EDMONTON — Nobody wanted to hear it. But everyone wants to see it.
What is one of the main reasons the Edmonton Oilers are suddenly a structured, defensively stout team that has given up just eight goals — just three at five-on-five — in running Jay Woodcroft’s record to 5-0?
Well, let’s ask the coach.
“I think it’s contagious, first of all,” Woodcroft said after a 4-2 win in Winnipeg Saturday afternoon. “When some of the best hockey players in the world are working their way back into their own end with a type of relentlessness and attention to detail, I think the rest of the team follows suit.”
“Those two are leaders on our team, so I think it’s a good sign when they’re leading the way,” Woodcroft said. “By committing to the defensive side of the puck, I really liked the way we played the game five on five tonight. I thought it was very detailed.”
That’s the thing about leaders. They come with followers.
When the big boys play a game like they’re playing right now — a style that looks able to win a 2-1 game when the chips are down in May and June — the rest of the team plays it too. Shift lengths are down, chance-taking is less, and on this night it resulted in one of McDavid’s most dynamic offensive games in recent memory.
McDavid, Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse have reasserted themselves defensively since Dave Tippett was fired, most notably because his team was hemorrhaging scoring chances. Predictably, the rest of this Oilers team has too, and despite a 4-2 final against the Jets, this was a clinic for 50 minutes, with Edmonton leading 3-0 before the Jets pushed them off the rails in the final 10:00.
“(We’re) just connected, you know?” began McDavid. “I thought we had five guys all over the ice. Having layers everywhere, making it hard for them to come through us.”
Let’s face it: the words “Edmonton Oilers” and “defensive clinic” have appeared in the same sentence about as often as “truckers rally” and “deep thinkers.”
But on this afternoon, the Oilers gave themselves a template on which to base a playoff run. A videotape that can be revisited every time the standards begin to slip, or the goals against get out of hand.
After killing off a 90-second five-on-three just six minutes into the game — a huge, early moment in this game — Edmonton proceeded to smother the Jets in all three zones for the next 45 minutes. Edmonton gave up a reckless shorty to break Mikko Koskinen’s shutout bid and start the Jets’ attack, allowed a Kyle Connor powerplay goal, then weathered a late storm before Nurse bagged an empty-netter.
In between, Edmonton’s resurgent penalty-killing unit posted a 5-for-6 game while allowing an astonishing three shots on goal in six Jets attempts. Edmonton has allowed four goals while shorthanded in the five games since Woodcroft and Dave Manson came aboard, one shorty and just three five-on-five goals.
Not bad, considering the Jets game was Edmonton’s fourth game in six days (all wins), with a fifth game set for Sunday night at home versus Minnesota.
Oh, and they’ve had three different goalies in net for the last four wins, with Stuart Skinner, Mike Smith, and now Koskinen, in his first game back out of Covid protocol.
“Yeah, it’s definitely unusual,” McDavid agreed. “But there hasn’t been much usual about this season, from everything that’s gone on. We believe in all those guys and we knew that we had to be better in front of them.”
After a schedule full of fits and starts, Edmonton is in the thick of it now, with a back-to-back this weekend and a five-game U.S. trip that kicks off Wednesday in Tampa.
“It’s fun, though,” said defenceman Tyson Barrie, whose game has also visibly elevated of late. “I mean, it’s been such an odd year with breaks, and COVID and everything. So it’s nice to have a full team and be rolling and playing. That’s how we like to do it.
“We’ve got a bunch of games coming up, but we’re feeling good and we’re having fun playing hockey. We’re looking forward to it.”