In a game that felt unnervingly familiar, the Edmonton Oilers were defeated 4-3 by the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on Thursday (March 3), battling back from deficits of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, before ultimately falling in overtime 4-3.
Evander Kane had his first two-goal game since arriving in Edmonton five weeks ago and Leon Draisaitl also scored for the Oilers, who wrapped up their five-game road trip with a 2-2-1 record. The result leaves them with 64 points through 55 games, tied for third in the Pacific Division with the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Oilers are now 7-3-1 under Jay Woodcroft but have won just two of their last six following a 5-0 start to the new coach’s tenure. While the mood around Edmonton is decidedly more upbeat and the team has largely been playing with better structure and an added jump, much of what plagued this team during the last couple of months of Woodcroft’s predecessor Dave Tippett has not gone away.
Here are three such issues that reared their ugly heads again on Thursday and if not further addressed could conspire to keep Edmonton from advancing to the playoffs and making a postseason run this Spring.
Oilers Fall Behind Early
Chicago jumped in front 1-0 when Sam Lafferty scored on the Blackhawks’ first shot, who managed to put the puck between the pads of goalie Mikko Koskinen at 2:34 of the opening period. It was the 38th time in 55 games this season that Edmonton has allowed the opening goal, including 6 of 11 games since Woodcroft took over.
As troubling as that stat is, what remains most alarming is how early the Oilers continue to be scored on 26 times in 2021-22, including four of the last seven games, the opponent’s first goal has come within the first five shots fired at Oilers netminders, while Thursday marked the 17th time this season that the opposition has gotten themselves on the board before the game was five minutes old. Furthermore, they have allowed at least two goals in the first period in five of the last six games.
The Oilers have shown it can rally from an early deficit, going 13-21-4 (2-3-1 under Woodcroft) when the opponent scores first, but the issue isn’t so much to do with their ability to come back as it is their ability to protect a lead as Edmonton is a perfect 17-0 when leading 1-0 this season. It’s hard not to imagine where they could be in the standings if they scored first half of the time.
Oilers’ Special Teams Failing Them
The special teams’ performance that had such a large role in propelling Edmonton to a 16-5-0 start and top spot in the Western Conference standings at the beginning of December is now a distant memory. While the Oilers did manage one goal in four opportunities with the man advantage on Thursday, their power-play continues to look stagnant and overly reliant on Connor McDavid to make something happen. On two of the four power plays against Chicago, they didn’t even manage a shot.
Edmonton went one-for-two on the penalty kill on Thursday, with Alex DeBrincat scoring the game-winning goal while Chicago had a four-on-three man advantage. The Oilers have now allowed at least one power-play in seven of the last eight games, with their penalty-kill operating at just 67.9 percent (19 for 28) over that span.
On Dec. 4, the Oilers had an 88.4 percent success rate on the penalty kill, second among all 32 NHL teams. Since then, they rank dead-last in the league with a 68.0 percent penalty kill over the last three months.
Koskinen Comes Back to Earth
The Oilers’ goaltending issues have been well documented. There’s Mike Smith, the soon-to-be-40-year-old that has struggled mightily when he hasn’t been injured but retains the stubborn commitment of Edmonton general manager Ken Holland. There’s Stuart Skinner, the young up-and-comer who has looked great for the Oilers in a small sample size but can’t convince Holland he’s ready to be an everyday NHLer. Finally, there’s Koskinen, the reliably unreliable 33-year-old who teases with short spurts of greatness but inevitably delivers a dud before too long.
Related: 4 Reasons the Oilers Need Skinner Starting
Koskinen’s recent run of play provided hope that, despite years of evidence suggesting otherwise, he has finally transcended his inconsistency. The veteran netminder had gone 7-0-1 since Jan. 21 and played brilliantly winning both of his starts on the Oilers’ road trip. He made 44 saves in a 4-3 victory over the Florida Panthers last Saturday (Feb. 26) and then turned aside all 39 shots in a 3-0 shutout win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday (March 1) to earn himself a second consecutive start, a rarity when Smith is healthy.
The opportunity was there for Koskinen to make a statement and perhaps establish himself as Edmonton’s go-to-goalie moving forward. Instead, he had his worst start in several weeks. While the Finnish goalie can’t be faulted for DeBrincat’s overtime winner, he could have stopped any of the other Chicago goals. Most egregious was Dominik Kubalik’s tally early in the third to put the Hawks ahead 3-2, which came when Koskinen attempted to play the puck from the net and put it right on the stick of the Chicago forward who made no mistake burying the biscuit into a yawning cage.
So it’s back to reality between the pipes for the Oilers, who continue to cycle between Smith (5-7-1, 3.53 goals-against average (GAA), .893 save percentage (SV%)) and Koskinen (19-8-3, 3.05 GAA, .904 SV%), while Skinner (6-6-0, 2.62 GAA, .913 SV%) remains in the American Hockey League.
Canadiens Up Next
Expect Smith to get the start on Saturday (March 5), when the Oilers return to action at Rogers Place where they will host the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs are vastly improved since the hiring of Martin St. Louis as interim head coach after dismissing Dominique Ducharme in early February and are coming off an impressive 5-4 road win in overtime over the Pacific Division-leading Calgary Flames on Thursday.