The Edmonton Oilers’ exhibition game against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday night was an opportunity for coaching staff to take stock of where their team is fitness-wise and measure the level of maturity. One specific player they were likely watching closely was defenseman Philip Broberg, a rookie from Sweden who wasn’t supposed to make it to Phase 4.
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He played as Caleb Jones and others are a little banged up, and for head coach Dave Tippett, it was a safer bet than throwing the rookie on the ice during an intense playoff game. Broberg played well including facing down a shot that he successfully blocked from the deep slot.
Connor McDavid was absolutely flying during camp. Putting him in a game situation would tell if he is as dominating as he had appeared — he is. There is only one exhibition game, so everyone was going to play, who could. McDavid simply re-confirmed his status as game-ready.
And of course the coaching staff want to get a good look at the goalies and see who should start between the pipes on Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Cup Contenders Must Have Strong Goaltending
The Oilers have an enviable goaltending situation and Tippett will be challenged in his decision with who should get the first start. All four goalies (between the two teams) played well enough to deserve to start during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Half-way through the game, Oiler veteran Mike Smith stepped in for Mikko Koskinen, who at 32, is surprisingly only in his second NHL season (not counting four games played for the New York Islanders in 2010-11). (from ‘Oilers’ Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen combining for positive net presence,’ Edmonton Sun, 07/20/2020)
Both looked outstanding. Koskinen, who spent the better part of six seasons in the KHL before arriving in Edmonton for the 2018-19 season, stopped all 17 shots that he faced.
Smith looked at least as good. The only goal that he let in would have been reviewed in a regulation game. Darnell Nurse had pushed Flames player Matthew Tkachuk into Smith. It was debatable whether goaltender interference would have been called. The Sportsnet panel was split on the matter. Regardless, Smith had no chance on the play. He made several tremendous saves late in the game, as the Flames came on after a very strong start by the Oilers. Twice he had to quickly slide from post to post on 2-on-1s that saw Bennett thwarted both times by the outstretched glove-hand of Smith. The second one was easily the save of the game.
Smith stopped 19 of 20 shots fired his way. Either goalie could start Saturday, but I am guessing Smith gets the nod.
The 4-1 Outcome Was Not Indicative
The Oilers came out sharp, while the Flames ended the game strong – it was an even matchup. Both teams were hitting, albeit only once Zack Kassian laid out Erik Gustafsson along the sideboards in the Edmonton end. The hit set the tone for the rest of the game.
The one glaring difference between the two teams is the one-two punch of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. When you leave McDavid all alone and give him any space, he will capitalize almost every time and that is what happened on both of his goals on Tuesday. While Bennett shot to the glove on his opportunities, McDavid capitalized.
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McDavid’s first goal came on a cross-ice feed from Draisaitl while on the power play. Flames defender Mark Giordano and Elias Lindholm moved to the slot from the corner, knowing that McDavid was behind them, but left him completely alone. McDavid made no mistake going over Talbot’s outstretched glove hand.
On the second McDavid goal, Calgary defender Rasmus Andersson stood in the slot playing the pass, while Noah Hanifin was late coming back. There was light between the wickets and McDavid — never looking at goaltender David Rittich — slipped the puck through for the Oilers’ fourth goal of the game. The Flames left Rittich hanging out to dry.
How Far Will They Go?
Calgary will need to clean up their defensive play if they want to win any games during this Stanley Cup run. They have a strong line-up, and a speedy team but will be challenged to get past the Winnipeg Jets, who have their own superstar to contain in Patrik Laine.
The Oilers have depth in goal, a steady defensive core which is bolstered by the ever-growing confidence of Ethan Bear. And if the big guns can stay healthy, the Oilers can dispatch the Chicago Blackhawks and potentially challenge for the Cup.
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The wild-card here is the play of both James Neal and Zack Kassian. They are strong on the puck, tough players, and hard hitters. It is imperative that at least one of them, and for best results, both, are healthy throughout. They can score and they can put the fear of God into their opponents.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Tyler Ennis will be steady and will put up predictable numbers. They are both perpetual 20-plus goal scorers during the regular season, however, if Kailer Yamamoto gets his way, he is the additional depth threat that could make the Oilers nearly impossible to defend against. The 2017 22nd overall pick may just be the game-changer to take the Oilers all the way.