What a difference a week makes.
Not even a week, actually.
Six nights earlier, the Edmonton Oilers shutout the Vancouver Canucks 3-0 for their fifth straight win and 11th in the last 13 games.
Wednesday, they were crushed 6-1 by the Toronto Maple Leafs, suffering a third consecutive loss at home to the Buds. Toronto previously defeated the Oilers 4-0 on Saturday and 3-0 on Monday at Rogers Place.
In Edmonton, they had been planning the parade route.
Now they’re seeking shelter because the sky is falling.
Questions abound after the Oilers were dramatically outclassed, being out-scored 13-1 over three games in what had been billed as a battle for best in the North.
What happened to that team that was the hottest in the NHL for the month of February?
Well, here are a few takeaways, and a look at what was, is, and could yet be.
Where Have the Goals Gone?
Over the 11-2 stretch, the Oilers averaged 4.08 goals per game. They came into the series with Toronto having gone 18 straight games scoring at least two goals – which is one more than they managed in the last three games combined.
The key to Edmonton’s hot streak was secondary scoring. The superstar duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, who on many nights over the last few seasons were the beginning and end of the Oilers offense, combined to average one goal per game during the 11-2 stretch; more than three-quarters of Edmonton’s scoring during those 13 games came from players not wearing numbers 29 or 97.
Edmonton’s supporting cast has since regressed to the mean, most conspicuously on the backend. Through 16 games, the Oilers had 13 goals from defensemen, tied with the Montreal Canadiens for first in the NHL. Nine games later, Oilers blueliners are still stuck on 13 goals.
But as scoring has dried up down the lineup, Edmonton’s former Hart Trophy winners haven’t risen to the occasion. In the last 11 games, Draisaitl has gone without scoring 10 times, McDavid has failed to score in eight of them. They combined for a single assist in the three games against Toronto.
The Oilers have long searched for others who could carry the load on those rare nights that Draisaitl and McDavid weren’t going gangbusters. This season Edmonton has largely got that depth scoring, but lately, the Dynamic Duo has been less-than-spectacular far more frequently.
History suggests this won’t continue. McDavid is now without a point in three games, just the third time that’s happened in his NHL career. Draisaitl, meanwhile, hasn’t scored a goal in seven games, tied for his longest such slump since December 2017.
At a 25.9% success rate, Edmonton’s power-play still ranks among the top 10 in the league, and second in the North Division, behind Toronto.
The Oilers didn’t strike with the man-advantage in the series against Toronto, but that wasn’t so much inefficiency as it was lack of opportunity; Edmonton went without a single power-play in two of the three games and had four in the other.
In a series where the officials largely put their whistles away, the Oilers didn’t work themselves into spots that would force Toronto to take penalties and played with less discipline than their opponents; The Leafs had a total of 10 power-play opportunities over the three games and cashed in four times.
Edmonton’s penalty kill has dropped to 76.3% this season, 22nd in the league and ahead of only Ottawa in the North. The Oilers are essentially the same team that led the NHL in 2019-20 with a 79.5% penalty-kill, and could yet rediscover that form, rather than merely showing glimpses of it every few games.
In Need of a Save
Edmonton’s concerns between the pipes, where lack of a viable alternative had forced Mikko Koskinen to play 12 of the first 13 games, were eased when Mike Smith returned from injury on Feb. 8 to make his season debut against the Ottawa Senators.
Over the next nine games, Smith went 6-0 with a 1.73 goals-against average (GAA), .944 save percentage (SV%) and blanked the opposition twice; while Koskinen went 2-1 with one shutout, a 1.93 GAA and .949 SV%.
Against Toronto, the stats weren’t quite so pretty for Smith (0-2, 3.75, .875) or Koskinen (0-1, 9.00, .700).
While the goalies didn’t get a ton of help from their blueliners against the Leafs, they notably didn’t make the big save when Edmonton needed it. The Oilers actually started strong all three nights against the Leafs but found themselves trailing early and chasing the game after first-period goals by Toronto.
The Oilers have now fallen behind by scores of 3-0 or 4-0 in four of their last five games. Against the host Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 22, they managed to dig themselves out of a 3-0 hole for a remarkable 4-3 comeback win. Against Toronto, they were hapless as the Leafs put it in park and coasted to victory.
From the day they failed to land an elite goaltender in free-agency and brought back Smith on a one-year deal, Edmonton has known that sooner or later the Oilers would have to deal with subpar goaltending. There is hope anew, however, with the recent waiver wire acquisition of netminder Alex Stalock.
Stalock, plucked from the Minnesota Wild on Monday, has a 61-49-18 record with a 2.61 GAA and .909 SV% over nine NHL seasons. The 33-year-old spent the first several years of his career with the San Jose Sharks before landing in Minnesota in 2016-17. Last season he led Wild goalies with 38 appearances, then started all four of their qualifying round games. Once he arrives in Edmonton, Stalock should get a chance to play, and could even take the ball and run with it.
Time to Regroup
Edmonton now has a couple of days off to get themselves right, before returning to action on Saturday night at Rogers Place against the Calgary Flames, who the Oilers demolished 7-1 in the Alberta rivals’ latest meeting, Feb. 20.
Are they as bad as the team that dropped three straight games at home by an average of four goals? No. Just as they aren’t as good as a team that wins 11 out of every 13 times it hits the ice. The real Oilers exist somewhere in between, somewhere closer to the latter, fans hope. Edmonton is not the first team to have gone through wild swings in this unique NHL season, and the existing evidence cautions against getting too high or feeling too low.
The Oilers are third in the North Division, one point behind Winnipeg, three ahead of Calgary. And after 25 games, maybe that’s exactly where they should be.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.