Are you prepared for 101 days filled with excitement, stress, agony, exhilaration, defeat, victory, frustration, jubilation, cheering, yelling and likely some profane language both positive and negative?
If you aren’t then stopping reading. Close your browser or put down your phone, because starting today you have a choice: You either commit to the aforementioned range of emotions, or you walk away.
I assume you are still reading because there is no way you’d still be on this site if you weren’t a diehard hockey fan. To paraphrase the greatest hockey playing coach of all-time, Reg Dunlop, “You’ve seen a lot of losses,”
But the next 101 days are why you’ve stuck around. Welcome to the playoff race. It begins today.
I know it is only December 27th, and you are just emerging from your Christmas food coma. You want to slowly reacquaint yourself with the NHL, but I’m sorry you don’t have time. Your Edmonton Oilers will step on the ice tonight clinging precariously to the final Wildcard spot in the Western Conference. The initial 8-2-1 run under new head coach Ken Hitchcock got the Oilers back in a playoff spot, but winning only one of the past five games has allowed teams to close the gap and now the Oilers look to be locked into a battle for their playoff lives.
A three-game skid into Christmas wasn’t ideal, but it beats the alternative that you have watched unfold too many times — not being in the playoff race at all.
At least the Oilers are in the fight, and now we’ll see how they handle it.
The Dallas Stars loss on December 23rd moved the Oilers back into a playoff position, but it is far from secure. The upstart Vancouver Canucks continue to stay in the race and tonight is suddenly a more important game than many expected at the beginning of the season. It Vancouver gets the victory they’ll jump over the Oilers.
The Canucks won 4-2 on December 16th and if the Oilers want to be a playoff team they need to start winning more divisional games. They are 4-4-1 against the Pacific so far, and that simply isn’t good enough. The past two seasons the Oilers went 36-17-5 within their division and six of their next seven are against Pacific foes.
This is another crucial stretch for the Oilers and a victory tonight not only ends their three-game losing skid, but it also gives them a positive start for an important two-week stretch.
Drake Caggiula and Jason Garrison are out with the flu. Kris Russell skated, but they will rest him one more game. There is a good chance he could be in the lineup on Saturday. You should expect a few roster moves tomorrow.
Andrej Sekera skated hard again today and could be activated and sent to Bakersfield on a conditioning stint. The Condors play Saturday, Monday and then on January 2nd, 4th and 5th. Sekera could play five games in eight days. Keep in mind he will count on the roster when he is put there on a conditioning stint.
So when the Oilers activate Russell and Sekera they need to send two players to the AHL. Jones is playing in Russell’s spot so he’d be a likely candidate, but then one of Wideman or Garrison will need to be put on waivers. Or they could carry eight D-men and put Zykov on waivers. It will be interesting to see who is sent down when Russell and Sekera are activated.
Hitchcock believes his third line can produce, but he admitted they aren’t playing to their strengths right now.
“They don’t get enough O-zone time for the way they are built,” said Hitchcock. “It is a big body line that should just dominate. There aren’t enough shots on goal, pucks to the net and chaos. The few times there is they are hard on teams. Their best game was against Vancouver and if you look at three shifts against Vancouver that is the consistency we are looking for from them.
“If that line plays that consistent level of chaotic hockey, which is pucks to the net, bodies to the net and pucks deep. If they have that mentality then I don’t think there is a line that can play with them, as far as big-body hockey. I don’t think you can check that line because they have size, weight and enough skill to move it around.
“But when they play next-play hockey — next play meaning I’m going to pass off shooting opportunities — then they allow smaller, quicker people to get involved, and that is what they have done recently. I have no doubt they can finish, but they won’t produce with the limited amount of offensive opportunities they are creating. They need to create more,” said Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is a master of challenging players without ripping them. That line has settled for just having the puck on the outside and cycling it low, but never getting pucks to the net. That has to change. The debate will be if they can finish when they start creating more opportunities.
On December 16th Canucks head coach Travis Green wanted the Horvat/McDavid matchup. Will Hitchcock try to avoid it or just run his best line when he wants? I’m guessing he will play McDavid when he wants regardless of the matchup. If he can take advantage of the odd offensive zone start matchup he will.
The Canucks are playing really good defensive hockey. They don’t give up a lot. They are 6-2-1 in their last nine and those losses were against Winnipeg, Nashville and Tampa. They outshot the Jets 40-24 and lost 1-0. They don’t have many big name defenders, but they play a disciplined structure and the Oilers will need to earn their scoring chances tonight.
After two quality practices last week the Oilers PP looked good against Tampa Bay, scoring twice. “We needed more urgency, and we got some breaks. You need that sometimes on the powerplay,” said Connor McDavid. But he focused more on their unit being more aggressive and outworking the PK. Often it isn’t a magic set up that solves the woes of the PP, it is simply hard work.
The Canucks haven’t allowed a powerplay goal in their last nine games (22 kills). They don’t take many penalties lately, and when they do they’ve been perfect. McDavid and his first unit linemates will have to match the dogged work ethic of the Canucks if they hope to score on the PP tonight.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING…
The Canucks are becoming a team that is tough to play against. The advanced stats aren’t in their favour most games and they usually need to outscore their problems. What I saw against the Jets last game was a Canucks team that can #battle. Fitting that management is using that as their slogan this season. It doesn’t feel like other seasons where we gave up hope because the team just wasn’t there.
Don’t get me wrong, the Canucks aren’t “there” yet but they’re a lot closer than the beginning of this season would have let on. Tonight, the Canucks go toe to toe with the Oilers and I honestly believe it’s the Oilers who have to keep up.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Edmonton avoids their second four-game losing streak of the season and pick up a 4-1 win.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Not many powerplays tonight with Marc Joannette and Pierre Lambert reffing. A total of four powerplay between the two teams and a lot of yelling from both fanbases about missed hooks or holds.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Kyle Brodziak scores his 13th career goal v. the Canucks, which is the most he has against any NHL team.
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Source: NHL, Official Game Page, 12/27/2018 – 1:00 pm MST