Connor McDavid and the Oilers faced the best possible opponent in their first game out of their ten-day break, defeating the defensively-challenged Columbus Blue Jackets 5-1. Tonight they face the Ottawa Senators, who have the second highest goals against average, 3.08, in the NHL.
The Oilers aren’t a defensive juggernaut by any means, sitting 26th in GAA at 2.92, but Cam Talbot has been spectacular in 16 starts since December 14th, compiling a .936 save percentage and 2.01 GAA.
McDavid could not have asked for a more favourable schedule after a three-month hiatus.
Every NHL player can suffer from a lack of confidence at times. Sidney Crosby did earlier this season, and if McDavid’s first two games after 91 days on the sidelines were against Washington and Los Angeles, he would have had a much tougher time. But after a season with virtually no positive karma the Oilers got some from the schedule maker.
Columbus on Tuesday, Ottawa tonight and the struggling Montreal Canadiens (5-20-1 in their previous 26 games) on Saturday are without a doubt the best three opponents young McDavid could face in his first three games after a 13-week layoff.
The Oilers are still in last place in the Western Conference and eight points behind Anaheim for third in the Pacific Division. They desperately need to string together some wins to give them hope they are still in the playoff race.
The playoffs are not realistic. The Oilers would need to finish 23-8-1 just to reach 92 points, the Ducks are on pace for 91, but I believe the organization needs to be within four or six points when the calendar turns to March so they have something to play for.
The Senators won’t be an easy opponent. While they are 29th in GAA, they are seventh in goals for/game at 2.74. They play an open style, and with McDavid brimming with confidence, Taylor Hall riding a six-game scoring streak and suddenly two productive scoring lines, the Oilers can exchange chances because they have the better goalie.
In Craig Anderson’s last 16 games he has a .909Sv% (46 goals on 509 shots) and 2.87 GAA, compared to Talbot’s .936sv% (32 goals on 505 shots) and 2.01 GAA. Their records are virtually the same,Talbot 7-7-2 to Anderson’s 7-8-1, because Talbot has received virtually no offensive support during his spectacular run.
The Oilers scored a paltry 25 goals in the first 15 games (1.67/game), before exploding for five versus Columbus. Meanwhile, during Anderson’s previous 16 starts the Senators have scored 43 goals while allowing 46.
The Oilers’ offence needs to start producing regularly, and the return of McDavid combined with a trio of games against the Blue Jackets, Senators and Habs should be a recipe for some much-needed offensive production.
Tuesday’s win versus Columbus had some strange TOI for the Oilers forwards. Mark Letestu played the most at 18:10, followed by Teddy Purcell 16:47, McDavid 16:43, and Matt Hendricks 15:51. The Oilers had ten minutes of PK time so Taylor Hall played a season-low 13:33, despite his line being very good at EV. Hall, Purcell and McDavid all played 13+ at EV, but Hall’s PP unit only had :31, while McDavid’s unit played 2:56 and much of that was due to them playing almost the entire two minutes on the first PP of the game, and scoring on a PP later on.
Nail Yakupov and Zack Kassian played the fewest EV minutes, likely due to Letestu playing on both special teams units. McLellan rolled four lines fairly evenly at 5×5, with Draisaitl’s line playing the most and Letestu’s the least. I’ll be interested to see how McLellan uses his lines at EV moving forward.
Justin Schultz draws back in after sitting out with the flu and Brandon Davidson returns as well. Griffin Reinhart and Adam Clendening will be the healthy scratches.
- With eight healthy D-men on the roster, McLellan has many options. If a player struggles he can sit him down for a game. It should create some healthy competition and bring out the best in the group leading up to the trade deadline.
- The Oilers and Gryba’s camp have not had any contract talks. He has been very consistent the past few months, and teams will want to acquire him at the deadline. He’s been solid on the PK, and I like his ability to break up the cycle and move guys off the puck 5-on-5. I could see them moving him, but I’d look at re-signing him if the price is right. He’d be a solid third pair defender who can kill penalties.
- Edmonton has one win in their last ten road games and are a league-worst 6-16-4 when the opposition has last change. They’ve been outscored 83-53. When McLellan hasn’t been able to get favourable matchups they’ve struggled. Their goal in their remaining 15 road games should be to play .500 hockey.
- They play in Ottawa, Montreal, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Columbus and Buffalo, and against western foes LA (2), Anaheim, Winnipeg, Arizona, San Jose and Vancouver. Nine of those teams are currently out of the playoffs.
- McDavid’s return to the lineup couldn’t have come at a better time. Fan interest was waning, but his return sent a much needed bolt of energy through the fan base that deserved it. I’m constantly amazed at the loyalty of Oilers fans, and the Oilers should never forget how lucky they are to have people who continually show up and support their team.
McDavid is what hockey, and pro sports, should be about: entertainment. Winning is great, of course, but no team wins every game. Too often there isn’t much excitement in today’s NHL, but McDavid’s breathtaking skill will make the games much more enjoyable to watch. Fans across the league will tune in to watch the Oilers down the stretch.
- Eric Gryba had one of the best lines after Tuesday’s victory. Gryba ended his 138-game goal drought seven minutes before McDavid’s stunning goal. A few shifts after McDavid’s goal Gryba leaned over and asked McDavid, “Which goal do you think was better?” Gryba joked later in our chat that at least he raised the puck while McDavid didn’t get his off the ice.
- Gryba was happy to finally score. “It was that long (when I told him 138 games)? I’m just happy I didn’t go another entire season without scoring (lets out a sigh of relief). Scoring is so much fun. I know it isn’t my job, but it is such a great feeling when you score.” He is so right. We get so caught up in the game sometimes I think we forget the simple pleasures of the game.
- Don’t expect Oscar Klefbom back for at least two weeks and probably longer. His staph infection has not allowed him to skate and he hasn’t done much working out either. I could see him being out for the entire month of February unfortunately.
- After Tuesday’s game I was heading down the hallway and saw Luke Gazdic. I said hello, and he replied “Hi,” but kept his head down. He wasn’t his usual cheery self. I knew right away what had happened. Earlier in the day Todd McLellan mentioned having eight D-men for Ottawa, and I assumed a forward would be going down. Gazdic had likely just been told he was going to be put on waivers moments before I saw him. I have a lot of respect for Gazdic, not only for the role he plays, but for how much he does in the community. He is a good man.
I choose not to discuss it on Twitter or the radio Tuesday evening, because I could see/feel his disappointment. There is a realistic chance Gazdic’s dream of playing in the NHL is over. The game has changed, and while he is a better hockey player than all of us, he’ll be hard-pressed to find a regular job in the NHL. It was tough to see his face, knowing the disappointment he must have been feeling. We should always remember the human side of the game. I hope I’m wrong and he gets another shot in the NHL. He never took his place in the NHL for granted. He talked often about how lucky he was to be in the Show.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
This was supposed to be the year the Oilers finally started to put it all together. Maybe not a lock for a playoff spot but with all those high draft picks and years of finishing at or near the bottom of the standings, Edmonton hoped to see significant improvement this year. Not even close.
The injury to Connor McDavid derailed them early in the season and they really haven’t been able to get it back on track since then. The Oilers currently sit 29th in the NHL, just two points clear of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Their -23 goal differential is also 29th and their road record, 6-16-4, is the worst in the league.
They remain as a cautionary tale for those that hope for a low finish each year. High-draft pick doesn’t always translate into immediate success.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers take advantage of the Senators leaky defence and win 4-2.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: McDavid registers a goal and an assist.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Korpikoski hasn’t scored a goal since he tallied a hat-trick on December 11th, a span of 18 games. He doesn’t score tonight, but he picks up an assist.