Oilers still control fate in Pacific race ahead of critical showdown vs. Canucks

Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Mattias Ekholm, Evan Bouchard and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers discuss the play during the game against the Arizona Coyotes. (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers are still in control of first place in the Pacific — if only barely — heading into Saturday’s game No. 79. Hey, sometimes the last horse out of the gates beats everyone else to the wire.

Despite a 3-2 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Friday, the Oilers still control their destiny in their quest for their first division title since 1986-87 — but a win on Saturday over the Canucks is imperative.

“They are a team that, early in the season, had our number quite a bit,” said Evander Kane of the B.C. rivals. “We haven’t played them in a long time, so I think we’re most likely two teams looking forward to getting back on the ice together and settling where the division stands.”

Vancouver beat Edmonton three times in the Oilers’ first 11 games of the season, and they haven’t seen each other since Nov. 6. The Canucks crushed Edmonton 8-1 in the season opener, beat them 4-3 at Edmonton three nights later, and then squashed the Oilers by a 6-2 count in early November.

Soon after the Oilers had fired a coach, and they’ve been in the chase position behind ever since.

On Nov. 1 the Canucks were eight points ahead of Edmonton. On Dec. 1, the bulge had grown to 12, and that dozen-point lead had only shrunk by one point on March 1.

Suddenly, on April 1, Edmonton was only five points in arrears, and today that number has shrunk to three — with Edmonton holding a game in hand.

Losing the overtime point to the feisty Coyotes isn’t paralyzing, but it stings when you consider that the Canucks hold the tie-breaker over Edmonton with more regulation wins.

The good news? Edmonton clinched second place in the Pacific with the OT loss, and home-ice advantage at least in Round 1.

“That is nice, but you want that second point,” said Adam Henrique, who scored Friday. “That is a tough one to give up, I think. Especially with the big match-up tomorrow.”

The OT loss snapped a seven-game winning streak over the Coyotes, but on the day that Arizona GM Bill Armstrong informed his team that the Utah move was all but a certainty, you have to credit the Coyotes players with refusing to be distracted by the news.

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Arizona played very well, and had more of the game than the shot count — 39-28 in Edmonton’s favour — would suggest. Calvin Pickard was fantastic in goal for the Oilers, and deserved better.

For the Oilers, they earn three of four points in two games played without their injured captain Connor McDavid. We would expect McDavid to play Saturday against the Canucks.

“If it was the playoffs? I think he’d be very close if not playing for sure,” said head coach Kris Knoblauch. “Tomorrow, we’ll see. He’s been getting better and better. He’s been really close.”

Here’s how the race for the Pacific shakes down:

After their Hockey Night in Canada meeting on Saturday, the Canucks have two games remaining: at home to Calgary and on the road in Winnipeg. Edmonton hosts San Jose, then ends their season with a back-to-back in Arizona and Colorado.

Again, the race is over if Vancouver earns a point in Edmonton Saturday, but it’s on with a regulation win for the Oilers. An Oilers regulation win leaves the Canucks’ ceiling at 109 points.

The Oilers could get to 110, but they’d have to run the table with three straight wins — two on the road. The lost point against Arizona hurts them there, on a trap game that fell between a big 5-1 win over Vegas and the Vancouver showdown.

“We’re aware of where everybody is in their season,” Kane said of the ‘Yotes. “They’re playing a tough brand of hockey and they’ve got some good skill. When they got in our zone they had a lot of perimeter stuff.

“It’s the NHL. Everybody’s still playing for something — no matter where you are in the standings. It was a hockey game I thought we controlled through the majority, but couldn’t find a way to put a few more past (Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka).”

The Oilers’ game in Arizona next Wednesday will be the last game in this era of the Coyotes franchise, so it will be an emotional night and difficult points to collect in Tempe.

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