EDMONTON — It is one thing to play the Tampa Bay Lightning hard, outshoot them 30-23, and walk away after a 5-3 loss with your head held high. Nice try, played well, and all that rot.
It is quite another, however, to outplay the two-time Stanley Cup champs for most of 60 minutes and walk away with a commanding 4-1 win, as the Edmonton Oilers did on a raucous Saturday night at a nearly sold-out Rogers Place.
Look, when it comes to the National Hockey League playoffs, it’s less about where you finish, and more about how you are playing when the tournament begins. We can’t all be the Calgary Flames — winning every night and miles ahead of everyone in first place, their game an impeccable product that reeks of pending playoff success.
Edmonton is fighting for a spot. But with a new coach, and players beginning to return from injury, you’ve got to admit: they’re game is trending in a direction that will give them a chance when we start playing for real.
“We’ve spent a lot of time over the last three and a half weeks or so on rounding out our five-on-five game — specifically defensively. We haven’t given up a lot,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft, whose Oilers outshot Tampa 49-32 and never trailed Saturday. “That’s a positive sign for our team, because I think as you work your way down the stretch run and into playoff rounds it comes down to your five-on-five game.”
And the other thing? Edmonton’s best hockey of late has come in games against Tampa, Carolina, Washington, Calgary and Florida.
“Those are the best teams in the league,” said Leon Draisaitl, who sewed this one up with a breakaway goal that made it 3-1 late. “We have had a lot of them against us in the last couple of weeks and we have played well every game. We are hurting a little bit right now and it is going to help is a lot when those top guys are coming back. But all-in-all, I think we are finding our gear here and taking steps in the right direction.”
Connor McDavid opened this Hockey Night in Canada affair with a trademark goal, going wide on Victor Hedman and depositing the puck behind backup Brian Elliott, who was stellar. This one could have been worse — Edmonton went 1-for-7 on the powerplay, although McDavid’s crucial powerplay marker made it 2-0 right before the second intermission, a huge goal.
“The PK was really good,” pointed out Draisaitl, a unit that was perfect in four attempts — including a critical, lengthy five-on-three in a one-goal game in the third period. “I think our power play could have been sharper, but we did score a big goal to make it 2-0 at the end of the second there. You have to find the right time to score sometimes too. We did that and, five-on-five, I thought we were really solid.”
How about big Mikko Koskinen, who quietly has shed his label as a goalie prone to the bad goal, and taken over the No. 1 job in Edmonton. The “Three Metres of Koskinen” is 9-1-2 in his last 12 starts, and with home games on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday against Detroit, Buffalo, and New Jersey respectively, you can bet Koskinen will get two of the three as the Oilers enter the easier stretch of a five-game homestand having won the opening two games against Washington and Tampa.
Tyson Barrie and Josh Archibald returned to the lineup Saturday, and Zack Kassian had another strong game coming back from a broken orbital/cheek bone. Jesse Puljujarvi is now skating in regular practices as well, leaving Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the only major part still absent, once Puljujarvi returns.
One might say, if this Oilers team can find some health, they might just be acquiring their game at an opportune time.
“I like a lot of things about our game,” said McDavid (32-51-83), who moved back into the NHL scoring lead. “Our power play could have been better, but we found a way to get a big goal there. Obviously our PK stepped up — that five-on-three was serious — and Leo and Nurse were blocking those shots, Dunc (Duncan Keith) doing a great job, and Mikko doing his thing. I thought it was a well-rounded win.”
A win is great.
But learning how to win? That’s what is really important around here, for an up and down team that is trying to find a consistent groove.
“We had 49 shots on net tonight. That’s a real positive sign offensively, and we hit numerous posts and crossbars,” said Woodcroft, whose troops will get a day off of practice on Sunday. “We went into that third period against the two-time Stanley Cup champions and I thought we played a really mature third period.
“It didn’t go exactly according to script. There were some high drama moments. But we found a way to get the win.”
They’re right in the race, these Oilers, and looking like a team that is finding a sustainable game.
Their timing couldn’t be better.