Coming off a two-game winning streak at home, the Edmonton Oilers kicked off a short three-game road trip on Nov. 23 against the Dallas Stars. With injuries to defensemen Darnell Nurse and Slater Koekkoek, the team suffered another blow when they lost Duncan Keith to an upper-body injury in a 4-1 loss to the Stars.
Still, with three of their regular left-shooting defensemen out of the lineup, the Oilers were resilient and stuck together with a “defence by committee” attitude and pulled off a 5-3 win against the Arizona Coyotes the night after. They followed it up with a hard-fought 3-2 win against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night to complete the road trip. Here are three takeaways from Edmonton’s three games in five nights.
Oilers Have Options at Right Wing on the First Line
Edmonton came out flat against the Stars, and Dallas took advantage with two goals in the first period. To try to spark the team, head coach Dave Tippett juggled his lines and united Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. For a short stint, Brendan Perlini — who averages 7:39 of ice time (TOI) — was put on the dynamic duo’s wing. It was his first chance to showcase his big shot that produced six goals in the preseason, but he looked out of place.
The following night Tippett went with a gut instinct and promoted Zack Kassian to play right wing on the top line, while Jesse Puljujarvi dropped to the third. It was worth trying, as No. 44 had his best offensive season playing with the Oilers’ captain in 2019-2020 when he put up 15 goals and 19 assists in 59 games.
The bet paid off. The line combined for 11 points, and Kassian finished with a goal and two assists. An underrated yet effective aspect of Kassian’s game has always been his ability to make a clean breakout pass to McDavid when he’s charging towards the neutral zone with speed. That exact play led to a Draisaitl goal before he scored one of his own later in the game.
Kassian lined up with McDavid again in Las Vegas, and No. 44 set up Zach Hyman for a breakaway goal. Puljujarvi, on the other hand, was also effective on the third line. He was in an eight-game scoring slump that ended when he was sprung by Evan Bouchard and beat goaltender Robin Lehner on the breakaway, tucking it in five-hole.
Kassian may not be a long-term solution on the first line, but he’s a convenient addition when offence dries up between wingers, and the team needs a new look. For now, he has performed adequately alongside McDavid, but it won’t be long until his hot streak fizzles and he drops back down to the third line. Still, it speaks volumes about the Oilers’ depth, as they can rotate wingers on the top line to see who catches fire.
Dave Tippett’s Riding the Hot Goaltender
Stuart Skinner has been a pleasant surprise with Mike Smith injured. Before the road trip, he collected his first win of the season in an emotional 2-1 shootout victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 18, making 47 out of 48 saves. He followed that up with a big win on Hockey Night in Canada against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Riding a two-game winning streak, Tippett put Skinner in net for the first game of the road trip, but the Oilers came out flat, and the Stars scored two power-play goals. Having said that, Skinner played well and made several saves on Grade A scoring chances, including one sequence when he robbed Michael Raffl on a 2-on-1.
Mikko Koskinen started between the pipes the following night against the Coyotes. He kept the Oilers in the game early and was stable all night, stopping 27 of 30 shots en route to a 5-3 win. Heading into the game against the Golden Knights, there was no indication which goaltender would be playing. However, Tippett went back to the Finnish netminder, and he put on a clinic in one of his best performances of the season.
There hasn’t been a clear plan as to which goaltender gets starting duties, but Tippett seems to be opting for the win-and-you’re-in approach right now. After Koskinen’s spectacular outing, expect him to get the start next game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Oilers are Slow Starters
For whatever reason, the Oilers notoriously start slow. In all three road games, the team came out flat. They couldn’t recover from their slow start against the Stars and took two early penalties, which Dallas capitalized on, en route to a 4-1 loss.
Against the Coyotes, again, they had trouble finding their legs. At the 3:45 mark of the first period, Clayton Keller beat Koskinen on a partial breakaway with a nice backhand deke, but Koskinen kept the team in the game early, and it wasn’t until a power-play goal by McDavid late in the period that the Oilers started to turn it around.
It was the same story against the Golden Knights when the Finnish netminder kept the team in the fight. At one point, the shots were 13-5 for Vegas, and Koskinen shut the door on Max Pacioretty twice on the same power play. The team’s slow start is a cause for concern. If their goaltenders can’t bail them out during the first 10 minutes of a game — as they have been — the Oilers might dig a hole too deep to recover from more often, like what happened against the Stars.
Nonetheless, the Oilers had a successful road trip. They showed resilience and overcame the adversity of losing yet another defenseman at the start of the trip to win two out of three games. Next up, they will look to continue their winning streak with Sidney Crosby‘s first visit to Edmonton in almost two years when they host the Penguins on Dec. 1 at Rogers Place.
First ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – CBC Radio Oilers’ Fan Panel Analyst – Freelance Writer. Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.