Like a much-needed blast from the past, the Edmonton Oilers hit the 30-game mark of this season with a 1-0 win over the Calgary Flames at Rogers Place on Sunday, a victory that improved them to 7-2-1 under new head coach Ken Hitchcock and 16-12-2 overall for 34 points.
It’s a win that sent the faithful filing into the parking lots happy and a result that has the current edition of the Oilers sitting pretty much where they were two years ago, when the team started out 14-11-5 for 33 points on the way to making it into the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
After having the carpet pulled out from beneath them last season after a long-awaited sniff of the post-season in 2016-17, the buzz is back, the building is alive again and fans are happy enough right now that they’re cheering Milan Lucic, who has scored exactly two goals in 75 games. This is a different team with a different coach, but it’s much the same feeling.
“This was like a playoff game,” said Hitchcock, who has turned the Oilers on a dime since arriving. “We did a really good job in the first and third periods and it got away from us in the second because of their stretch (offence) game. This was the first time we’ve got challenged like this off the rush. But I liked how we stayed with it. I liked how we protected the lead in the third and we’re learning how to play as a unit of five. That’s a good sign.”
ROLL WITH IT
Damn straight it’s a good sign. A goal by Connor McDavid and a 24-save performance by Mikko Koskinen for his sixth straight win at home and his third shutout in that stretch, got it done. Two years ago, by the way, McDavid was on his way to his first Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion with 12-26-38 through 30 games. McDavid is at 16-25-41 now. As for Koskinen, who has a gaudy .972 save-percentage at home, he was toiling with St. Petersburg in the KHL before general manager Pete Chiarelli, ahem, astutely offered him $2.5 million a season to play here.
When you look back at all the moaning about Koskinen’s contract in pre-season compared to what is being said and written now and you hear Lucic being serenaded with “Loooch” after belting Travis Hamonic and scrapping Anthony Peluso in the aftermath – hell, he drew cheers just chugging in on the forecheck during one shift — you know the worm has turned.
Hitch Hockey likely isn’t going to produce at a 7-2-1 pace the rest of the way, but when Hitchcock says the Oilers are executing at only about a 60 per cent clip compared to what he’d like to see, as he did today, you know where he’s set the bar. Hitchcock isn’t going to take his foot off the gas now. No chance. He’s not satisfied.
I’m trying to recall a three-week stretch when I’ve seen as drastic a turnaround – in performance on the ice and in the confidence of the players — as we’ve witnessed with the Oilers in the last 10 games. In all my years, I don’t recall one. With the Oilers playing in Denver Tuesday and Winnipeg Thursday, we’ll see if the roll continues. They’ll jump their jet six points out of first place in the Western Conference.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- I mentioned this on Twitter Sunday, but I think it’s worth repeating. Coaches can tell a player they believe in him, that they’ve got that player’s back, but actions always speak louder than words. Hitchcock had a lot of good things to say about Jesse Puljujarvi when he got him recalled from the AHL, and that’s fine, but seeing Puljujarvi out in the final minute with the game on the line against the Flames Sunday says more than words ever can.
- The power play is 0-for-17 over the last five games, so bet your bottom dollar there will be plenty of time spent on that in coming days. The Oilers could’ve ended any drama against the Flames Sunday with the man-advantage but got zippity-do-da on three PP attempts in the third period.
- Through 30 games this season, the Oilers have scored 82 goals and allowed 87 for a minus-5. Through their first 30 games back in 2016-17, they’d scored 90 goals and allowed 83, for a plus-7.