The terrific thing about living in a hockey-mad city like we do is that virtually no opinion goes unchallenged when it comes to the Edmonton Oilers. If you suggest things are just fine, it’s a sure bet somebody out there will accuse you of being an apologist and a fart catcher for the home team. They’ll point out everything that’s wrong. You can set your watch by it.
Go the other way, as I did Monday when I wrote in the wake of a 1-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs that there’s no way the Oilers will make the playoffs in the Western Conference based on a 12-16-2 record after 30 games and their inability thus far to string wins together, and you get blowback the other way. “Hey, Bronte, who peed in your Cornflakes?” It’s all fair game when you offer a prediction about which way the chips are going to fall.
Here and now, I have to go back to last season to think of a three-game stretch when the Oilers played as well as they did on their just-completed three-game road trip, capped with that 7-2 waltz over the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday. That came on the heels of the loss to the Maple Leafs and a 6-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens. The Oilers took four of a possible six points and should have had six — they chased Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky but couldn’t solve Curtis McElhinney.
With five games left before Christmas, four of them at home starting against the Nashville Predators Thursday, the Oilers look like they’re rounding into form. What they still have to do is put some wins together in what’s going to be a conference-heavy schedule the rest of the way. Connor McDavid touched on that after his four-point night against the Blue Jackets. “We’ve had streaks where we’ve been alright,” he said. “We need to see it more. We need to string (together) four, five or six. We don’t have many games to give away anymore.”
That’s the bottom line. Are the Oilers capable of putting together more than two wins in a row (they’ve done it just twice this season) and getting on the kind of roll they did in the second half last season? Maybe. They need Cam Talbot to regain his form of last season after he returns from injury. It’ll help when Andrej Sekera and Adam Larsson check back into the line-up on the blueline. If the Oilers consistently play the kind of hockey we saw on this road trip it’s going to be fun the rest of the way. Still, it’s a monumental ask.
JUJHAR AND JESSE
Jujhar Khaira and Jesse Puljujarvi are distinctly different players and that’s good news for the Oilers because they both look like they’re growing into important full-time NHL roles with this team — at least that’s my takeaway after this road trip. I’m not sure if they’re all the way there yet, allowing for the ups and downs that come with an 82-game season, but they’re close.
Puljujarvi, 19, getting a look alongside McDavid, had a goal and an assist against Columbus. He fought off a checker in the slot to score his fifth goal of the season to make it 6-2 and then set-up McDavid in tight off the rush to make it 7-2. He’s been tenacious on the puck, loves to shoot it and gets things done in traffic. He has 5-2-7 in 14 games. He looks at home alongside No. 97.
Khaira, 23, who scored a couple of goals in the win in Montreal, didn’t get a point against the Jackets but played well and upped his stock by stepping in to scrap tough Nick Foligno. Khaira is a big body who can skate and he gets physically engaged — those are the calling cards of successful bottom-six guys. On top of that, he has chipped in 5-4-9 in 18 games.
If Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t looking over their shoulders at McDavid atop the NHL scoring race, they are now. McDavid, held off the sheet in Toronto despite a magnificent performance, looks healthy again and now sits third in the Art Ross Trophy derby with 39 points after that four-pointer in Columbus.
The defending Art Ross winner has eight points in his last five games. McDavid is now averaging 1.26 PPG, slightly better than the 1.22 he had on the way to 100 points last season, despite what’s been a sub-par start for the Oilers. Is there anybody betting against McDavid winning the scoring race again?
LESS IS MORE
Sometimes, less is more. That’s been the case with Kris Russell this season. Russell’s assist in the win against the Habs in Montreal gives him 2-11-13 this season, the same number of points he had in 68 games last season (1-12-13). He’s managed that while playing down in the line-up. Russell is averaging 18:14 of ice time per game compared to 21:13 in 2016-17. He played 19:12 against the Blue Jackets.