Oilers Have a Tough but Doable Path to the 2021-22 Playoffs

It’s a great time to be a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, at least this week it is. The Oilers are playing their best hockey since the start of the 2021-22 season, having swept all three California-based NHL teams for the first time in franchise history. They are also right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. The team is rounding into form at the right time as they head into a tough final 10-game stretch of the season with a strong chance at a playoff position, and possibly one with home-ice advantage. But let’s not put the cart before the horse or plan the parade just yet. Securing a playoff spot will not be easy, and the level of compete the Oilers are going to need in the final three weeks of April might be just what they need to win a round or two should they punch their ticket to the postseason dance.

The Oilers currently find themselves in second place in the Pacific Division, sandwiched between the division-leading Calgary Flames and just ahead of the Los Angeles Kings. The team appears to be rounding into form, and that could be attributed to having a healthy roster for the first time in months as key players such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returned from the injured reserve list in late March.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nugent-Hopkins is a quiet leader on the team, and the Oilers have missed his presence during his two stints on injury reserve this season. Having Nuge back along with Zach Hyman has truly helped the Oilers’ penalty kill and Nugent-Hopkins has also made a big difference on the power-play. He’s one of those players that gets overshadowed by superstars such as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl but you can definitely see a difference in the team when he is there.

Oilers’ Goalie Mike Smith Playing His Best Hockey of the Season

Another reason for the Oilers’ climb up the standings can be attributed to the recent play of goaltender Mike Smith. The 40-year old is playing his best hockey of the 2021-22 season and is resembling the Smith of last season when he posted a .912 save percentage (SV%) in the playoffs against the Winnipeg Jets.

Mike Smith Edmonton Oilers
Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Many fans, including myself, had given Smith up for dead this season and were begging Oilers general manager Ken Holland to bring up Stuart Skinner from their American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield. The majority of the calls to bring him up to the Oilers have quieted…for now.

Related: Oilers Using Weaker Opponents to Allow Smith to Find His Game

With Smith’s age and recent injury history, you have to believe that Holland will quickly be on the horn if something does happen. If you’re an Oilers fan, you have to keep the lucky rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover nearby, hoping that Smith’s injuries are behind him.

The Final 10 Games of the Season Will Make or Break the Oilers

The Oilers head into the backstretch of the season with a tough schedule ahead of them. They’ll either rise up to their competition or the playoffs could come down to the final two games of the season against the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks on April 28 and 29. That also depends on how well the LA Kings and Vegas Golden Knights play, but right now the Oilers control their own destiny. They play the Colorado Avalanche twice in the next two weeks, if they can beat them in both games, you have to believe the Oilers might have to start being considered a legitimate threat in the West.

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Wouldn’t that be great Oilers fans? After all the years of frustration, and early playoff exits against Anaheim, Chicago (in the qualifier) and Winnipeg, the Oilers have a legitimate chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still a lot of hockey to go, and teams like the Avalanche, Flames and Minnesota Wild will have a big say in how the West will be won this year.

The best thing the Oilers might have going for them is that they will be battle-hardened by the time the playoffs start. Unless they experience a season-ending meltdown such as the 64 Phillies or Greg Norman at the 96 Masters, they should be alright. In fact, one of the last times a talented Oilers team started heating up in the final weeks before the playoffs was in 2006. That team led by Chris Pronger, and Dwayne “Rollie the Goalie” Roloson went all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Chris Pronger Edmonton Oilers
Chris Pronger, seen here with the Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

Maybe history will repeat itself. Maybe the tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen can perform out of their minds and take the team all the way. Or maybe not. Stay tuned, as it’s going to be an interesting ride.

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