The stage seemed perfectly set for the Edmonton Oilers to make a statement in their first game following NHL All-Star Weekend against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday (Feb. 8) at Rogers Place.
Not only was Edmonton red hot, having picked up at least a point in each of their last six straight games with a 5-0-1 record over that span, the Oilers’ No. 1 netminder Mike Smith was back from injury, while star free-agent addition Evander Kane would be making his home debut.
Well, the Oilers made a statement against the first-place team in the Pacific Division, but not to the effect of, ‘We’re a force to be reckoned with in the second half of the 2021-22 NHL season. More like, ‘We don’t belong in the same conversation of the league’s upper echelon.’
The Golden Knights scored early and often, while Edmonton did neither in a deflating 4-0 loss on home ice. All the positive energy that the Oilers had created over two weeks leading into the All-Star break was sucked out of the building in one night with a performance that was far too reminiscent of Edmonton’s 2-11-2 slump spanning most of December and January.
Fortunately, one game does not a season make because if you’re looking for positives to take away from Tuesday’s game, there are zero to be found.
Smith Struggles in Return
Things couldn’t have started much worse for the oft-injured Smith, who was making his first appearance since Jan. 5, and only his fourth since being hurt against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 19, which also happened to be the last time he played at home.
The veteran goalie had barely broken a sweat before having to dig the puck out of the back of his net, as he allowed goals on the Knights’ third and sixth shots of the game, with Brett Howden scoring at 9:59 of the first period, and William Karlsson tallying less than seven minutes later. NHL All-Star Breakaway Challenge champ Alex Pietrangelo (in the second period) and Reilly Smith (third period) also scored for the Knights, who fired 28 shots at Smith.
Over his last five starts, going back to the Anaheim game, Smith has surrendered the game’s opening goal on the opponents’ third shot four times and second shot once. In four of those five starts, he’s been scored on twice inside the first 17 minutes.
This is in keeping with the M.O. of the 2021-22 Oilers. Edmonton has now allowed the first goal 31 times this season, tied with the Seattle Kraken for most in the NHL, including 19 times in the last 22 games and 28 of the previous 34.
Most attribute these dubious stats to goalie Mikko Koskinen, whose reputation for allowing early goals pre-dates this season. But no Oilers goalie has a worse track record in 2021-22 than Smith, who has given up the first goal inside the first three shots in five of seven starts. Koskinen has been scored on inside of the first three shots in nine games, though he has made nearly four times as many starts (25) as Smith. Stuart Skinner, meanwhile, has been scored on within the first three shots in two of the 11 contests he has started.
Even more troubling than Edmonton’s inability to get that first goal is how it’s become normalized. It happens so often that reporters barely bring up the topic during post-game media availability anymore. After all, they’ve been asking the same questions about Edmonton’s terrible starts for months, and the Oilers have been offering up the same stock answers, which, judging by the fact nothing has changed, amount to nothing more than lip service.
Oilers’ Home Ice Disadvantage
With this latest stinker, the Oilers have now lost eight of their last 11 games at Rogers Place over a span of 10 weeks. Seven of those eight losses have come by at least two goals, and five are by three or more. They’ve given their fans little to cheer about during this 11-game stretch, having scored one goal or less seven times.
These recent woes at Rogers Place come in stark contrast to Edmonton’s first 10 home games of the season, which saw the Oilers go 9-1.
Of note, Edmonton’s home games have been limited to 50% capacity over the last several weeks due to provincial restrictions related to COVID. That is slated to change, as the Alberta government announced on Tuesday it plans to end capacity limitations on March 1. It will be interesting to watch if playing in front of more at their 18,500-seat arena helps the Oilers.
Tippett’s Curious Line Shake-Ups
After finding success using certain combinations over Edmonton’s final games before the All-Star break, Oilers coach Dave Tippett inexplicably threw his lines back in a blender before Tuesday’s tilt. The result was zero goals from a team that had lit the lamp 25 times over its 5-0-1 surge.
Tippett’s most conspicuous move was replacing Jesse Puljujarvi with Zack Kassian to the right of Leon Draisaitl on Edmonton’s second line. Draisaitl excelled with the Finnish forward, tallying six goals and three assists in the previous six games.
As is often the case when things get desperate, Tippett loaded up his top line with Connor McDavid and Draisaitl to start the third period when Edmonton was trailing 3-0. The result was a breakdown that led to Reilly scoring just 14 seconds into the final frame, effectively putting the game out of reach.
Oilers Face Blackhawks Next
The good news for the Oilers is that they don’t have to stew on this loss. Edmonton has rare home games on back-to-back nights, with the Chicago Blackhawks visiting Rogers Place on Wednesday (Feb. 9). We’ll see whether Tippet puts Puljujarvi back with Draisaitl, but Skinner is a near certainty of getting the start in goal. Skinner was also the goalie of record when Edmonton beat the Hawks 5-2 at Rogers Place on Nov. 20.
Chicago is near the bottom of the standings and has won just once in its last eight games. Suffice to say, this is a game the Oilers should (and, frankly, needs) to win, but at this point, Edmonton is not a team that can take anything for granted.
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.