Believe it or not, the 2020-21 National Hockey League season is already at its midpoint.
The Edmonton Oilers will complete the first and begin the second half of their 56-game schedule this week, as they welcome the Ottawa Senators to Rogers Place for three games, Monday (7 pm MT), Wednesday (6 pm MT), and Friday (7 pm MT).
Monday’s game will be the Oilers 27th of the season, and they will have 27 remaining after completing this three-game set with the Sens.
If the Oilers’ season started with a number of questions, it’s safe to say we don’t yet have all the answers nearly two months into this abbreviated season. But that’s probably true for just about every team in the NHL.
What we do know is that the Oilers, after beating the Calgary Flames 3-2 at home on Saturday, are 15-11-0 to sit third in the North Division and hold a playoff spot. Edmonton is just one point behind the Winnipeg Jets for the second spot, but only two points ahead of the fourth-place Montreal Canadiens.
The race is tight, and with three games against Ottawa, the Oilers would seem poised to improve their standing. It was, after all, the Sens that Edmonton beat four times in 10 days not that long ago.
But the improving Sens are no longer a free spot on the bingo card, and their extended stay in Oil Country guarantees nothing, other than perhaps the unpredictability that has come to define this unique season.
With that in mind, here are a few things to look for this week.
Perfect Against Ottawa
Edmonton is 4-0 against the Senators, who are the only team in the North yet to defeat the Oilers at least once this season. In the teams’ prior meetings, the Oilers won 8-5 and 4-2 in Edmonton on Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, then beat the Sens 3-1 and 3-2 in the Nation’s Capital on Feb. 8 and 9. Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid combined to total 17 points in the four games.
That quartet of games was part of a 6-1-0 stretch for the Oilers that turned their season around after a 3-6-0 start. For Ottawa, the four games came amid a dreadful slump in which the Sens won just once in 14 games.
Since Edmonton and Ottawa last played, the Oilers are 9-5-0. In that same span, the Sens have gone 7-6-0 (including a 4-3 shootout win over Calgary on Sunday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome), having made significant strides throughout February, led by emerging young talent like Drake Batherson and Brady Tkachuk.
One of this season’s quirks is sets of three or more consecutive games against the same opponent. The Oilers have only had one such series so far, and it was, to put it mildly, an unmitigated disaster. Last week they were outscored 13-1 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in three straight home losses that, for the time being at least, knocked Edmonton out of the race for first place.
Ottawa, meanwhile, has already played four three-game series; The Sens were swept by the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg in January, then went 1-2 against Toronto in February, and most recently won their first mini-series, taking two of three from the Flames.
After facing Ottawa, Edmonton will have one more three-game series in the second half, at Montreal on March 22, 24, and 26.
First Goal Not Always a Game-Breaker
The Oilers have given up the first goal in five of their last six outings and fallen behind by a margin of 3-0 or 4-0 in four of those games, including all three against the Leafs. They did, however, rally back from 3-0 to win 4-3 in Vancouver on Feb. 23 and also trailed 1-0 in their win against the Flames on Saturday.
Furthermore, in two of Edmonton’s four wins against the Senators earlier the season, Ottawa scored first; The Sens led 1-0 during both of the games at Canadian Tire Centre, which ultimately ended 3-1 and 3-2 in favor of the visitors.
Overall, the Oilers are 5-9-0 when not scoring first; 10-2-0 when they take the initial lead.
What’s up Between the Pipes?
This week could provide some clarity, or at least insight, into the biggest of the previously mentioned questions facing the Oilers in 2021: can the goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith be good enough?
With Smith injured to start the season, Koskinen carried the load for the first few weeks. Smith made his return on Feb. 8, against these same Senators, and has gone 7-2 while posting a 2.29 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage, numbers which are far superior to those of Koskinen (7-9, 3.39, .897).
In the 11 games since being activated from LTIR, Smith has started nine and played in 10. This is notable, considering that during the entire 2019-20 season, when Edmonton coach Dave Tippett was fully committed to a 50/50 split in net, neither Koskinen nor Smith started more than four consecutive games, and that only happened once each.
Koskinen is likely to get at least one start in the three games against Ottawa, and it could be his last chance to get a foot back in the crease, given the recent acquisition of veteran netminder Alex Stalock.
Stalock, claimed off waivers from the Minnesota Wild on March 1, is currently in quarantine, and likely to see some action once he is available. The 33-year-old started the majority of Minnesota’s games in 2019-20, and it’s not hard to imagine him becoming a regular for the Oilers.
If the Oilers can continue their mastery of Ottawa, they’re poised to move back into second place in the North by week’s end, and at least stay within shouting distance of the division-leading Leafs, who Edmonton now trails by seven points.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.