Mike Smith has been through these playoff runs before, backstopping how many teams over the last 15 season down how many stretch runs? He’s seen every version of a contender there is, and the one he’s playing behind now played like a serious one on Saturday night in Winnipeg.
“We’re building something here. Building for something more important than a regular-season game,” Smith said after a 3-0 win, an Oilers performance that was rock solid from the goal line out.
Edmonton played 60 minutes in Winnipeg Saturday and likely won more than 50 of them, grinding past a Jets team that simply could not muster what it would have taken to beat a determined Oilers side playing perhaps its most complete game of the season.
“It’s a massive win,” Connor McDavid said, his Oilers now three points back of Winnipeg with two games in hand. “You’re coming down the stretch playing teams ahead of you, you want to beat them.”
This was your classic meeting between a team playing its first game at home after a gruelling 22-game stretch in 42 days — 17 of those on the road — against an Oilers club that hadn’t played in a week. Instead, the Oilers went to school, cramming daily as the coaching staff drove home the principles of how they must play to win playoff rounds.
“Our guys, I’ll give them credit. They worked hard this week,” head coach Dave Tippett said. “We had 14 games left before tonight to earn a playoff spot, and make sure of we get that spot that we’re playing well going in. Tonight was a good first step.”
The Jets are now 1-1 in their six-game run of games against either Toronto or Edmonton. Of their final 13 games, Edmonton has five against Vancouver, four against Montreal and two each against Winnipeg and Calgary.
Sitting six back of North-leading Toronto with a game in hand, the Division title may be a reach for the Oilers. But being the team playing its best hockey when the playoffs start?
That’s a definite possibility.
Edmonton is the best team in the North since Jan. 3, playing .700 hockey (23-9-2), while the Oilers power play has quietly climbed up to the third spot in the NHL with their 10th multi-goal effort Saturday. No other team has more than nine.
Also, Edmonton’s penalty kill has allowed just one goal in its last 22 attempts. That’s the best in the NHL since March 27.
“Very connected,” was how Smith reviewed his team’s work in front of his Saturday. “We’ve been talking about that this last week. It’s nice when it gets talked about, you practice it, and it carries over into the game. What we’re building here is something worth noting. Guys have really grasped on to playing important hockey games.”
Tyson Barrie blasted one through an Alex Chiasson screen to break a scoreless tie at 12:00 of the second period, and Chiasson deflected home a Barrie shot to ice the game late — both power play goals. In between, Jesse Puljujarvi proved a perfect complement to linemates McDavid and Leon Draisaitl when he found the soft spot to bury a McDavid pass, after the two superstars had ground out a shift along the wall in their best impersonation of the Sedin twins.
It was a turnover producing, wall-working shift for McDavid and Draisaitl (two assists each). The kind of shift they didn’t always produce, but now an example of just how complete their games have become.
“You’ve got to battle out there,” McDavid said. “A lot of times, you get into the offensive zone, you take your foot off the gas and you think it’s going to be easy. You’ve got to outwork guys sometimes. Work for your chances.”
With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (concussion) on the shelf, Tippett stayed with McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line. They rewarded him with a gritty defensive effort, and some tough offensive minutes. Not to mention two power-play goals and an even-strength winner.
They’re maturing and improving, both one-two atop the scoring race and 200-foot players.
“You have to recognize that it’s going to be hard,” Tippett said. “Winning in the playoffs is hard. To get a playoff spot is hard. It’s not going to be all pretty passes and breakaways. You have to work for your goals.
“Our whole team’s mindset was there, and they’re the leaders of that.”
On Saturday, the Oilers took a vulnerable Jets team and never gave them a breath. The Oilers’ effort wasn’t perfect, but you won’t come much closer than this.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect game,” said Smith, now 15-4-2, with a save percentage that just jumped to .922. All three of his shutouts this year were 3-0 road wins. “Tonight we did so many good things that it made up for the mistakes that we made. And the ones we did make? They were covered up by other players.
“That’s one thing we’ve been talking about, playing a playoff style of game that can withstand getting into the deep rounds where it really matters. It’s not something you just flick on and off. It’s something that’s built, and the team put out a tremendous amount of hard work this week.”