The Edmonton Oilers lost 5-3 by the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (Feb. 23), suffering a second consecutive defeat after starting 5-0 under new head coach Jay Woodcroft.
Connor McDavid scored twice, and Zach Hyman added a goal for the Oilers, who are winless at the former Ice Palace since 2009 and have exactly zero points to show for their last eight trips to Tampa.
While it’s hardly out of the ordinary for an Edmonton club that is now 12-15-3 over its last 30 games to end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard, the Oilers rarely drop a game when they so clearly outplay the opposition. There are usually several reasons and several guilty parties to blame for an Edmonton loss. But the only reason the Oilers came away empty-handed on Wednesday is goaltending.
Smith Can’t Make the Saves Oilers Need
Mike Smith was beaten four times on just 22 Lightning shots, and while a Tampa got a couple of its goals off lucky bounces, the veteran goalie’s performance left much to be desired. The Lightning scored on their third, fifth, ninth, and 15th shots of the game, building a 4-1 second period lead that would prove insurmountable for the Oilers.
This continues a troubling pattern for Smith, who has allowed at least two goals within the first six shots he’s faced in seven of his last 10 games and has given up two or more goals in the first period of nine of the last 11 games he’s started. To be blunt, Smith has played horrendously since returning to action in late December after missing 10 weeks with an undisclosed injury, going 3-6-1 with a 3.82 goals-against average and .881 save percentage. These numbers frankly flatter the netminder who turns 40 next month.
It’s never been more apparent that the Oilers do not have the goaltending needed to be part of the NHL’s upper echelon. Or at least they don’t have it in Smith, who Edmonton general manager Ken Holland is stubbornly sticking with while the Oilers’ best goalie this season, Stuart Skinner, toils in the American Hockey League.
Oilers Outplayed the Champs
Ironically, Edmonton’s sorry situation between the pipes is made particularly discouraging because of how encouraging the team looked everywhere else on the ice Wednesday, taking it to the perennial powerhouse Lightning in their barn. Edmonton won the majority of face-offs, held the bulk of zone time, and outhit and outshot the Bolts, who didn’t even record their 10th shot until the game was past its midpoint.
In seven games since Woodcroft replaced Dave Tippett, the Oilers have cut down on their mistakes and played with demonstrably more effort and drive. That spirit was evident in their 7-3 loss at home to the Minnesota Wild on Sunday (Feb. 20), where the Oilers never quit despite falling behind 4-0 13:38 into the game after Smith failed to stop all but three of Minnesota’s first seven shots.
On Wednesday, Edmonton found itself trailing 4-1 late in the second period but fought back with Hyman scoring before the intermission and McDavid tallying midway through the third to cut Tampa’s lead to one. The Oilers were all over the Lightning, pressing for the tie in the game’s final 10 minutes, but couldn’t put a fourth puck past Tampa’s Vezina-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy before Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov scored into an empty net.
Oilers Stars Have Rediscovered Their Form
Something else to feel good about in Oil Country is the recent play of McDavid, who was sublime on Wednesday, flying up and down the Amalie ice and skating circles around Lightning defenders. After scoring twice against the Lightning, Edmonton’s captain has five goals and seven assists in the last seven games for an average of 1.71 points per game, with Woodcroft behind the bench.
That’s the type of production that the Oilers have come to rely on from the multi-time Hart and Art Ross Trophies recipient, who piled up 42 points in Edmonton’s first 22 games (1.91 average) before slumping with just 19 points in his next 21 contests (0.90 average).
The other half of Edmonton’s dynamic duo, Leon Draisaitl, is back on his game, too. On Wednesday, the 26-year-old center assisted on all three Oilers’ goals, giving him eight points in the last five games. Like McDavid, Draisaitl’s output had fallen off significantly, dropping from an average of 1.95 points in Edmonton’s first 22 games to 0.83 in the next 24.
Draisaitl and McDavid now have 73 points apiece this season, tied for first in the NHL, just ahead of Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau, who has 72.
Panthers Up Next for Oilers
With performances like Wednesday’s from their forwards and defensemen, the Oilers can beat just about any team, anywhere, any time – so long as they get a caliber of goaltending that Smith is simply not providing. That will undoubtedly be the hot topic in Oil Country over the next two days leading up to Edmonton’s next game, a matinee match-up with another championship contender, Huberdeau’s Panthers, Saturday in Sunrise, Fla.
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.