“They are not the Oilers of the last few years, I’ll tell you that,” said St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen after last night’s 3-1 loss in Edmonton.
Usually we hear the hollow complimentary comments about the Oilers at the pre-game skate. “They are dangerous,” “They have some skilled players,” or “We can’t get into a track meet,” have been uttered hundreds of times by opposing teams. It was BS. We all knew it.
The Oilers did have a few skilled players, for sure, and some nights they won, but teams were never scared of them. If they lost to the Oilers then it was because, “We didn’t play well,” or “We weren’t ready.” And in most cases it was true.
For the past decade the Oilers have been overmatched, but Allen’s post-game comments reflect an actual change in how the opposition views the Oilers.
It’s about time.
The Oilers haven’t looked this promising in a decade.
They are bigger.
They are stronger.
They are faster.
They are more experienced.
They battle harder.
The defence skates better.
The defence passes better.
They have a legit starting goalie.
They have actual scoring depth.
I recognize it is very early in the season, and the Oilers will struggle. There is no guarantee they’ll make the playoffs, but they are finally looking competitive.
The last time the Oilers started this well was in 2011/2012, but everyone knew that was a mirage.
They were 8-2-2 in their first twelve games, but they were winning on the back off unsustainable goaltending. Devan Dubnyk (2-2) had a .937 SV% in four games, while Nikolai Khabibulin (6-0-2) had a ridiculous .963sv%. They had stopped 331 of 347 shots.
Dubnyk had allowed eight goals in his four starts, while Khabibulin had the best short stretch of his career, allowing eight goals in eight games.
Their starting defence consisted of Tom Gilbert, Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Cam Barker, Theo Peckham and Andy Sutton. Corey Potter and Taylor Chorney were in the pressbox, while Ryan Whitney started the season on the IR.
The Oilers had a 1.33 GAA, but we watched the wins pile up knowing the bubble would burst.
In their remaining 70 games the Oilers went 24-38-8 and had a 3.08 GAA. They finished in 29th place.
A 4-1 start does not mean you should plan your playoff parties, but Allen’s comments reinforce that this edition of the Oilers is much closer to being a true playoff contender.
Even the most pessimistic observer will see the differences in their play.
They don’t wilt. They don’t get pushed off the puck as easily. They can actually defend and clear the puck out of tough areas, and they actually produce offence. The most overhyped facet of the Oilers in previous years was their team skill. They had a few skilled players, but they did not have a group of players who could produce offence. They were too one dimensional.
They rarely scored on the cycle. Second and third chance goals were a rarity. They could score the pretty goals, sometimes, but not much else.
Now this team has a diverse group of forwards who can score in different ways.
Milan Lucic played his best game of the early season, and it shouldn’t be a surprise it came against the Oilers’ toughest opponent. Historically Lucic has proven he plays better in big games, and while game five of the regular season might not seem like a big game, I’d argue it was big for the Oilers and Lucic.
While Lucic is comfortable being a vocal leader, the best way to lead is by example and last night Lucic led his young teammates. He was ferocious on the puck. He played fast, created chances and scored the winning goal.
Yesterday morning Lucic told me the game against the Blues would be a tough test. “It will be a man’s game — hard, tough — and we need to show we can compete in those games.”
They Oilers did not wilt. They weren’t overwhelmed and after the game I asked Lucic how he felt his team responded.
“I think we showed up with the right attitude, we showed up with the right mindset,” began Lucic.
“We respected our opponent, but we didn’t fear them, which was probably one of the things that was here in the past. We’re erasing that fear. They score one and Pitlick, who’s been really huge for us so far, answers back with a big goal to get us right back in it. Those are signs of a team that is starting to move in the right direction.
“We had the right approach coming into tonight, but we have to be aware it’s going to get harder as the season goes on,” said Lucic.
It is only five games, and I’d be willing to bet the Oilers will have a stretch of five games where they only win one at some point this season. They won’t prove they are a playoff team until they make the playoffs, but last night was a step in the right direction.
For the players and their fans, there finally seems to be some light at the end of the Decade of Darkness tunnel.
It’s about time.
- The main difference I see and hear from the Oilers organization is they are actually prepared to take the steps necessary to make the playoffs. In the past it seems like the organization always spoke about the end goal, and didn’t realize they needed to fill in the gaps between where they were to where they wanted to get.
Last night was one step. They have many more to go, but I sense the players, coaches and management are focusing on the process more so than than just discussing the end goal.
- Tyler Pitlick continues to impress, and he’s doing it in limited minutes. So far, 29 players have scored three or more goals, and all of them are averaging 13 minutes/game — except Pitlick. He’s only playing 8:17 per game and he has three goals on seven shots. It will be impossible to continue his ridiculous goal/min ratio, but he’s making an impact every game.
This summer Pitlck was very honest about his play last year, which began with an ineffective training camp. “I laid an egg. I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t play well,” he said. I spoke with him the day he signed a one-year extension. “I’m sick of playing in the AHL. I know I’m good enough to play in the NHL, but I have to prove it. It’s on me and I plan on going to camp and making sure I get noticed,” he continued.
He didn’t blame anyone and didn’t have any excuses. He vowed to be better and so far he’s done exactly that. Good for him.
- Early in a season, one game can really alter a goalie’s statistics. Talbot leads the NHL with four wins, but he only has a .904 SV%. In his four victories he has a .930 SV%, but he and the Oilers struggled in their lone loss to Buffalo allowing six goals on 23 shots. One game has made his overall SV% look worse than how he’s played.
Unlike the 2011 start, this time the Oilers team SV% is one that should improve and not plummet from unsustainable levels. Talbot’s performances on Tuesday and Thursday, before and after his twins were born, earned him huge praise and respect from his teammates. He was stellar, and his ability to respond after an off-night versus Buffalo, as well as dealing with the birth of twins, showed he’s mentally tough.
The Oilers are still young and they will have growing pains this year, but Talbot is showing signs he’s ready to be the guy they can rely on, and more importantly be a goalie who can win them games regardless of the opponent.