Oilers’ Keys to Victory as They Look to Improve Record Against Canadiens

A week ago, the Edmonton Oilers battled the Toronto Maple Leafs in a two-game series at Scotiabank Centre that meant a lot to the teams’ spots in the standings, but also to their sense of confidence.

The Oilers came into the series still licking their wounds from a deflating three-game sweep at the hands of Toronto at Rogers Place in late February and early March. The Leafs out-scored Edmonton 13-1 in that series, and there was a notion the Oilers needed to show that they could compete with the Leafs, a team that will likely stand between Edmonton and an extended post-season run this spring.

Jujhar Khaira Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton Oilers forwards Jujhar Khaira (left) and Connor McDavid. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Well, the Oilers did just that, looking every bit Toronto’s equal over those two games, a 4-3 overtime loss on March 28 and a 3-2 overtime win on March 30.

It was something of a statement by the Oilers, with the added benefit of remaining very much alive in the race for first place in the National Hockey League North Division. Then they went into the Bell Centre the next night, March 31, and got out-everythinged in a 4-0 loss to the host Montreal Canadiens.

This brings us to Monday’s game that finds the Oilers back in Montreal to battle the Habs (5 p.m. Mountain Time/7 p.m. Eastern) for a second time in seven days, needing to make a point as well as pick up the two points.

For all the talk that posited the Leafs as Edmonton’s White Whale this season, it’s another potential postseason obstacle, Montreal, that has most dominated Edmonton in 2021. Thus far, the Habs are 3-1 against the Oilers, outscoring Edmonton 12-5 over the four games.

While the sample size is still relatively small, the Oilers have earned only 25% (2/8) of the available points in games with Montreal this season, compared to nearly two-thirds (45/68) of available points against the other five North Division teams.

Oilers Need Stars to Score

A big part of the Canadiens’ success has been their ability to shut down Edmonton’s potent offense: the Oilers’ goals per game against Montreal (1.75) is less than half against all other opponents (3.53). There is not a single member of Edmonton’s top-six forward group that has a goal against the Habs this season, and that includes the league’s top two scorers, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who have each scored at least once against every other team but the Canadiens.

Combined, the Dynamic Duo have 41 goals and 76 assists in 34 games against all other opponents; in four games against Montreal, they have just three assists between them.  

McDavid seems due for a big night. Edmonton’s captain has only had one stretch this season of going more than three games without a multi-point performance, and after a run of 22 points in 10 games, he’s been limited to one, zero, and one point in the last three outings. Draisaitl, meanwhile, has points in 12 of his last 14 games and picked up two critical assists in Edmonton’s 3-2 home victory over the Calgary Flames on Friday.

Schedule More Ideal This Time

The Oilers could benefit from two key factors that differentiate this rematch in Montreal from the Habs’ lopsided victory on March 30.

For one, Edmonton should be rested and ready. The Oilers haven’t played since Friday, giving them the weekend to prepare for this key game. That wasn’t the case last week when the Oilers only learned on Monday (March 29) that they would be facing the Habs the following night, hastily scheduled as a make-up for one of the three contests between Edmonton and Montreal that were postponed from March 22, 24, and 26 after Canadiens players entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol (the other two games are now set for May 10 and 11).

The Oilers, as noted, had gone to OT in Toronto the night before, and looked every bit of it. And it was because of that back-to-back scenario that Mikko Koskinen got the nod in goal, rather than Mike Smith.

Related: Oilers’ Mike Smith Proving Doubters Wrong

While the Habs have decidedly gotten the better of Koskinen (0-3; 4.00 goals-against average) Smith posted a shutout victory, 3-0 on Feb. 11, in his only appearance against Montreal so far this season. The 39-year-old veteran has been playing at an elite level since returning from injury in early February, going 13-3-1, and his career numbers when opposing the Habs (2.25 GAA; .930 save percentage) rank among his best against all 31 NHL teams.

Standings Remain Tight

Heading into action Monday, Edmonton (23-14-1, 47 points) is tied with the Winnipeg Jets (22-13-3, 47) for second in the North, six points back of the division-leading Leafs (25-10-3, 53), but only six points ahead of the fourth-place Canadiens (16-9-9, 41), who also have four games in hand on the Oilers and Jets.

The upshot of playing multi-game series against opponents this season is the opportunity to immediately reclaim ground lost in defeat. That’s not the case in this one-off, making it even more pivotal. An Oilers win puts some much-needed distance between themselves and the Habs. A loss, and whispers will start about whether they can beat Montreal.

Following Monday’s tilt, Edmonton moves on to the nation’s capital for games against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday and Friday. The Oilers have won in regulation all seven of their meetings with the Sens this season.

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