It’s been years since the Edmonton Oilers had a defence corps that carried its weight offensively. We mean, Sheldon Souray kind of history here.
But after getting three goals from the blue line in a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, the Oilers are now tied for first in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens with 11 goals from their D-corps. Only the Vancouver Canucks (37 points) have more production from the back end than Edmonton (35), a team that received just six goals through 15 games a year ago.
It’s a nice stat, but what it really means is that this team is slowly finding ways to win that don’t have Connor McDavid’s or Leon Draisaitl’s fingerprints all over it.
“It’s coming for us,” said Tyson Barrie, who notched the game-winner on a deft wrist shot that chased the roving Marcus Hogberg from the Senators' net. “We’re kind of scoring in all sorts of different ways right now, and that’s nice.”
In completing a two-game sweep, while winning all four games over Ottawa in Edmonton’s last five contests, the Oilers made full use of the tonic that are the Ottawa Senators. Edmonton entered its derby against Ottawa with a 4-6 record, and exited with an 8-7 mark, eclipsing .500 for the first time in the young season.
“We’re not a finished product by any stretch, but we’re moving in the right direction,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “If we keep getting some points, that’s what it’s all about right now.”
Ottawa got better and better as this series went on. But on a night when they finally held Draisaitl and McDavid off the score sheet, it was the third and fourth lines that assisted on a trio of goals scored by defencemen Darnell Nurse, Evan Bouchard and Barrie.
Mikko Koskinen faced 42 shots and acquitted himself well, perhaps a glimpse of what Tippett hopes to see now that Mike Smith is back as a security blanket for the Three Metres of Koskinen.
“We scored timely goals, we got timely saves and we found a way to get the two points,” reasoned Tippett. “The tale of the tape tonight is our defence coming though getting big goals for us. We found a way to win.”
There’s an intersection here, between the fact the Senators are more like a really good American Hockey League team, and the fact that beating any opponent in four straight games isn’t easy.
However you want to look at it, when the Oilers stepped on to the ice on Jan. 31 to play the first of this quad-set, they were 4-6 with eight points. Today they are better than .500 for the first time all season and have 16 points — right in the thick of the North Division playoff race.
“Guys are starting to put some games together, play with a little more confidence,” said Barrie, who could well be describing his own game, which has really started to come around. “We’re getting comfortable with each other, getting some stability. I don’t know if you can put your finger on one thing, but we’re just pushing the pace a little more. That’s the game we have to play if we’re going to be successful.”
Edmonton goes into Montreal for a game Thursday, then comes home for a pair against Winnipeg. They’re ready to test themselves against the top team in the North.
“We’ve won five of six, so we‘re feeling confident about ourselves,” Barrie said. “Montreal has had a great start, but we’re going to see them a lot this year. So we’ve got to beat ‘em.”
Working without a net
Trivia question: When was the last time the Oilers won a game when both McDavid and Draisaitl went pointless? How about Nov. 28, 2017.
So what does it mean? Well, there were only seven games last season where neither of Edmonton’s two top centres had a point. So there are 14 points that get away because the rest of the roster didn’t find a way to get to three goals.
So far this season there have been two occasions where No. 29 and No. 97 were shut down. The first game was a 3-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, and now their first win sans McDavid and Draisaitl in over three calendar years.
So this is how it’s supposed to work. Two NHL calibre goalies, back-to-back games. They each get a start, and they each play a big part in two wins.
“(Koskinen) made some really timely saves for us tonight," said Tippett. “A couple of real key saves at the right time to preserve the two points for us.”
Last season, Tippett leaned toward giving Koskinen and Smith two starts each, then it was then other guy’s turn. We’re not saying they’re like Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley from the ’67-’68 Habs, Chico Resch and Billy Smith from the dynasty New York Islanders, or Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog.
But Smith-Koskinen kept enough pucks out of their nets that Edmonton was the top Canadian team last season when COVID-19 stopped the campaign. They’d like to find that same mojo again.
“He comes in tonight and plays a great game,” said Barrie. “The second half of the game he made some huge stops. We would have like to have been better with the puck in some key areas … but we got the two points, Mikko was great, and we’re over .500 now.”
Koskinen let in the first shot of the game, a tricky deflection, but was bombarded in the final 40 minutes, when the Sens outshot Edmonton 30-10. He was calm and cool, stopped everything he was supposed to and a few he wasn’t, beaten only by Evgeni Dadonov on a clear cut breakaway.
Oilers at Montreal, Thursday