Oilers using last games before playoffs to make final improvements

The Montreal Canadiens clinched a playoff spot, but they couldn’t pull off the win as Connor McDavid scored overtime to give the Edmonton Oilers a 4-3 victory.

The obvious goal for the Edmonton Oilers was to slay the dragon that the Montreal Canadiens had become. A Habs team that hasn’t had many teams’ numbers this season has certainly had Edmonton’s, and this two-game set is one last chance for the Oilers to dispose of that.

“For whatever reason Montreal has kind of had our number,” agreed Connor McDavid, who closed this game out on an overtime breakaway, collecting two points in a 4-3 win. “They came out of the gates really hot, came into Edmonton and beat us pretty good (in early January). But we have three wins against them. Not our best record, but we’ve played them hard.”

This game featured one team fighting to clinch a playoff spot, against another that is home, cooled, and trying a few new things on for size before settling into Round 1 against the Winnipeg Jets. Or, perhaps, these same Canadiens.

“I don’t think you go there yet, until it’s for sure,” said McDavid, when asked to go there. “It could be Winnipeg, it could be Montreal. We’re prepared for either. We’ll be ready.”

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It’s a playoff series that will begin in the middle of next week — we’re hearing Thursday. But until then, every guy on the Oilers roster has something he’s trying to improve on.

For McDavid, despite his 102 points, he’s bearing down on a defensive game that he made a priority right from the start this season. Why did he grow his game in a way that has seen him go from minus-6 last season to plus-25 this year?

“You’re asking me that on a night when I was on the ice for three goals against. That’s obviously why I work on it,” said the Oilers captain, who was minus-1 on Monday, mostly due to a weak game-tying goal allowed by Mikko Koskinen. “All the top players in the league, they’re out there against tough matchups every night and you can’t be a liability.

“That was the next step for our group, for Leo (Leon Draisaitl) and I to take that responsibility on. To grow into that 200-foot game. Leo has done an amazing job, and I’m continuing to work on it each and every day.”

Draisaitl, who had a pair of assists Monday, improved his totals from minus-7 last season to an NHL-leading plus-31 this year.

Plus-minus is a flawed stat — we’ll give you that. But at the extreme ends of the scale, it does tell you something about the player.

“The third goal, I wouldn’t even classify it as a scoring chance,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “You look at Connor and Leon’s plus-minus, they defend very well.”

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Grinding Away

Veteran sniper James Neal scored again Monday, his second goal in six games and his second straight game with a point. As much as many Oilers fans do not see a lot left in the 33-year-old winger, for me he fits the bill as that third- or fourth-line guy who chips in a handful of goals in the playoffs — the guy every winning team seems to have.

“In those hard games in the playoffs you’re going to need scoring from everyone,” said Neal, a veteran of two Stanley Cup Finals and 108 post-season games. “They’re going to be checking your top guys really hard, and you need the third and fourth lines to chip in goals.

“I like the way we’re building as we go along here. I think we’re peaking at the right time.”

Tippett is deploying Neal on a line with right-winger Alex Chiasson and rookie centre Ryan (Smoky) McLeod. It’s a perfect way to insulate McLeod, a nine-game vet whose wingers have over 1,400 NHL games between them. McLeod got his first NHL point on Neal’s goal Monday.

“There’s something there,” mused Tippett. “McLeod gives them some speed where they can hold on to pucks, and Chiasson and Nealer are big, heavy guys around the net. They’re an interesting line: Chaser and Nealer do a lot of rooting around down low, and McLeod is a good skater who transports the puck well through the neutral zone.

“McLeod, even though he’s a young guy, he is mature. He plays a smart game all the time.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

While there could be 1,000 games ahead for McLeod, Neal spent much of the year on Edmonton’s taxi squad just trying to get called up to an NHL lineup again. He started the year with COVID-19, and it’s been a long year back to a place where he can now try and do some post-season damage — his favourite time of year.

“It’s hard for sure,” he said of the climb. “Being an older guy, a guy who has played a lot of hockey and been around a while — it’s hard. There’s no way around it. You just have to put your head down and do the work.

“I just stuck with it and tried to be ready at the right time. I feel like I’ve got my legs now, and it’s the right time, going into the playoffs.”

He won’t start the playoffs on the top line. But he could be a guy who makes an impact coming out of the bottom six.

“Right where I’m at I could be a guy who comes in with secondary scoring, for sure. I’ve battled all year to be in this spot,” Neal said. “I’ve played a lot of playoff hockey, won with different teams. I’m coming in with a lot of playoff experience. I’m going to chip in everywhere I can.”

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