You can call it grasping for the silver lining if you like, but the Edmonton Oilers will be playing meaningful games as we ring in the New Year Jan. 1 for the first time in a long time. The way I see things shaping up, that could be the case well into 2016.
With their seventh straight win at Rexall Place Monday via a 3-1 decision over the Winnipeg Jets, the Oilers hit their Christmas break with a record of 15-18-2 for 32 points after 35 games. They’re 11 points better than the 21 points they had through 35 games last season, when they were 7-21-7.
More important, the Oilers sit just one point out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, thanks to a mediocre group of Pacific Division teams that, outside of the Los Angeles Kings, have not made any kind of move to separate themselves from the pack.
The Oilers have given themselves a chance, and they’ve done it without Connor McDavid, out for the last 22 games with a broken collarbone, Nail Yakupov, out with a high ankle sprain, and with Oscar Klefbom on the shelf with a broken finger. They’re in contention despite inconsistent goaltending, a power play that’s been all over the map and a defensive group that’s not good enough.
Yet, here we are.
NOT FADE AWAY?
The last time the Oilers even had so much as a sniff after 35 games was during the 48-game 2012-13 season as they went 15-13-7 for 37 points as part of a five-game winning streak. Hope hit the ditch in hurry after that as they won just once in their next 10 games.
McDavid is back skating on his own. In the last couple days he’s been shooting the puck. He’ll be back by mid-January. Yakupov and Klefbom are also on the way after a 35-game stretch that has seen the Oilers stay in the race despite being near the top of the NHL in man-games lost to injury.
The return of McDavid, who had 12 points in 13 games, and Yakupov will give coach Todd McLellan more options when it comes to how his top-nine forwards look. McDavid, Yakupov and Klefbom should inject some life back into a power play that’s slid during the time they’ve been out of the line-up.
Will Cam Talbot and Anders Nilsson provide better goaltending than what the Oilers have had until now? My best guess is they will, especially Talbot, who has an underwhelming .904 save percentage but is coming on after a difficult stretch. He made 44 saves against the Jets. The Oilers won’t need great goaltending to stay in the race. Anything in the .915 range as a team will do.
THE REST OF THE WAY
At the very least, the Oilers have stayed in the playoff conversation to this point despite some challenges and growing pains. How long they stay there is the question. If they can grab points at a .500 clip in their remaining 47 games – I say they will – it’ll be a while.
If the Oilers grab, say, 47 points the rest of the way, they’ll still come up short of qualifying for the post-season, even allowing for a mediocre division, but any buzz that lasts until the New Year is a welcome change-up around here. My take is they’ll keep fans talking into the stretch drive in March. Might they manage more than that? Dare to dream.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- After six straight appearances where Talbot had a save percentage in the .800s, he’s put together two stellar performances in his last three starts. He was .978 against the Jets and .959 in beating the Boston Bruins 3-2 Dec. 14. Those games were sandwiched around a 4-0 loss to Chicago in which he faced 37 (.892) shots Dec. 17.
- While it’s easy to poke holes in parts of his game, Teddy Purcell has been very good on a line with Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl over the past eight games. Purcell has scored 4-6-10 in that stretch, including two goals and an assist against the Jets. I don’t see him being in the plans here, but at the very least, he’s improving his trade value.
- Hall is doing an epic SIUTBOHC job on his critics. With three assists against the Jets, Hall is sitting fourth in league scoring with 15-24-39. The stunner for me, though, has been Draisaitl. I said earlier this season that I didn’t see him as a point-per-game player this year, but he’s at 9-21-30 in just 25 games.
- I’d like to wish everybody who is associated with Oilersnation and all our readers a very Merry Christmas.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.