EDMONTON — Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, somewhere between the first and second periods on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers‘ hearts grew three times in size.
A game that began like so many others of late, with the Calgary Flames holding a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, did not end the way the past seven — or 13 of the previous 15 — had for the Oilers.
Somewhere along the way the bad goalie, the horrible power play and the unproductive superstars wrote different endings to their stories, and the Oilers snapped a seven-game losing streak with a dramatic 5-3 win over the Flames.
“When you are losing, you feel like you have that cloud or that pressure on your shoulders. You grip your stick a little bit too tight,” said Leon Draisaitl, whose four-point night included the game-winner with 5:31 to play and an empty netter just as the final horn sounded. “This was a big night for a lot of guys. You relieve a little bit of pressure and maybe don’t grip your stick as tight. That swagger is a huge part of confidence. Tonight was a big night for us.”
Undoubtedly, the best story all evening was goaltender Mikko Koskinen, who has been bombarded with criticism more than any single figure in the NHL over the past couple of weeks.
The beleaguered ‘tendy shut out the noise and delivered an epic game, highlighted by a third-period save on Calgary’s Dillon Dube that Koskinen would later call, “My top save in the NHL.”
It was only one game, but Koskinen shoved it down the collective pie hole of every pundit — yours truly included — who has stated that the Oilers cannot win with him, or that his teammates have lost faith in his game.
“Sometimes it is tough,” the Vantaa, Finland product said of the criticism. “You open up the internet and it is in your face. It is tough not to see it, but usually I try to block everything out. It is not my business, not my opinion. I feel like the boys are all behind me, so that is all that matters.”
Koskinen allowed a long wrist shot to evade him that tied the score at 3-3 with 44 seconds left in the middle period. But he did not break in the decisive third period, putting on a show on national television that opens a window into his pride and self-esteem.
“There’s a lot of pressure on him right now, and he stepped up,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “You know, it’s a Saturday night, against your biggest rival on Hockey Night in Canada, and you’re on a losing streak. There’s a lot of pressure in that, and he played pretty well.”
In a game that pit a healthy Flames lineup against an Oilers team missing five regulars — Zach Hyman, Tyson Barrie, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zack Kassian and goalie Mike Smith — Calgary outshot Edmonton 47-31. Koskinen was, in the end, better than the guy at the other end (Jacob Markstrom), a statement we have not made in a long while covering this team.
“I have to thank my teammates for standing with me,” said the soft-spoken Finn. “The people who have been saying that we are not a good team and calling us bad or whatever, they are not in our room. So that doesn’t matter. We have to believe in our room and ourselves. Today we proved that we can do it.”
This one turned on the Oilers’ power play, a unit that was setting NHL records not long ago but had grown as cold as a Winnipeg winter of late. With Barrie injured, young Evan Bouchard got his chance up top and scored twice, the first time in nine games that the Oilers’ power play has notched a pair.
Bouchard’s calling card is equal parts big bomb from the point, and the uncanny ability to get his wrist shots through to the net. Those two skills have combined to make Bouchard the siren song of Oilers fans, who have demanded that he run the power play since back when Oscar Klefbom still held the job.
One night in and you can bet he’ll be back on the job Tuesday in Vancouver. There, Edmonton will try to continue to dig themselves out of this mess, where somehow they became the worst team in the NHL on the heels of a 16-5 start, when they were the best team in the league.
It’s funny how hockey works sometimes, isn’t it?
“Last game we played an amazing period and dominated the best team in the league (Florida), and you look at the score sheet and it is 6-0 at the end of the night,” said Draisaitl. “That is just the way that hockey goes. I think the hockey gods, they keep it fair. Every team goes through ups and downs. We are not the team that losing seven in a row, we are not that bad. I think everybody knows that and we know that, which is most important.
“Tonight felt really, really good, but we have to keep pushing and continuing to get better.”