Oilers Need to Make Statement in Series With the Canadiens

Three weeks ago, the Edmonton Oilers crucially gained confidence by taking three of four points in a from a two-game set with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Going into that series at the Scotiabank Arena, Edmonton was just 2-5 against Toronto and had lost their previous three meetings with the Leafs by a combined score of 13-1. Questions abound about whether the Oilers could compete with Toronto should the North Division clubs cross paths in the National Hockey League playoffs. In those two games, a 3-2 overtime win (March 29) and a 4-3 OT loss (March 27), the Oilers demonstrated that they could hang with the division-leading Leafs.

Now the Oilers find themselves in a similar situation as they prepare to host the Montreal Canadiens for two games at Rogers Place on Monday (7 p.m. Mountain Time) and Wednesday (8 p.m. Mountain Time).

The Oilers went toe-to-toe with Toronto. They’re 5-2 with four straight wins against the second-place Winnipeg Jets. And though they’re unlikely to see any of the other North Division teams in the post-season, the Oilers have winning records against the Calgary Flames (5-3-0) and Vancouver Canucks (3-2-0), and recently completed a record-setting nine-game sweep of the Ottawa Senators. It’s just those darn Habs that Edmonton has yet to solve.

Montreal is 4-1-0 against the Oilers this season, including convincing wins of 5-1 (Jan. 16), 4-0 (March 30), and 4-0 (March 30). In the teams’ most recent meeting, April 5 at the Bell Centre, the Canadiens won 3-2 in overtime. Edmonton’s lone victory, 3-0, came Feb. 11 in Montreal.

Escaping the Montreal Lockdown

The Canadiens have thrown a wet blanket over Edmonton’s offensive firepower: the Oilers’ goals per game against Montreal (1.40) is not even a third of what they average against all other opponents (3.42). No member of Edmonton’s top-six forward group has scored against the Habs, most glaringly Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Montreal’s blueline corps features players, like the six-foot-three Jeff Petry, that possess both the size and mobility to make life particularly difficult for the dynamic duo. Draisaitl and McDavid have combined for 45 goals and 85 assists in 38 games against all other opponents, but each has just two assists through five match-ups with Montreal.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A solution is for Edmonton to draw more penalties against the Habs, giving their superstars more time and space to operate: At five-on-five, Montreal is among the NHL’s best, allowing the fewest goals (1.94), fewest scoring chances (23.34), and fewest high danger chances (9.21) per 60 minutes in the North Division; but short-handed, the Canadiens are highly susceptible, ranking near the bottom of the league with a 77.2% penalty kill rate.

Considering it owns the North’s top power-play at 27.0%, Edmonton should be able to feast on the Habs’ PK. But the Oilers have scored twice with the man-advantage against Montreal, largely because they’ve had two or fewer power-play opportunities in three of their five meetings.

Finding a Way to Win

Ultimately, beating Montreal may need to be about giving up fewer goals, as opposed to scoring more. It’s notable then, that Edmonton’s two goaltenders have markedly different results against the Canadiens in 2021: Mike Smith, who missed the first few weeks of the season due to injury, is 1-0-1 with a 1.45 goals-against average (GAA) and .971 save percentage (SV%); Mikko Koskinen is 0-3-0 with a 4.04 GAA and .882 SV%.

Smith, who has emerged as Edmonton’s clear-cut No. 1 goaltender, will start at least one of the two games; and quite possibly both, considering the Oilers have four days off before they next play, April 26 at Winnipeg.

Given their struggles against Montreal to this point, the Oilers will want to make a statement in these two games; if not for their own self-belief, then to at least silence external chatter that the Habs have their number.

But these two games are also critical to the standings. Edmonton (26-15-2) currently sits third in the North, three points back of the Jets, with two games in hand. Montreal (19-14-9) is in fourth place, seven points behind the Oilers, with a six-point lead on Calgary for the division’s final playoff berth.

The Oilers are coming off a 3-0 win in Winnipeg on Saturday evening, while Montreal was blanked 4-0 by the visiting Senators in its last outing. After Wednesday’s game, the Canadiens and Oilers will see each other two more times in the regular season, May 10 and 12 in Montreal.