They’re a two-player team, they said.
Shut down Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the power play, and you’ll shut down the Edmonton Oilers, they said.
Well, here come the Oilers — now 8-0-1 in their last nine games and the best team in the Western Conference since the Christmas break at 11-3-2. Only Carolina’s .765 points percentage beats Edmonton’s .750 since Santa Claus dropped off the presents, as the Oilers moved to within two points of first place in the Pacific Division with a 5-2 win at Detroit Tuesday evening.
They’ve allowed two or less goals in nine of their 16 games since Christmas, and did it again in a testy tilt on Tuesday, as the foot soldiers pushed the game to the final moments before the power play took Edmonton over the finish line.
“We found contributions offensively from some unusual suspects,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft, who watched Warren Foegele score twice (including the game-winner), with singles from Ryan McLeod, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (power play) and Evander Kane (empty net).
“Our penalty kill was outstanding today (perfect in five attempts), and our power play — though mostly ineffective at the start — found a way to get a huge goal for us to kind of seal the game.”
This wasn’t your garden variety Oilers win.
McDavid had just one secondary assist. Draisaitl was pointless and minus-2. Zach Hyman’s score line read 0-0-0.
The NHL’s best power play wasn’t even creating scoring chances through its first four attempts, until Nugent-Hopkins buried a wrist shot to ice it at 4-2 with 4:22 to play.
Edmonton has four players with 60 or more points: McDavid, Draisaitl, Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins. No other team in the NHL has more than one, and on this night all it took was for one of them — Nugent-Hopkins — to find his range with a goal and an assist.
The rest of the win came on the backs of the Bottom 6 forwards, a solid, physical defence corps, and 31 saves from Jack Campbell.
“I really liked the contributions from some of our depth pieces tonight,” Woodcroft added. “I thought our goaltender was excellent tonight. He’s laying good games down, on top of good games, on top of good games. He’s starting to build a little personal momentum for himself.”
Campbell’s seasonal stats don’t tell the story of his present game, after a poor start to the season. He’s now won seven straight, and since the calendar turned to 2023 Campbell has a saves percentage of .916 and a goals against of 2.24.
Don’t look now, but that No. 1 job Stuart Skinner stole from Campbell in the first half of the season? Campbell might just be in the process of stealing it back.
He made some game-preserving saves with Edmonton ahead 3-2 and the Red Wings pressing in Period 2. It’s always fun for a Port Huron, Michigan kid to play in Motown, and even better to give Edmonton a rare win there.
“It’s always an honour to play the Wings. I grew up watching them,” Campbell said. “The new building, it’s rockin’ in there. I’m really fortunate. I always have people in here watching me.”
These are the games that can make a guy bullish about the Oilers, when they show that there is enough depth, goaltending, defensive prowess and toughness to win a game that Detroit, quite frankly, had more of than Edmonton.
Detroit didn’t get what it deserved — Edmonton got what it earned Tuesday, in a physical, scrum-filled affair that twenty years ago would have featured four or five scraps.
“It’s today’s NHL,” said Kane, with a wry smile. “There are a lot of guys that feel they can get in there, and the referees bail a lot of them out. So it was a bit of a chippy, slimy game.
“We’ve got some guys on our team that don’t mind answering the bell. So we can we feel very confident and comfortable in those type of games.”
This is a different team with Kane back in the lineup, and he was all around it Tuesday with a goal, an assist, three shots, four hits and four minutes in penalties. He brings everyone into the scrum, which raises a team’s emotions.
There aren’t many teams that don’t play better when they’re riding some emotion, and some five-on-five wrestling matches helped to bond Edmonton on a night when the usual suspects weren’t quite getting the ball into the end zone.
“We’ve got some big guys in our group,” Kane said. “I think I don’t think they (the Red Wings) wanted anything to do with our guys.
“It’s just unfortunate, you (media and fans) can’t see anything out there that happens in those scrums. So, you know, when the penalties kind of come to fruition, you don’t always agree with them.”