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.