Oilers’ Habit of Giving Up First Goal Is Not a Recipe for Success

The Edmonton Oilers fell behind 2-0 to the Calgary Flames on Monday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome. It was the 17th time in 31 games this season, including eight of the last 11, that Edmonton’s opponent had struck first.

Pardon the pun, but If you keep playing with fire you’re going to get burnt, so it’s no surprise that the Oilers ultimately lost to the Flames, 4-3. The Alberta rivals will tangle again in Calgary on Wednesday at 8 p.m. MT.

The Oilers have rallied to win six times this season after being scored on first, which is second-most in the National Hockey League’s North Division. Such resilience is the stuff elite teams are made of.

But giving up the opening goal more than half the time? Championship contenders don’t do that, and it doesn’t take Oilers coach Dave Tippett to know that the team trailing is often left chasing the play.

Edmonton might be able to get away with it against the cellar-dwelling Ottawa Senators. Despite surrendering the first goal in three of seven meetings with Ottawa this season, the Oilers have a perfect 7-0 record against the young Sens.

Edmonton Oilers Leon Draisaitl Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Andersen
Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers gave up the first goal in all three games of their recent series with the Toronto Maple Leafs. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

But in their three-game homestand two weeks ago against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team much more experienced and talented than Ottawa, the Oilers allowed the first goal in each game and lost each time, badly.

Toronto’s average margin of victory was four goals. The Leafs took the lead, added to it, and cruised to victory. They dictated the pace, controlled the tempo.

Related: Oilers’ Takeaways From 3 Straight Losses to Maple Leafs

Toronto is atop the North standings, which where the Oilers want to be, and could be yet: Edmonton is tied with the Winnipeg Jets for the second spot, trailing Toronto by only four points. They just need to more frequently put themselves in the position of playing with the lead.

Edmonton is 12-2-0 when they get the opening goal. In fact, the Oilers have a better point percentage (.857) than the Leafs, who are 13-3-1 (.794), when scoring first. The difference is Toronto tallies first in nearly 60% of its games.

Trailing Too Often

Through 31 games, the Oilers have trailed for a total of just under 600 minutes or 32.2% of the time. That’s right on par with the Jets (32.5%), but nowhere close to the Leafs (22.2%) or the Montreal Canadiens (27.0%), who have trailed the least amount of time in the North this season. In the 2019-20 regular season, the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning were behind on the scoreboard just 23.0% of the time.

The most impressive of Edmonton’s six come-from-behind victories occurred Feb. 23 against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena, where the host team jumped ahead 3-0 in the first period before the Oilers stormed back with four unanswered goals to win 4-3. The three-goal rally was their biggest comeback since 2018-19 and is tied for the largest deficit overcome in a North Division game this season.

Edmonton similarly fought back against the Flames on Monday; After trailing 3-1 in the second period, the Oilers briefly pulled level at 3-3 on Leon Draisaitl’s goal early at 5:25 of the third period, before Flames defenceman Noah Hanifn beat Mike Smith for the winner just 1:07 later.

Related: Flames’ Hanifin Cuts Oilers’ Comeback Short With Game-Winning Goal

That marked the fifth game this season when the opponent scores first that the Oilers have rallied to tie or go in front, only to eventually taste defeat. Meanwhile, Hanifin’s game-winner was the sixth instance in 2020-21 that they have allowed a goal within two minutes after they themselves have scored a lead-changing goal, which is tied for most in the North and third in the entire NHL.

The Oilers are consistently expending so much energy in making a comeback, that they’re prone to subsequent lapses that often prove decisive.

Considering how regularly they find themselves swimming upstream, it’s remarkable that the Oilers are 18-13-0 and in the thick of the North Division race. Their no-quit attitude would serve them well in the postseason. Reversing this emerging trend of playing from behind would serve them well in getting there.

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