It goes without saying, or even looking at the numbers, that the Edmonton Oilers are a better team when they have Cam Talbot in the goal crease. Likewise, that any push they make for the playoffs in the 49 games that remain is going to hinge on having Talbot in the blue paint for as many of those games as possible.
In that regard, it might turn out to be something of a blessing that Talbot missed seven games while nursing an upper body injury before returning to backstop the Oilers to a 3-2 win over the Minnesota Wild Saturday. It’s not that those seven games weren’t important in trying to find some post-season traction, but that built-in break could serve Talbot and the Oilers well from here on out.
Talbot, 11-10-1 with a 2.96 goals-against average and a .905 save-percentage through 23 appearances, showed he can be a workhorse last season when he saw action in 73 games. From where I sit, the Oilers are going to need to lean on him like that the rest of the way to have any kind of post-season shot. Talbot’s done it before and he’s going to have to do it again.
Even if a rested Talbot was to play every game the rest of the way without being spelled off by back-up Laurent Brossoit – it’s possible but highly unlikely – he’d still come up one game short of the 73 he played last season. The question, then, is, what’s Talbot’s number in the 49 games that remain? Looking at the schedule, my best guess is he gets 44 of the remaining games.
BACK AT IT
Talbot was terrific against Minnesota, stopping 29 of the 31 shots he faced. He didn’t show any rust from the injury-imposed lay-off. What the Oilers need now is for Talbot to maintain the form that saw him post a .919 save-percentage last season. They need it fast and they need plenty of it. Brossoit had some good stretches with Talbot on the shelf, but there’s no argument the Oilers are a better team playing in front of their No. 1 stopper.
“I would like to clean up a few things like rebound control and some reads, but all in all, I felt pretty good for the first game in two and-a-half weeks,” Talbot said. “The guys kept the first few to the outside and let me get comfortable and let me battle from there . . . the reads, the timing. I didn’t always handle the puck (right). Maybe if you’re in a rhythm, you hang onto shots and not give up second chances but I was able to clean things up.”
Talbot hasn’t allowed more than two goals in any of his last four starts, a stretch in which he’s allowed just eight goals on 109 shots – he’s been .935, .935, .920 and .909 in those four games. Of late, he’s been every bit as good as he was last season in fashioning that .919 the Oilers are going to need again the rest of the way.
The Oilers have five sets of back-to-back games remaining. They face Arizona and Las Vegas Jan. 12-13, Anaheim and San Jose Feb. 9-10, Arizona and Colorado Feb. 17-18, Calgary and San Jose March 13-14 and Florida and Tampa Bay March 17-18. If Brossoit spells Talbot off in each of those, that would put Talbot at 44 games the rest of the way.
POWER PLAY FOR PULJUJARVI
McLellan skated Jesse Puljujarvi with the second power-play unit today and it looks like, at long last, he will get his first PP time of the season when San Jose comes calling Monday. “He has steadily improved since he’s got here,” McLellan said. “He’s been able to take increments of his game up on a steady basis. We think he’s ready to go there and that he’s earned the opportunity.”
While Puljujarvi, 19, has been productive at even-strength since joining the Oilers, scoring 6-2-8 in the 16 games he’s played, McLellan said what has prompted him to make the move now is that the big Finn is better able to communicate on the ice.
“A lot of the penalty kills right now do such a good job up ice or through the neutral zone that you have to understand your role in that area and the variables that go into it sometimes on different breakouts,” McLellan said. “I think his English is improving and he has the ability to adjust on the fly. Verbally with quick changes, we find him in the right spot a lot more now than he was last year when he struggled with the language.
“A large part of it is that and once he’s in the zone, he’s got to understand where he’s got to go to alleviate pressure and to do things to be successful there but he’s improving immensely over time.”