With all of the talks of streaks around these parts recently, one that flew under the radar is the six game winning streak tonight’s vistors the Edmonton Oilers only had snapped on Tuesday at MSG. And in an absolute kitty-litter-covering-kindergartner-vomit-on-astroturf-carpeting Pacific Division, that’s been enough to actually have the Oilers in the playoff conversation. And all without their most recent franchise cornerstone Conor McDavid.
While this season started out hilariously bad once again for the Oilers, the fact that they had an actual adult behind the bench in Todd MacLellan likely meant that they couldn’t be held down for too long while bevy of young talent at forward finally learned structure. And in fact, the Oilers currently boast an identical 48.1% share of 5v5 attempts as they did for last year. But aside from the numbers, there is actual visual evidence of the Oilers adhering far more to some semblance of a defensive structure rather than looking like a Rorschach splatter (in every sense of the word) in their own end by collapsing towards the middle more frequently.
What hasn’t helped is the roster churn on the Oilers’ blue line, where Oscar Klefbom will miss tonight’s game with a broken hand, overpaid statistical darling Mark Fayne is in the AHL, and Justin Schultz hasn’t produced much (3A) since returning three weeks ago. The bulk of the responsibility has fallen to Andrej Sekera and Darnell Nurse, who would make fine second pairing, but in the West taking on the opposition’s best has caused Nurse’s promising early returns in the possession department to plummet. The kid is obviously going to be a menace for years given his size, skill, and demeanor, but he’s really swimming upstream right now to the tune of a 43% share, worst among Oiler defensemen.
What has helped however has been the Oilers finally getting representative NHL goaltending in the form of Hawks castoff Anders Nilsson, who was a throw-in from the Islanders in the Nick Leddy deal (sky point). Nilsson has managed to avoid contracting whatever terminal condition is affecting heir-apparent Cam Talbot (and every other Edmonton goalie since a fluke Dwayne Roloson playoff run), and it’s been enough to keep the Oilers in the conversation in the trash ass Pacific. Nilsson is currently sporting a .914 overall save percentage, stopping .918 at evens and .924 on the road. And while those numbers might raise an eyebrow around here as to what exactly LOCAL GUY Scott Darling does better, the fact of the matter is that scouting all but the upper echelon of goaltending is a complete and utter crapshoot.
In Connor McDavid’s absence, Leon Draisaitl has seized his first real opportunity in the show with 27 points in 22 games, and driving play at a team best 52.5% rate. Of course it’s a soft enough landing to play with the best left wing in the game in Taylor Hall, whose incredible production has somehow managed to become an afterthought playing for a punchline franchise. Hall has 35 points in 32 games, and despite having an unfortunately equine face, is possibly the fastest, smoothest skating player the league has seen since Mike Modano before Ken Hitchcock and batshit right wing politics got ahold of him. Hall and Draisaitl got basically whatever they wanted looking at Toews and Hossa all night the last time the Hawks were in Edmonton, so it doesn’t feel like MacLellan will blink at the matchup here without last change.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, now that the streak is over, hopefully some of the realities of this team can be addressed. First and foremost is the lack of scoring depth outside of the second line, particularly from Toews and Hossa, whose numbers are down in basically every conceivable category. They won’t get a break tonight having to chase 4 and 29 in the slick white threads all over the ice tonight, so the hope is that they can at least hold them at bay because making them play defense seems unlikely at this point.
There is also the issue of a complete lack of speed on the blue line, which was not helped in the least in the acquisition of Rob Scuderi, and the pairing of him and Michal Rozsival was promptly clowned early into the second period by Blake Fucking Comeau of all people. While at home Quenneville should be able to get them out against the Oilers less-than-swift bottom six, but if they get caught out there on an icing call, it will be best to slam the blast doors shut.
Corey Crawford allowing two goals on counter-attacks from the Avalanche is far from his worst performance of the year, but it wasn’t good enough given the Hawks’ struggles with the Avalanche. He’ll get a similar workout tonight if Toews can’t keep Draisaitl lassoed.
The Hawks got a point they probably shouldn’t have on the first stop of the Circus Trip in Edmonton last month, as the Oilers made the Hawks skate with them on the fast ice, something they’re not as equipped to do with them as in years past. That strategy isn’t likely to change tonight, but Hall and Draisaitl will need to be held off the scoresheet for the Hawks to have a chance.
If you’re heading to the game tonight, pick up a copy of our gameday program that we sell outside the United Center. If you’re not going, you can get the digital version right here.