The National Hockey League is back into the swing of things. As the third week of the season rolls around, we’ve had a little of everything. Between injury news, suspensions and COVID-19 occurrences, nobody can say it’s been dull. The Edmonton Oilers didn’t get off to the start they were hoping for but things have rounded into form.
Some of the wins were convincing, others were downright ugly, but each of those gives you two points in the standings regardless of how the specific 60 minutes played out. The team is getting a handle on its strengths and weaknesses and the various roster additions are settling into place. With four more games to play between Monday and Sunday, the Oilers will be looking to climb atop the Scotiabank North Division standings.
A Look Back at the Past Week
Edmonton came into the week on a bit of a slide, having lost consecutive games to the Montreal Canadians, but turned things around with a hard-nosed defensive effort against the Toronto Maple Leafs. While it wasn’t the high-scoring affair most predicted when they looked at the first matchup of the year between Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, it showed that the team from Edmonton can win against tough competition even when the top players don’t have a great stat line.
Perhaps predictably, Edmonton dropped the second game of the series, splits being something of a pattern early on in the 2020-21 season. Toronto was without top centre Matthews in the second matchup, but found enough scoring to put the Oilers away, with a Mitch Marner empty-net goal sealing things late in the third period.
Injuries and Lineup Changes
Going into Sunday night’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, the Oilers have a mostly clean injury report. Their goaltending concerns are still present, with Mike Smith out indefinitely and newcomer Troy Grosenick not finished his required COVID-19 quarantine. Beyond that though, only Gaetan Haas and Oscar Klefbom’s names show up on the list. Klefbom’s situation is well known at this point and Haas is under COVID-19 protocols as well, though it isn’t clear if he has been sick, or is simply a precautionary holdout.
The Oilers lineup saw a significant shift on Sunday night with Jesse Puljujärvi taking Zack Kassian’s spot on the first-line right wing. Puljujärvi, who was creating chances consistently deserved the promotion and the bet paid off when he set up a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins goal. Kassian missed a game last week to attend the birth of his child, and celebrated his 30th birthday the same day Edmonton defeated Winnipeg. It’s possible his personal happenings were a distraction and his play will improve, but the good news for him and Oiler fans is he also got an assist on his birthday.
Otherwise, Edmonton’s lineup looks much the same as it has since the season began. There are some calls for young defenseman Evan Bouchard to draw into the lineup, but so far head coach Dave Tippett has stuck with the current group. Flirting with a .500 record, Edmonton isn’t out of the picture by anyone’s count but any sort of extended slide should mean a roster shakeup. Teams simply can’t afford a long losing streak with only 50 games to go.
Upcoming Games This Week
The Oilers play four games between January 25-31, alternating days off until the weekend, where they play on both Saturday and Sunday night. Edmonton plays more back-to-back games (11) than most of the league this season, so they’ll need to capitalize on any rest they can get. The weekly schedule is made up of familiar foes.
A second games versus the Winnipeg Jets happens Tuesday (6 p.m. MT), who the Oilers defeated Sunday in the last second of regulation, and Edmonton will not get a better chance to take four points on them than this trip. The Jets added a significant piece in Pierre-Luc Dubois this week, but lost talented scorer Patrik Laine and first-round pick Jack Roslovic, though the latter hadn’t been in the lineup this season. The players heading out are gone and the new one won’t play until he clears Canadian government protocols.
The Scotiabank North Division is shaping up as a very competitive one and it will be vital to keep pace with the division leaders. Edmonton has yet to reach overtime this season, though they came within a hair’s breadth last night, meaning each of its losses has put it two points behind the pace while each of its wins gained the full two on the given rival.
Following the Winnipeg grudge match, Edmonton hosts the Maple Leafs for what will be their third (Thursday, 8 p.m. MT) and fourth (Saturday, 5 p.m. MT) meetings in 11 days. Matthews will likely be back in the mix, and some would say the Oilers were lucky to get a series split last time. They’ll need to put forth the same level of defensive effort with a couple more goals of their own if they want to take these games versus Toronto.
There Are No Guaranteed Wins in the NHL
Sunday night, Edmonton faces a new opponent, one they have yet to meet in 2020-21. The Ottawa Senators are the Canadian franchise that seems furthest from contention, but one only needs to look at their opening-night victory versus Toronto to see that this game will require a full effort. With a game the night before, the Oilers may be playing in front of their backup goalie (either Troy Grosenick if he is eligible, or Mike Smith if he is healthy).
The Senators, in spite of an exodus of talent over the last couple seasons, have a number of good, young players. Brady Tkachuk is perhaps the most talented member of that hockey family and recent second-overall pick, Tim Stützle is a playmaker as well. If the latter is over his nagging injury, he should play his first game against countryman Leon Draisaitl, and will be looking to impress. On defence, Thomas Chabot is a rising star and the rest of the Senators roster is respectable, if not elite.
Edmonton needs to get out of the gates quickly against the Senators, taking a page out of the book of so many teams that visited a young Oiler team over the past several years of rebuilds. Young teams are more susceptible to emotion getting in the way of their success and Ottawa absolutely needs to be a team the Oilers leave in their wake in the standings this season. On paper, it looks like a complete mismatch, and Edmonton needs to make that become their reality.
After this week, the Oilers will have played all but one team in their division, the Calgary Flames. While they won’t have to wait much longer for the first of 10 matchups against the city to the south, they should have a good picture of where they stack amongst the rest by Sunday. A second victory against the Jets, another split versus Toronto and a statement game against the Senators should place them in the upper half of the rankings. With four Canadian teams making the playoffs, that would be a promising start.