With the midway point of the 2015-16 season a week away, it is next to impossible to not be impressed with the Edmonton Oilers. They still have their flaws, but to be entrenched in a battle for top spot in the Pacific Division, 37 games into the year, and seemingly growing in confidence with every game is something almost no one could have seen coming. While an improved backend, emergence of Leon Draisaitl and presence of Connor McDavid have all played huge parts in the turnaround, one could make the argument that the play of Cam Talbot has been more critical than anything else.
From a statistical standpoint, the Oilers No. 1 sits in and around the Top 15 among regular starters with a 2.47 GAA and .919 SV% — but those numbers alone to not tell the entire story. While some will argue there is no such thing as a goaltender who makes the proverbial “big save” when it matters most, it happens every night and in nearly every single game. There is no rhyme or reason as to when they will occur, as no two games are alike, but few seem to have mastered the knack of doing it on an almost nightly basis.
Talbot Exactly What Oilers Needed
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those goaltenders who have the bad habit of allowing the bad goal against at the worst possible time, and more often than not, end up crushing their team’s spirit or momentum on a given night.
Every goaltender will give up the odd stinker from time to time over the course of an NHL season, it is inevitable. The difference between the guys who turn into legit No. 1 goaltenders and the ones who are unbeatable for a stretch and god-awful for another, is how often and at what point in games those iffy goals find their way into the back of the net.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) December 26, 2016
Ask any Oilers fan what life was like prior to Talbot’s arrival and it will revolve around far too much of the latter and not nearly enough of the former. While there is no question the roster is better balanced today than in previous years, if you don’t have that guy in goal who the players believe in, the results won’t change much. Over the course of the last calendar year, the 29-year old has developed into the kind of goaltender this team has been lacking since the days of Dwayne Roloson and the results prove it.
After struggling to find consistency in his game to start 2015-16, Talbot’s season turned for the better following a 47-save performance in 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins on December 14. If you take his totals from that point on, the former New York Rangers backup has posted a 2.41 GAA and .922 SV% in his last 76 appearances.
Not surprisingly, his record over that same stretch is 36-29-9 and Edmonton is no longer looked at as a club with a gaping hole in between the pipes. Let’s not forget, the Oilers closed out last season with a backend that was slightly above AHL quality and yet he still managed to maintain a 2.34 GAA and .925 SV%.
Talbot Shines When It Matters Most
Once you combine performance with his ability to make a game-changing stop when called upon and keep the blunders to a minimum, we have what we see now. Last night’s 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings sums up Talbot’s season in a nutshell. The team played hard in front of him and managed to score a couple of goals, but needed him to bail them out at crucial spots throughout the game and saved his best for last.
With the Oilers clinging to a one-goal lead with under a minute to play, Milan Lucic inexplicably coughed up the puck in the slot but Talbot was up to the task, stoning Devin Setoguchi with a splendid pad save at point-blank range to preserve the two points.
In previous seasons, the puck would have eventually found its way over the goal line — be it because the netminder wasn’t able to shut the door or the other five guys on the ice going into all-out panic mode — that game would have gone to overtime and likely end up with Oilers on losing end.
— Cam Talbot (@ctalbot33) December 30, 2016
And therein lies the big difference. Despite the horrendous miscue, the players did what they could and waited for Cam Talbot to bail them out…as he has on countless occasions. Simply put, a team that has no confidence in their goaltender doesn’t remain calm in their own end of the rink when certain disaster is about to strike.
The Edmonton Oilers have started to resemble a confident bunch for some time now and much of that hew found swagger can be attributed to the play of the guy wearing No. 33 — as can their place in the Western Conference standings.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.