EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers’ season began with much hope on January 13, but when their heads hit the pillow on Jan. 28 — after a 4-3 loss on home ice to the Toronto Maple Leafs — they were a 3-6 team.
At that point they were wondering — and so were we — who the real Edmonton Oilers were?
Were they the team that stood three points out of first place in the Pacific Division when the pandemic ceased play on March 13, 2020? The club that looked like it could win at least one playoff round?
Or were they the team that lost to the 12th-place Chicago Blackhawks in four games, bowing out of the bubble before the playoffs even began, officially?
As we deliberated, the Oilers went out two nights later — on Jan. 30 — and beat the Leafs in OT. It would be the beginning of a run of .714 hockey that continues through to tonight, when the Oilers take an eight-game home winning streak into play against the Montreal Canadiens.
Their run since Jan. 30 places Edmonton as the third-best team in the entire National Hockey League since that date. And that begs a new question:
How good are these Oilers, really?
“It’s a long time coming from this group,” began Alex Chiasson, who arrived here in 2018 from the Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals, and found an immature, unvarnished project.
He spoke Tuesday a day after a gritty, physical, come-from-behind 4-1 win over Montreal, the kind of effort seldom seen in a town where high draft picks often preferred not to get their hands dirty.
“I look at my first year here three years ago, what direction this group has gone, the type of hockey we’ve been playing lately,” Chiasson said. “(Monday) was as close as you’re going to get for preparation for a playoff game. We stuck with it for 60 minutes and that’s a big change for our group. When we’re down a goal, to stick with the plan and not get away from things that make us successful.”
Since that 3-6 start, the Oilers have gone 24-9-2 for a points percentage of .714. That is better than Toronto (.663), better than Winnipeg (.618) and vastly better than Montreal (.486), a team that Connor McDavid admitted had “stymied” Edmonton thus far in 2021.
There is no question that McDavid and Leon Draisaitl account for an inordinate amount of Edmonton’s offence, a tandem that leads the league in scoring again this season.
The difference? Last season, they were both minus players, with an ugly minus-13 between them.
This season? McDavid is plus-16 and Draisaitl is plus-25, two numbers that speak to improvement — despite what we know about the veracity of plus-minus.
The Canadiens abused McDavid on Monday, a clear directive from a game plan that had forged a 4-1 record against the Oilers to that point in the season. They pounded Draisaitl.
But McDavid hit back. And when Josh Anderson went in for another bodycheck on Draisaitl, the big German fed Anderson his stick, the international sign of a skill player standing up for himself.
The pair showed their teammates a way past an obstructing, holding and hooking Canadiens team, digging in rather than pouting about referees who could easily have called more minor penalties.
“I was thinking about that after the game,” Chiasson began. “Stats and all that … they’ve been tremendous. Leon has had three amazing years since I’ve been here; Connor’s resume speaks for itself.
“For me, from where I came in to where they are now — how much they’ve taken charge of the locker room, the leadership, a lot of things you (media) guys don’t see — it’s great to see.
“They’re great players, they’re good guys,” Chiasson said. “But they’ve taken the responsibility to be good leaders and take charge of this group. It shows this year.”
So we ask the question again: Are these Oilers for real?
They lost those three games to Toronto from Feb. 27 to March 3. But in their other five meetings, Edmonton is 3-2-1.
Winnipeg, with deeper forward lines and the reigning Vezina goaltender, is 2-5 against the Oilers and coming off of a 3-0 loss at home to Edmonton this past Saturday.
Montreal has been trouble, but Monday’s win made a statement about how Edmonton will persevere against the Habs’ physical, obstructing style. That an Oilers team that can skate and score with Winnipeg and Toronto is willing to muck it up with Montreal.
“Sometimes the game’s not going your way and you feel like you’re chasing it a little bit, and it can be easy to drop off,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “I liked the way our guys stayed with it and got better as the game went on.
“Connor scored a highlight-reel goal, but we had a lot of people compete really hard, and push that game in our direction in the third period,” he said. “It was one of those games… I wouldn’t call it a ‘statement game,’ but your group learns that if it competes hard enough you have a chance to win.”
A chance to win.
Edmonton has been the best team in the North Division for nearly three months in a four-month season.
We wonder, what does “a chance to win” really mean for this team?