Oilers Need to Address Slow Starts to Continue Winning Ways

The Edmonton Oilers are 16-6 on the season and are in a neck and neck battle with the Calgary Flames for first in the Pacific Division. Their power-play unit is still first in the league, and they’re fourth in the league in goals scored. However, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed.

In the last 10 games, Oilers’ opponents have scored the game’s first goal seven times while also outshooting them in the opening frame. They’re 6-4 in their last 10, but had it not been for Mikko Koskinen or Stuart Skinner shutting the door early, the outcome of each game would’ve been a lot different. Edmonton appears unprepared to start the game from the get-go and regularly comes out flat and unengaged. Their slow starts may lead to more losses if this trend continues, like what happened against the Seattle Kraken.

Last Friday night, the Kraken took a 1-0 lead a minute into the game, and when Edmonton finally started to show life in the third period, it was too little too late. Ultimately, they suffered a 4-3 loss against a team near the bottom of the Pacific Division. If the Oilers’ goaltenders cannot keep the game close early, and they’re forced to play catch-up too often, we might start to see the wheels to their winning wagon begin to fall off.

Mikko Koskinen Has Bailed the Team Out Early

Let’s look at their last three wins and the team’s reliance on their goaltender to make clutch saves to start the game. On Nov. 24 against the Arizona Coyotes, the Oilers came out stale, and they were outshot 5-0 four minutes into the game. Luckily, No. 19 kept the game as close as he could. They found themselves behind when Clayton Keller beat Koskinen on a partial breakaway 3:45 minutes into the match. It wasn’t until Connor McDavid scored a power-play goal later in the period that the team started to turn it around.

Corey Perry, Mikko Koskinen
Formerly of the Anaheim Ducks’ Corey Perry is stopped by Edmonton Oilers’ Mikko Koskinen (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

In the game against the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 27, once again, had it not been for the spectacular performance by Koskinen early in the first period, the game would’ve been extremely out of reach. Only 20 seconds in, the Finnish netminder was forced to make a glove save off a Grade A chance in the slot from Max Pacioretty. When it reached the 10-minute mark of the first period, they were outshot 11-5, with No. 19 having to make numerous cross-crease desperation saves. It wasn’t until only two minutes left in the period that the tide started to turn in the Oilers favor when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins wired a shot past Robin Lehner on a two on one.

The Pittsburgh Penguins visited Rogers Place on Dec. 1, and once again, the Oilers came out flat. Seven minutes into the game, the visitors had four shots while Edmonton hadn’t even registered a shot on net. Luckily, the only Oiler at that time that had any jump in his game — Zach Hyman — skated with the puck up ice and beat Tristan Jarry on their first shot of the game. With the game tied 1-1 and as the period winded down, the home team was still outshot 9-3. As the Hockey Writers’ Rob Couch reported, it was Koskinen that kept the game close.

Related: Oilers’ 3 Must-Watch Games in December 2021

In all three wins, had No. 19 not weathered the storm and kept his team in the game early, the outcome would’ve likely been different. Having said that, Koskinen has a reputation for letting a goal in on the first shot of the game; however, this year, he’s cleaned that part up for the most part. Still, the season is young, and if his bad habits start creeping back, that might spell trouble for the Oilers.

Oilers Need to Find a Way to Start the Game With Energy

In an 82-game season, there will be nights in which the top six — more specifically McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — won’t have the hop from the get-go. They’re human, and it happens. Pucks start hopping over sticks, passes aren’t connecting, and it gets the team out of sync.

When that lull does happen, the team needs to find alternate ways to create energy, whether that’s stepping up for a big hit to set the tone, agitating, and getting in players’ faces (paging Zack Kassian), or crashing the net and getting into more scrums. Yes, the Oilers have lost four of their regular defensemen to injury, but their slow starts have been an issue long before they were hit with the injury bug.

Connor McDavid Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the Oilers are to become true Stanley Cup contenders in the NHL, they’ll have to eliminate their bad habit of starting the game slow and relying on their goaltenders to bail them out— it’s just not a recipe for success. The team must come out with a full 60-minute effort, or a drop in the standings wouldn’t be out of the question.

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