Tough and stingy: Oilers will need to stay tight defensively to win a Cup

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) and Leon Draisaitl (29) celebrate an overtime goal against the Vancouver Canucks during overtime NHL pre season action in Edmonton, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — The Oilers were the highest scoring team in the National Hockey League last year, average 3.96 goals per game. Big deal. 

And they had a historic power play at 32.4 percent. That’s old news. 

As Draisaitl proposed earlier in training camp (above), nobody blows you out quite the way the Oilers can. It’s the games where there aren’t any power plays — where the teams are splitting up three or four goals between them — that this Oilers team needs to win, if it is ever to fulfill the promise we see for them. 

“I mean, we can’t change our game,” began Draisaitl on Thursday. “There’s a lot of reasons why we’ve made it to the conference finals, the second round too — because of how good of an offensive team we are. You can’t lose that. 

“But there are little things that we need to tweak in our defensive game that we’re all willing to do. We continue to chip away at that.” 

Let’s face it: If these Oilers ever get comfortable winning games 3-1 with an empty net goal, they could win multiple Cups. 

Few opponents wish to open it up against a team helmed by McDavid and Draisaitl. If the Oilers could learn to consistently win games the other way…? 

That is what this 2023-24 season is about in Edmonton. 

“It’s going to be about sometimes winning a game, but maybe you don’t deserve it,” defenceman Mattias Ekholm said earlier in camp, before a hip injury sidelined him. “Win a game because you’re just hanging on; because you’re being stubborn defensively and you get a chance and overtime or late in the period to go up to 2-1, or 3-2. And your goalie is going to have to stand on his head sometimes.” 

Ekholm — big, tough and stingy — personifies what the Oilers are trying to do. 

So far, the personality of this team is still McDavid-Draisaitl, Harlem Globetrotters highlight hockey. You score five? We’ll score seven! 

But even those guys have known for some time that defence wins championships. You can see it in their play, and so can Ekholm. 

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“Everyone seems to be realizing that … we’ve got to get to where it’s okay to be in the D-zone for a minute. For a shift every, here and there,” he said. “Even if you are a 60-goal scorer, if you are a high producing player, you can’t start — after 20 seconds — to just go on your own page, try to do something and then it hurts us in the end. That’s the reality we get to.” 

That’s the reality we get to. 

“You can win 6-1 against whoever in the regular season, but the tight games in the playoffs are the ones we need to win,” Ekholm stressed. “And in order to win those, we need to be a team that are very confident to be in our own end for 40, 45-plus seconds at a time. Because it’s going to happen.” 

We asked Jay Woodcroft if his team can score just as much, but improve their defence from the 3.12 goals against per game (17th best) they allowed last season? He thinks they can, but like the rest of us, he’ll have to see it with his own eyes first. 

“I think that’s where we’re at in the life stage of our team,” the coach said. “I think our team has the horses to score enough goals to win to be at the top of the table when it comes to goals for in the National Hockey League, while at the same time work towards being in the top-ten defensively as well.” 

They’ll have to shave off 32 goals against to approach being a top-ten team defensively. While still scoring enough to win a Division, as that is Edmonton’s goal. 

Can they pull it off? 

We can’t wait to find out.

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