Through the first three games of the playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers have a likely and unlikely hero to praise. Edmonton holds a 2-1 series lead on San Jose, and it wouldn’t be that way without Cam Talbot and Zack Kassian. If we were to tell you before the playoffs started that Kassian would be tied for the Oilers scoring lead, and that Talbot had better numbers than a majority of the goaltenders, you’d laugh. Well laugh no more.
If you’re wondering what a cross between Raffi Torres and Fernando Pisani might look like, consider the gap-toothed guy with pork-chop sideburns and a big, Shark-eating grin.
It’s quite the praise, considering those two players were key cogs in the 2006 run. Kassian’s brought together Torres’ bull in a china shop tenacity, and Pisani’s pure clutch finishing abilities. The Sharks eventually let off on Kassian, and he’s continued to win battles along the boards deep in the San Jose zone.
Talbot, on the other hand, has been one of the three best goaltenders of the playoffs thus far. Only Pekka Rinne and Jake Allen have had better starts than the Oilers goaltender, but he’s stopped 83 of 86 shots by the Sharks. He’s been a steady presence for the Oilers in net, and the team is feeding off his confidence. Kudos should go to the defense however for clearing rebounds and allowing Talbot to just concentrate on tracking the puck through traffic and making the first save.
Kassian is currently tied with Connor McDavid for the team lead in playoff points (two) and in goals scored. It’s more than points that have been the story here — Kassian has been an unlikely driver for the Oilers. The 26-year-old was outstanding in Game 2, taking the body to the Sharks and leading all players with eight hits.
One of the keys to this series is physicality, and Kassian effectively limited the Sharks mobility on the breakout. He’s been a loose cannon the Sharks haven’t been able to answer yet. He scored a big breakaway shorthanded goal that shifted momentum and continued to take the body to the Sharks.
KASSIAN THROUGH THREE GAMES
Todd McLellan shuffled the forward lines midway through Game 3, putting Kassian on a line with Leon Draisaitl and Drake Caggiula. All three have been some of the better Oiler forwards through the series so far, and the line continued to generate chances and drive the Sharks defense crazy.
The Sharks were pressing hard in the third and had all the momentum. Then came a break with the Oilers forcing the puck into the Sharks zone, with David Schlemko turning the puck over. Kassian once again played the role of hero with a clutch goal late in the third that would be the eventual game-winner. It’s the type of goal that breaks your back in the playoffs, and it took the wind out of the Sharks’ sails.
OILERS RE-SHUFFLE THE DECK
|Patrick Maroon||Connor McDavid||Anton Slepyshev|
|Drake Caggiula||Leon Draisaitl||Zack Kassian|
|Milan Lucic||Ryan Nugent-Hopkins||Jordan Eberle|
|Benoit Pouliot||Mark Letestu||David Desharnais|
This is the kind of playoff performance the Oilers will need down the stretch. There are going to be plenty of nights when McDavid and Draisaitl alone aren’t going to get it done offensively. Kassian is an example for the rest of the secondary scoring to follow. If you play hard, smart and create chances, the coaching staff will reward you with ice-time.
Kassian playing the role of the unlikely hero through the first three games is reminiscent of Fernando Pisani’s performance during the 2006 Stanley Cup run. Pisani was a third-line forward who exploded for 14 playoff goals to lead all skaters in scoring during that run. Kassian had a modest seven goal, 24 point season this year, but has he caught lightning in a bottle for the playoffs? So far he has two massive game-winning goals.
We can’t kid ourselves though. Sure Kassian’s early jump is appreciated, but you get nowhere in the playoffs without goaltending. Cam Talbot has been superb in this series, and on a nightly basis, he’s been a better goalie fundamentally than his counterpart Martin Jones.
If you were a young goaltender trying to learn how to play the position, study the game tape of Talbot through the early parts of this series. He’s square to the puck, never out of position, limits rebounds, challenges shooters and has quick reactions. Talbot might not have any highlight-reel saves, but that calmness and confidence he has in the crease rubs off on his teammates.
It’s scary to see a team that has a belief that they can win any hockey game with the confidence that their goaltender is going to shut the door on the other end of the rink. The last two games have been a statement from Talbot — ‘just get me one or two, and I’ll do the rest’. So far Jones hasn’t been that for the Sharks, so it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the series unfolds.
TALBOT HAS BEEN OUTSTANDING
Talbot’s banner year continues. It’s been well documented that he broke Grant Fuhr’s long-standing record for most regular season wins in a season by an Oilers goaltender. He can now add that he’s the first Oilers goaltender to record back-to-back shutouts since Curtis Joesph in the 1998 Quarter Finals against the Colorado Avalanche. Joesph shut the door in Game 6 and 7 of that series leading to the upset over the Stanley Cup favorites.
For all the talk of how McDavid is a potential league MVP candidate (Hart Trophy), the Oilers wouldn’t be anywhere without Talbot. There’s a breakout goaltender in the playoffs nearly every year. In 2003, J-S Giguere won the Conn Smythe Trophy in a losing effort for the Anaheim Ducks, same for Cam Ward (2006) and Jonathan Quick (2012) who all used that as a coming out party. Between that there has been Matt Murray (2016), Corey Crawford (2013) and even Marc-Andre Fleury (2008).
There’s plenty of optimism in Edmonton these days, and Talbot is a big reason why teams can’t take these Oilers lightly.