The Edmonton Oilers picked up two big points in their race to the playoffs with a 4-1 win over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning at Rogers Place on Saturday.
Connor McDavid scored twice, Leon Draisaitl added a goal, and Kailer Yamamoto buried the puck into an empty net for the Oilers, who got another good performance from goalie Mikko Koskinen.
After a three-game winless skid, the Oilers have rebounded with back-to-back wins against two of the last three teams to sip from Lord Stanley’s mug: Tampa Bay (2020 and 2021 champions) and the Washington Capitals (2018 champs), who Edmonton defeated in overtime, 4-3, on Thursday.
Edmonton continues to play noticeably better and with greater effort under new head coach Jay Woodcroft, improving to 9-5-1 since the dismissal of previous bench boss Dave Tippett.
There are a lot of reasons to feel good about in Oil Country right now. Most of it remains cautious optimism, as evidenced by the takeaways from Saturday’s big win over the Bolts.
Oilers Perfect When Scoring First
It’s hard to say what is the more jaw-dropping stat: is it that Edmonton has scored the first goal in only 18 of its 59 games this season? Or is it that in those 18 games they have scored first, the Oilers are a perfect 18-0?
The latest example of how imperative a strong start is for the Oilers came Saturday, when McDavid opened the scoring at 10:02 of the first period, giving his team an early lead that it would never relinquish.
Common sense tells us the Oilers are so much more successful when scoring first because having an early lead allows them to dictate the game. Or, at the very least, an early lead means they aren’t left chasing the game.
To that point, the early lead is advantageous for only so long as it can be maintained. And that’s what the Oilers did Saturday, with McDavid scoring his second goal of the night, and what would prove to be the game-winner, at 19:15 of the second period to put Edmonton in front 2-0.
McDavid’s second goal of the game was arguably more important than his first, considering that in eight of their nine previous games, Edmonton had trailed at some point over the course of 60 minutes of regulation.
Goals from Both Draisaitl and McDavid
So much is said about Edmonton being a two-man team, and how the Oilers can only go so far as Draisaitl and McDavid will take them. It’s interesting to note how infrequently this season that the dynamic duo have simultaneously shown up to save the day.
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Saturday marked just the ninth time this season -and only the third since Dec. 3 – that Draisaitl and McDavid have both scored in the same game. While that stat might be surprising, especially given the superstar centres have a combined 71 goals between them this season, what’s not surprising is how successful Edmonton is when both of Draisaitl and McDavid light the lamp, going 8-1.
This data can be interpreted through a glass half-full or half-empty perspective. In the case of the latter, one might be concerned that Draisaitl and McDavid are both scoring in only about 15% of Edmonton’s games. In the case of the former, the Oilers have a record of 24-22-4 when only one or neither scores, which is a testament to their improved offensive depth.
Woodcroft Shifting to Traditional Lineup
As any Slurpee addict can tell you, 7-Eleven is never closed. But in the case of the Oilers, their 11-7 operation appears to be shut down, at least for now.
In his first 12 games behind Edmonton’s bench, Woodcroft elected to ice a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen, a split he found success using with the Bakersfield Condors in the American Hockey League.
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The early results for Edmonton proved stellar: five wins in Woodcroft’s first five games. But the Oilers won just two of the next seven, prompting the coach to switch to a traditional lineup of 12 forwards and six blueliners for Edmonton’s game against the Calgary Flames on Monday, March 7. Woodcroft has now gone with the 12/6 split for three consecutive games, with Edmonton going 2-1.
Over Tippett’s 44 games at the helm this season, the Oilers dressed seven defensemen just once, a 6-5 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils on New Year’s Eve. All told, Edmonton is 25-19-2 with a 12/6 lineup, and 7-4-2 with an 11/7 split.
Koskinen Playing Like Never Before
Koskinen made 30 saves Saturday, improving to 9-1-2 in his last 12 starts. Most impressively, he has not surrendered more than three goals in regulation in any of those 12 starts, the longest such streak of his NHL career.
That flies in the face of the well-founded narrative that the 33-year-old Finn can’t provide consistent goaltending over an extended stretch. Is this just an aberration, or in the latter stages of his career, has Koskinen suddenly found the consistency that has thus far eluded him?
Red Wings Up Next
With Edmonton set to host the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday, it will be interesting to see whether the Oilers continue to roll with the red-hot Koskinen between the pipes, or if they will once again turn to the struggling Mike Smith in their seemingly unending and unsuccessful effort to get the 39-year-old veteran goalie on track.
The decision should be based on nothing more than which goalie provides Edmonton the best opportunity for two points, as it goes without saying how critical every game is from here on out. Less than seven weeks remain in the regular season, and and the Oilers have crept back into a playoff position. They are in third place in the Pacific Division only one point ahead of the Dallas Stars, who are the first team below the playoff cutline at ninth in the Western Conference.