For all the complaining in recent days about not getting a square deal from the officials, the real problem for the Edmonton Oilers in back-to-back losses to the Vancouver Canucks and the St. Louis Blues has been how ineffective their special teams have been.
After a 4-2 loss to the Canucks, the narrative that Connor McDavid continues to get hooked, held and otherwise interfered with on an ongoing basis took off like a runaway train, bumped by post-game comments from coach Ken Hitchcock. There is plenty of merit to that lament, but it came after the Oilers allowed three power-play goals by the Canucks.
Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the Blues was marked by debate about a play initially called no-goal for St. Louis by the referee, but ruled a goal upon review. Like most of you, I didn’t see the puck go in initially, but the review showed that it had crossed the line before a scrum, triggering calls of goaltender interference, ensued. The real story is that the Oilers had plenty of calls go their way, but responded with a dismal 0-for-5 effort with the man-advantage.
“The hockey game, for me, we had those three chances just before that. Then, they came down the ice, they got that one chance and that was the ball game,” Hitchcock said of the disputed goal by former Oiler Patrick Maroon that put the Blues ahead 2-1. “I think we lost the game in the second period, we didn’t lose it in the third period. We lost it in the second period. We lost it on special teams on the power play.”
GETTING IT RIGHT
In these two losses, the Oilers’ power play, operating without injured Oscar Klefbom, hasn’t managed a goal in six attempts. The PK units, missing injured Kris Russell, have allowed four goals in eight attempts. Hitchcock can’t do anything about the injuries, but he can spend some practice time drawing things up and working things out, which is exactly what he intends to do when the team gets back to work Thursday in preparation for a visit by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Aside from wanting more and quicker movement and less standing around when the Oilers are on the man-advantage, one possibility, reading between the lines of what Hitchcock said post-game, is that rookie Caleb Jones could get a look on the point of the second unit.
“I think our problem is that we’re too slow on the flanks,” said Hitchcock. “We don’t have enough movement on the flanks. We’ll get that changed, but we’re standing still outside the dots and trying to make plays instead of in attack mode. We’re not playing near enough downhill.
“Like I said, we’ll get that fixed over the next couple practices . . . that’s the major thing for me is that our movement across the top is too slow, both with our feet and with our puck movement and it allows teams to recover. We’re in the zone but not much is going on.” Asked about personnel changes, Hitchcock said: “Well, really, the only change we’re going to have to make is on the back end. We haven’t even really had a hockey practice with them yet, so . . .” The full interview is here.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’ll take more than the insertion of Jones, who picked up his first NHL point with an assist on Jesse Puljujarvi’s goal to tie the game 1-1, to get the power play (ranked 17th at 19.3 per cent) back on track, but adding the threat of a shot from the point changes what opponents do. Without it, teams simply collapse and let the Oilers pass the puck around the outside. The Oilers generated just three PP shots against the Blues.
As for the PK, there’s no doubt the Oilers are missing having the shot-blocking Russell in the mix, although it’s not as simple as that. Whatever Hitchcock comes up with, the PK is going to get a test Saturday in the final game before the Christmas break. Tampa Bay’s power play is ranked second at 29.5 per cent. Edmonton’s PK is sitting 26th at 76.1 per cent. Going status quo will get the Oilers torched.
Simply put, the Oilers can’t control what is and isn’t called on the ice by the referees or what decisions come via video review. This much we know. Their time is far better spent, and will be in the next couple of practice days before the red-hot Lightning come calling, focusing on what happens after the calls are made.