Oilers Must Take Advantage of Back-to-Backs to Win Pacific Division

The NHL powers that be had a challenging time scheduling an equal number of back-to-back games for each team because of the Olympic break in February. Generally, playing on consecutive nights is a disadvantage. Factor in less recovery time for nagging injuries and a lack of sleep if you’re the road team, and it’s easy to understand why back-to-back games aren’t favoured by players.

A 2014 study showed that the more rested team is more likely to have a better overall game and a higher win rate, whereas the team playing the back-to-back was more fatigued and saw a dip in performance. Fortunately, the Edmonton Oilers have the fewest back-to-back games in the NHL this season. 

The Oilers are in luck with only eight back-to-back games scheduled, while the New York Islanders play the most, with a staggering 19. While the Oilers didn’t create their schedule, they’ll try to use it to their advantage and challenge for the top of their division.  

Advantage Over the Pacific Division

Heading into the season, the Pacific Division might be the weakest in the league. The Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks finished in the bottom three of the Western Conference last season, while the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks missed the playoffs, and the Seattle Kraken will be unpredictable in their inaugural year.  

With the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Derek Ryan, Cody Ceci and Duncan Keith — on paper — the Oilers should challenge the Vegas Golden Knights for first place in the division, but they’ll also use the ace up their sleeve, which is significantly fewer back-to-back games than their division rivals.

J.T. Miller, Mike Smith
Vancouver Canucks J.T. Miller is stopped by Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith.

With eight back-to-backs, the Oilers will be more rested than the Sharks (who have 12 back-to-backs), Canucks (12), Golden Knights (12), Ducks (13), Flames (14), Kraken (15) and Kings (17). This should put the rest of the Pacific Division at a slight disadvantage to the Oilers.

Oilers Are Good in Back-to-Back Games

Despite their favourable schedule, the Oilers have been quite good in back-to-back games over the last two seasons.

In the shortened 2019-2020 season, they played eight back-to-back games and won seven. Last season, they played in 10 back-to-backs, and again won seven. There’s no definitive answer as to why the team has been good in back-to-back scenarios, but it helped that their best players shined.

Related: Edmonton Oilers 2021- 2022 Season Preview Section

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were workhorses in the 2020-21 shortened season and both players had tremendous outings in back-to-backs. McDavid registered nine goals and 11 assists in 10 games, while Draisaitl netted three goals and 12 assists in 10 games. Perhaps chalk it up to youthful legs, but the duo feasted on the North Division.

Koskinen Has Been Excellent

Mike Smith looks like the early option to have the starting position in goal, but the Oilers have the luxury of icing two very capable goalies; Smith and Mikko Koskinen combined for a .910 save percentage (SV%) last season. Koskinen is often criticized for his play, but he’s been exceptional in the latter half of the back-to-back contests. Over the last two seasons, playing in 11 games in the latter half of a back-to-back, he has an 8-3 record and a 0.939 SV% (from “Mikko Koskinen, King of the Back-to-Backs, Leads Edmonton Oilers Into Montreal” Edmonton Journal, 3/30/21).

Although the team has played exceptionally well in back-to-back scenarios, their advantage lies in playing four less back-to-back games than their biggest competitor in the Pacific Division, the Golden Knights. When comparing both teams’ schedules, the Oilers play eight back-to-back games, with seven games on the road and one at home. The Golden Knights play 12 back-to-backs, with 11 road games and only three against Pacific Division teams. Simply put, the Golden Knights are travelling more in those scenarios compared to the Oilers. Last season, the entire league had the luxury of less travel as they only played within their division. This year, with the return to a regular schedule and cross-conference games, fatigue will be a factor as the grind of an 82-game schedule takes its toll.

When considering the findings of the study completed in 2014 that the team playing the back-to-back game tend to have a lower winning percentage, and in combination of additional travel and fatigue for the Golden Knights, they’re at a slight disadvantage of eight potential points, compared to the Oilers. The two teams will square off with one another for the first time this season on October 22, 2021.

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