That the Edmonton Oilers won their second and final game this season in Vegas to complete a tidy opening quarter with a 15-5 record is admirable, if not a tad surprising. That Mikko Koskinen was the first star in the game, well, whoever saw that coming?
In a season where the Oilers haven’t seen their No. 1 goalie Mike Smith since game No. 3, Koskinen has punched well above his weight. Or at least, the weight class fans and media placed him in while grousing about what a huge problem it would be if Smith was to go down.
Koskinen stole the show on a Vegas Saturday night, making a series of hair-raising saves while the game was scoreless in the third period. Edmonton then built a 3-0 lead, and although the Golden Knights beat Koskinen twice, he closed out the night with 36 saves and a 3-2 win.
“To start the game, I think he had five highlight-reel saves,” marvelled Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “Incredible stops to start the game and solid the rest of the night.”
It was Koskinen’s second win at Las Vegas this young season. The Oilers took four points out of their two visits to T-Mobile Arena, surrendering none, and Koskinen opens Q2 with a .912 save percentage, a 2.89 goals-against average, and most importantly, an 11-2 record.
“For me, this is one of the best places in the NHL to play,” Koskinen said. “You always know the fans are going to be loud and it will be a great atmosphere. A fun place to play. We did a good job in our two games here.”
On the first night all season neither Connor McDavid nor Leon Draisaitl recorded a single point — the Oilers are now 6-47-8 when those two are both held pointless — Edmonton got goals from Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman and Jesse Puljujarvi. The latter pair had six shots on net apiece, while young defenceman Philip Broberg logged the most ice time of any Oilers skater (23:34) in only his fourth NHL start.
“We’re playing him so much, he’s not thinking about it. He’s just playing,” joked head coach Dave Tippett. “And it’s not as if he’s playing soft minutes. He’s playing hard, hard minutes — at the end of the game against a good team in Vegas.”
Had Edmonton lost, the Golden Knights would have been just two points back in the Pacific standings. Now, with still three-quarters of the season to be played, the Oilers have a six-point bulge and a game in hand.
Some thoughts on a win in a tough building, against a key division rival …
Blocking It Out
What started out as a deluge, ended up as a tidy Oilers lead after 20 minutes. It really could have gone the other way very easily, but it didn’t.
“We survived the first 20 minutes, then got our legs going a little bit, and ended up leading 2-0 after the first period,” Koskinen said. “We got a lot of energy when Kris Russell got those two blocks and became the all-time leader. They were not soft shots either. Like, full slappers. It’s crazy.”
Russell has been an inspirational leader inside the four walls of Edmonton’s dressing room for a long time, among those who know what’s it like to get hit by the frozen vulcanized rubber. It’s one thing to get hit now and again, but Russell — who blocked four to move past Brent Seabrook and become the all-time NHL leader in shots blocked — has averaged seven per game in his 889-game career.
Russell needed two blocks to pass Seabrook. He had three by the 9:00 mark of the game, after a key early penalty kill.
“We took a penalty early just so Rusty could get the blocks and get it out of the way,” Tippett joked. But the coach gathered the team after the game to pay homage to the game D-man.
“We talked about it in the room after the game,” he said. “In the history of the game there is nobody who blocked more shots than Kris.”
Tippett has heard the naysayers, folks who say the only reason Russell gets all those blocks is because he doesn’t have the puck. Well, find me a team that has the puck when it’s killing penalties, or late in games when the goalie is pulled?
There are lots of players who are on the ice when the opponent is controlling the puck. But only one player — Russell — wears the crown.
“If everybody knew how much it hurts,” Tippett said. “There are six blocks out of 10 that sort of hit you and (it’s not too bad) but there are four that really sting you, that really hurt. It’s really an amazing accomplishment and our team was really excited for him.”
“He is always putting the team first,” added Koskinen. “It’s just every night — night after night. You always know when you put Rusty out there, what you’re going to get.”
This ‘N’ That
• Hyman was perhaps Edmonton’s best forward. He was all over the puck, and fought off Mark Stone from the blue-line in to score the 2-0 goal on a breakaway.
“Late in the shift too,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He didn’t have all of his energy but he really protects the puck like no one else in the league. It’s not surprising he can fend off a guy like that, but to show the patience and skill to put it in a good spot like that its really impressive.”
• Puljujarvi skated for the second game on the right side with centre Ryan McLeod and left-winger Warren Foegele. That line scored and wasn’t on for a goal against. The trio has taken over as Tippett’s preferred third unit.
“(Puljujarvi) was good tonight. That whole line was — young McLeod, he’s really taken a step forward,” Tippett said. “What we’re trying to do there is to find a little more balance. A third line that is a threat … makes us a better team. We’ve got to find a third line that is a factor in the games. Tonight they were a factor.”
• Edmonton will take Sunday off and have a couple of practice days before the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Wednesday.