The Edmonton Oilers beat the Buffalo Sabres 6-1 at Rogers Place on Thursday (March 17), winning for a fourth straight time as they continue their drive towards the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
11 players had at least one point for the Oilers, who got goals from Tyson Barrie, Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Darnell Nurse, Devin Shore and Kailer Yamamoto. Having defeated the Detroit Red Wings 7-5 on Tuesday (March 15), Edmonton now has scored six or more goals in consecutive games for the first time in almost four years, March 20 and 22, 2018.
Making his first appearance in 12 days after being sidelined by a “non-COVID illness”, goalie Mike Smith turned aside 27 of 28 shots by the Sabres, with Buffalo’s lone goal coming off the stick of right winger Victor Olofsson.
Now 11-5-1 since Jay Woodcroft replaced Dave Tippett behind their bench, the Oilers are doing all the things needed to make the postseason and showing signs of a team that could make some noise once it gets there. Here are three takeaways from Edmonton’s victory over the Sabres.
Yamamoto Turns the Corner
There is still one-quarter of the schedule remaining, but it appears safe to officially declare 2021-22 a bounceback season for Yamamoto, who opened the scoring Thursday and assisted on McDavid’s game-winning goal, giving him three consecutive games with one goal and one helper.
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The 23-year-old winger’s struggles were well documented. Following his breakout performance in 2019-20, when he put up 11 goals and 15 assists in 27 games, Yamamoto’s production plummeted last season, when he managed just eight goals and 13 assists in 52 games.
After ending 2020-21 with just one goal in his final 25 appearances, Yamamoto opened this season by failing to record a single point in Edmonton’s first seven games before finally getting off the schneid with his first goal of 2021-22 against the Seattle Kraken on Nov. 1.
The sparkplug from Spokane now has 15 goals and 12 assists in his last 53 games, and if he continues to score at that pace over Edmonton’s remaining 21 games, he’ll top 20 goals for the first time in his NHL career. Meanwhile, he continues to do a lot of the little things that don’t show up on the scoresheet and has earned the confidence of Woodcroft, who is deploying Yamamoto in all situations, from power play to penalty kill to when the Oilers are protecting a lead late.
Last September, Yamamoto signed a one-year $1.175 million extension with the Oilers that was described as a “prove-it” contract. Safe to say, he’s definitely proven himself and should be in for a healthy pay raise this coming offseason. But before then, he’ll be looked upon to play a big role for the Oilers this spring.
Oilers Show Killer Instinct
Edmonton’s propensity for giving up the game’s opening goal this season has defied logic. It’s happened 41 times, and the Oilers are 14-23-4 in those games when the opponent scores first.
Meanwhile, Edmonton has a perfect record when it opens the scoring, improving to 20-0-0 after Yamamoto broke the seal on Thursday’s contest with his goal 7:21 into the contest. The Oilers have now scored the game’s first goal in a season-high three consecutive games.
Going out in front is an obvious recipe for success, as the Oilers’ record can attest. But just as important is what Edmonton does with that early lead, and that’s the most encouraging aspect of the Oilers’ bell-to-bell domination of Buffalo.
In Tuesday’s win against Detroit, the Oilers simply didn’t lock things down. After leading 3-0 and then 4-1 in the first period, they allowed the Wings to storm all the way back and tie things up at four early in the third period. Then, after the Oilers had retaken the lead at 5-4, they again conceded a game-tying goal, before eventually pulling out the victory with a pair of late goals, including one into an empty net.
Contrast that with Thursday’s performance. Edmonton took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission, built their advantage to 4-0 through 40 minutes, and after Olofsson made it 4-1 early in the third period, responded with two goals to bury Buffalo.
Against a young team near the bottom of the standings like Detroit, the Oilers can get away with taking their foot off the gas. But that won’t be the case against experienced Stanley Cup contenders in the playoffs. If they want to go anywhere, they need to deliver that knockout blow when the opponent is on the ropes, and Edmonton demonstrated that killer instinct against the Sabres.
Oilers’ Scoring Depth Emerges
For a second consecutive game, six different Oilers lit the lamp on Thursday. Edmonton continues to get goals from all over its lineup, an emerging theme since Woodcroft was named head coach on Feb. 10.
In the Oilers’ 17 games under their new coach, 16 players have at least one goal, nine have scored three or more, and five have found the back of the net at least seven times. With Tippett in charge over the first 44 games, Edmonton’s top three goal scorers – Draisaitl, McDavid, and Zach Hyman – accounted for virtually half of Edmonton’s offensive output (69 of 140 goals).
A number of Oilers already have more goals since Woodcroft took over than they’d scored before the coaching change, most notably in the bottom six, where Derek Ryan’s season total has gone from three to eight goals and Shore’s total has jumped from two goals to five.
Edmonton has been rightly criticized as being a two-player team, and that over-reliance on Draisaitl and McDavid is the reason the Oilers have only one postseason win since 2017.
The 17-game sample size of Woodcroft’s tenure essentially equates to the number of times a team would play over three playoff series. And the only way a team gets to play three – or more – rounds in the playoffs is by having roughly half its lineup scoring once every few games, and that’s exactly what Edmonton has done with Woodcroft at the helm.
Devils Up Next
The Oilers return to action on Saturday (March 19), when they host the New Jersey Devils for a matinee at Rogers Place in what will be Edmonton’s last game before the trade deadline passes on Monday (March 21) afternoon.
The Oilers are now in a playoff position, currently third in the Pacific Division standings. However, their lead over the fourth-place Vegas Golden Knights is just two points. With a tougher schedule ahead, picking up a win against a Devils team that sits at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division standings is important.
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.