Oilers Can Still Win Pacific Division Despite Elevated Competition

After a very good start for this Edmonton Oilers team this season, they have had to deal with some adversity, from a ton of injuries to some back luck. They find themselves tied in third in the Pacific Division as they head into the Christmas break.

New Competition Has Emerged

At the 20-game mark of the season, the Oilers were in great position and were dominating, not only the Pacific Division, but were atop the league. They had a record of 15-5-0 (30 points) and were a perfect 7-0-0 against teams within their division.

Edmonton Oilers Celebrate
Edmonton Oilers: Jesse Puljujarvi, Darnell Nurse, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Tyson Barrie (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

The Calgary Flames were 12-4-5 (29 points), the Anaheim Ducks were 11-7-3 (25 points), the Vegas Golden Knights were 12-9-0 (24 points), all having had an extra game played. At this point in the season, the Oilers have since been passed by each of them and have the lowest win percentage of the four teams. They do still have a couple of games in hand on Vegas and Anaheim.

Having said that, the Oilers are tied with the Golden Knights with the least amount of total losses (regulation and overtime), the second-most wins, while also ranking second in regulation wins, the first tiebreaker.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Oilers are 2-0-0 against a team that was and may still be favourites to win the division. The Golden Knights sit in first in the division with 40 points through 31 games, have won five in a row, and are 8-2-0 in their past 10.

Not taking into account the amount of players that have been sidelined by COVID over the past little bit, this is a team that is finally getting back to full health after really fighting to win games with a number of their top players injured for a significant amount of time (“Golden Knights’ injuries, COVID absences don’t slow them down”, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nov. 21, 2021).

The team went from an injured Alex Tuch to a recovering Jack Eichel, who will really elevate this team once he returns. Nolan Patrick has only played four games this season as his injury troubles that have plagued his career are once again present. Though Alex Martinez has been sidelined for 20 games, Dylan Coghlan and Zach Whitecloud have filled in nicely.

Big contributors in Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson have also missed about half of their season thus far and many young players have had to step up.

A big knock against this team is how their lack of ability to prevent goals this season combined with the alarmingly low save percentage (SV%) of the starter, Robin Lehner. He holds a 3.04 goals-against average (GAA) and a .905 SV%. The team has allowed the 13th highest goals-against per game in the league while only having three combined man-games lost from the top-four defencemen.

They haven’t had difficulty scoring, but the Golden Knights will have to figure things out on the back-end if they want to continue to win games because goals won’t come so easily all year.

Anaheim Ducks

Everyone keeps waiting for the Ducks to trail off, but they continue to win and put up points in a highly-competitive top of the Pacific Division. They are backed by an elite goalie in John Gibson who is finally getting the help he needs in front of him.

The young players on this team have stepped up in a major way, including the Calder Trophy frontrunner Trevor Zegras. Troy Terry has been very impressive and Ryan Getzlaf has seen a career revitalized to an extent. Not many thought the pace Terry and Getzlaf were on could be sustained for an entire season, and already we’ve seen a regression.

Troy Terry Anaheim Ducks
Troy Terry, Anaheim Ducks (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The Ducks should still have Terry and Zegras end up with 60-plus points, but it’s a lot lower than what a couple of Ducks were on pace for near the start of the season.

This is still a very young team. They may be able to continue their play for an entire season, but not to the level they need to be to win the Pacific Division over the likes of the Oilers, Golden Knights, or Flames.

Calgary Flames

The Flames have been dominant on the road this season, winning 11 games, good for second in the league. But they have been walked over at home with a 4-3-4 record, not something that will go over well as the season progresses. Wins don’t come easy in any sense, but typically the home team has an advantage. If the Flames can’t establish any advantage at home, we will see them continue to fall in the standings.

The Flames have been on a bit of a downward spiral as of late as well, winning one game in regulation/overtime in the past eight, while losing four games in a row. Another worrisome stat is that they are 2-4-1 against division opponents this season. They can dominate the Eastern Conference all they like, but it comes down to getting out of your own division when the games matter the most.

The league-leading least amount of goals allowed (62) has been a strong point of the team, but their offence hasn’t been on the same level as the Oilers, Ducks, and Golden Knights. Jacob Markstrom and Daniel Vladar can’t keep up a record number of shutouts for the entire season, and that has already started to subside, as the team’s last shutout came in game 19.

The Flames are an improved team from last season, but the big question is if they can sustain the defensive play and score more goals.

There are over 50 more games yet to be played, a lot of time for them to build off of their recent games and get back to full strength for what is shaping up to be an interesting and exciting race.

Oilers’ Starting to Get Healthy

Things started to go downhill for the Oilers once all three of their starting left defence got injured in a matter of five days. Darnell Nurse and Slater Koekkoek were projected to miss three to four weeks each on the same day, while Duncan Keith ended up missing three weeks with an upper-body injury.

Darnell Nurse OIlers
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This forced the Oilers to call up three defencemen from their American Hockey League (AHL) team, two of which hadn’t played a single game in the NHL to that point, Marcus Niemelainen and Philip Broberg. They navigated the waters early, going 4-1-0 without Nurse and Koekkoek before the team’s six-game losing streak.

Cody Ceci was the next to be sidelined while he waited through COVID-protocol, one game into the losing streak. All four of the names mentioned are now healthy, despite Kris Russell and Niemelainen now landing on the injured reserve. With a fully healthy defence group, it’s debatable whether or not either of them would get much playing time anyway.

Take into account that many of the Oilers’ players that recently entered the COVID-protocol over the past few days should be available to play once games start back up after the holidays.

Great news on the injury front in net, as Mike Smith, who has played just over two games this season before getting injured, is close to returning to the lineup. A break for the Oilers could give him the necessary extra time to have him available for the team’s first game back.

Broke the Slump

The six-game losing streak has come to an end and the Oilers are coming off back-to-back hard-fought wins. It may have been a scoring slump, but the Oilers sure didn’t play poorly for many of the games that they lost in a row. They were outshooting opponents by a wide margin with not much luck to be had.

In the first 24 games of the season, the Oilers only registered 40 or more shots on goal in a game once. In their past five games, they’ve topped 40 shots three times. Only one time in the past eight games for the Oilers has the team PDO (on-ice shooting percentage plus on-ice save percentage) been above 100. Every team’s PDO should add up to an average of 100, and if a team or player’s PDO is above the average then they are considered luckier.

Related: Oilers’ 3 Early Christmas Gifts for 2021-22 Season

With the sheer number of shots the Oilers have been taking and the little amount that has gone in the net, it’s not surprising that luck hasn’t been on their side. Over a larger sample size, the Oilers can expect that luck to turn back in their favour, even in games they are outshot.

It should be a nice reset for the Oilers with a number of players expected to be ready when the team returns to action. They also look to stay in the win column after back-to-back wins, giving them some much-needed confidence heading into their break.

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