EDMONTON — If you want to find about how hard a player shoots, don’t ask the goalie from the other team. Ask the guy he faces in practice every day.
Skinner, of course, was talking about Evan Bouchard, the Oilers defenceman who scored twice and added an assist in a rugged, 4-3 decision over the Minnesota Wild Friday night that stretched Edmonton’s winning streak to six games.
Bouchard opened the scoring with a wicked wrist shot high to the glove side past a heroic Marc-Andre Fleury, then closed out the game with a powerplay winner — a 97 m.p.h. one-timer that blazed under the crossbar and past Fleury’s glove hand.
“He’s got potentially the hardest shot in the NHL,” said Skinner. “It actually prepares me for a lot of games, especially when I’m getting (one-timers) off the right side, maybe from (a guy like Alex) Ovechkin.”
You’ll recall last season’s trade deadline when Edmonton dealt away Tyson Barrie, who had been quarterbacking what would become the highest-producing powerplay since they started keeping track of that stat back in the ‘70s. The talk was about whether the Oilers should be handing the keys to the Maserati to Bouchard, then just 23 years old, when the powerplay was such an integral part of this team’s success.
As it turned out, evolving penalty kills today have taken away the flanks to an extent, with Oilers’ opponents taking a particular focus on Leon Draisaitl’s office below the right-wing circle.
“(Penalty kills) are starting to morph into being a little more aggressive on the half-wall,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who had a four-assist night Friday. “So you’re going to have to score from up top, and obviously Boucher has an elite release.”
Edmonton’s powerplay riches include the 50-goal man Draisaitl firing from one flank, Connor McDavid coming off the other, one of the game’s premier net-front men in Zach Hyman, and Nugent-Hopkins, a skilful jack of all trades who had his first 100-point season last year.
Now, just as teams work to cut off goals from the edges, Bouchard steps onto the scene with as good a one-timer as there is in the game, and a penchant for getting it through to the goalie.
Is it the heaviness of the shot or his accuracy that is more valuable?
“The heaviness of it, for sure,” Skinner said. “He does pick his spots, but you would see a lot of NHL players being able to pick their spots. He’s just got a cannon.”
What about it, Kris Knoblauch?
“His shot was 97 m.p.h and that doesn’t hurt. It’s a skill,” the Oilers head coach said. “There’s plenty of guys that can place a shot in the right position but not many can hammer it like that. There’s very few that can do both.”
Bouchard is on a 10-game points streak (4-11-15). Only Paul Coffey has had a streak that long, among Oilers defencemen, at 28 games.
Sure, Bouchard has some work to do defensively. But with this group, his offensive work is paramount. Elite forwards require an elite offensive defenceman, and at age 24, Bouchard is on his way to being that player.
“The more you get to play with (McDavid and Draisaitl), the more confident you are,” Bouchard said. “I just try to put them in good spots, like they do to me. They put me in good position when they put it in my wheelhouse to hit it, and I think they’re good with it too.”
After that gnarly start to the season, the Oilers have become the team they were telling everyone they could be.
After a relatively easy 6-1 win over Carolina two nights ago, this one required a lot more heavy lifting against the hard-charging Wild and Fleury, who was fantastic in his 997th NHL game played. That doesn’t include games where he sat on the bench as a backup — he’s almost at 1,000 games played, period.
That’s something only Martin Brodeur (1,266), Roberto Luongo (1,044), and Patrick Roy (1,029) have accomplished among goalies.
The Wild have owned the Oilers for some reason, 9-1 in their past 10 against Edmonton. This was just the fifth time in their last 22 visits to Edmonton that they walked away without any points.
Earlier this year, the Oilers might have walked out into the night pointless after having been “goalied” by Fleury, despite outshooting Minny 40-20. But on Friday the powerplay found two goals, and McDavid scored a stunner on a three-point night that extended his points streak to seven games (4-15-19).
Then they defended, and got some key saves down the stretch from Skinner. With Jack Campbell giving up four goals on 24 shots for AHL Bakersfield Friday, Skinner’s resurgence in the Oiler nets has been a godsend.
“He made some big saves when we needed him to,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I thought the way we played in our D-zone was just confident. We knew they were going to come and… I thought we were a confident team in the D-zone.”
The Oilers are outscoring teams 30-11 on their six-game heater, while the penalty kill was perfect again (two-for-two). It’s allowed just one goal in its last 25 kills.