It’s a long climb up the standings, especially considering the impediments, and the baggage they were packing.
A fired coach. A power play that had disappeared. A penalty kill that was killing you. Goaltending that… Well, you know the story there.
But slowly, and maybe even surely, here come the Edmonton Oilers. Suddenly in third place in the Pacific, 5-0-1 in their last six road games and 7-2-1 in their past 10.
And more importantly than any of that, the Oilers are winning the games they have never been very adept at: Hard, competitive, tied 1-1 eight minutes into the third period. The kind of games you have to gut out. Where patience is required, and responsible defensive play happens for more than just six- and seven-minute spurts.
The Oilers scored four times in the third period Tuesday (twice into an empty net), beating the Los Angeles Kings 5-2 to sweep road games on consecutive nights in California. They’re now 3-0 under new coach Jay Woodcroft, and playing a style of hockey that we simply have not seen enough of in these parts.
“The players gotta want it. You gotta want the game,” said goalie Mike Smith, who made a series of fantastic saves to preserve a 3-2 game, before Zach Hyman and Evander Kane scored empty-netters. “The details in the game matter so much, and that comes down to the players (being) willing to do what it takes. To play a whole 60, block shots and win battles.
“Those little things in games mean so much in the grand scheme of things,” gushed the veteran goaler. “Woody has come in and upped the detail level with our players. And the players have bought in and decided that it’s now or never.”
Now or never.
It’s a big-picture look at where this Oilers team finds itself, on the heels of yet another fired coach, with a loose culture that did not give its old coach a one-goal game (or less) defensively in Dave Tippett’s final 28 games.
Todd McLellan asked for this level of defensive commitment, and when he didn’t get it he was fired. Ken Hitchcock demanded it, didn’t get it, and did not last. Tippett was up next, and his roster refused.
So maybe, just maybe, the Oilers get it now. Perhaps the necessary commitment was inside them all this time, the players just needed someone to hold the mirror up the right way.
In L.A., the Oilers played a tight, responsible game in which they were willing to go to the wire waiting for their chance to score. They didn’t gamble and give up an easy one, and in fact, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto both notched hard-working goals that provided the two points that pushed the Oilers into third place in the Pacific.
“It’s a certain style, a demanding style, and I’m very happy that the team is seeing results,” said Woodcroft. “That’s good team character when we didn’t score the first goal of the game and nobody hung their heads. We found a way to claw back. And there wasn’t a lot of real estate out there. So you had to fight for all your space.”
On the night they celebrated Drew Doughty’s 1,000th game, Smith let in a softy to open the affair, but was excellent the rest of the way. Connor McDavid had a two point night with a hard, net-front goal, and went 64 per cent in the circle. Meanwhile, Darnell Nurse was plus-3.
But it was Nugent Hopkins, whose return to form garnered much attention, scoring on a wrist shot to break open a 1-1- game in the final period, and generally playing a solid all-around game that had everyone else following. The Oilers are 7-2-1 since his return from a knee injury.
“I don’t think Nugget gets enough credit for what he brings to this team, this organization,” said Smith. “He’s just such a great leader, on and off the ice. He’s such a great character. As a player, he’s a glue guy. He’s a guy that can play up and down the lineup, kills penalties, plays on the power play… So when you’re missing a guy like that for an extended period of time, you know, those guys are hard to replace.”
Edmonton comes home to face Anaheim on Thursday, hoping to go 3-0 vs. the Pacific since Woodcroft’s arrival. They’re rolling now, and it may be just that legendary bump that a coaching change provides.
But so far, they’re beating mediocre teams with a strong defensive game.
Will it last when the competition gets tougher next week? Well, we’ll learn a few things when they travel to Tampa, Florida and Raleigh.