With 35 games remaining in the season, the Edmonton Oilers can’t lock up a playoff spot in the next three games they play before the NHL all-star break, but what they do in this upcoming trio of home dates is going to go a long way in determining whether they’re in or out in a tightly-packed Western Conference.
Flaws and all, the Oilers come home to face the Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes and Detroit Red Wings to close-out their pre-all-star break schedule tied in points with the Minnesota Wild for the second wildcard berth after Wednesday’s 3-2 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks. A 23-21-3 record for 49 points, including a 3-1 record in the last four games, has them in the mix.
Now, if coach Ken Hitchcock can keep pushing the right buttons, if GM Pete Chiarelli can avoid weakening the roster with the moves we keep hearing he’s willing to make and if Oscar Klefbom can get up to speed in a hurry upon his return from injury, we’ll be in for the kind of drama, good and bad, the stretch drive was devoid of a season ago. The Oilers, to borrow from Hitchcock, have stayed in the fight — even if they’re still on the ropes.
With the latest edition of the Battle of Alberta, which actually has some teeth in it for the first time in a long time, up next at Rogers Place Saturday on Hockey Night In Canada — the teams split the first two meeting this season — the Oilers have a chance to put together a three-game winning streak for the first time since early December.
WHEN IT COUNTS
“It’s going to be like this the rest of the year,” Hitchcock said after Alex Chiasson scored the only goal in the shootout to settle things against the Canucks. “You’re going to be in a battle and there’s going to be a lot of emotional times . . . if you’re looking for great hockey with people pouring everything into it, you’re going to have a good time. To me, if you’re a fan of hockey, you’re going to love this.”
Of course, that’s exactly what fans around here want — well, that and an actual playoff spot after the bitter disappointment of last season — and I don’t have any doubt that’s what we’ll get. As inconsistent as the Oilers have been and as flawed as they are, I’ve already said, to guffaws from some you, I think they have enough to get into the top eight and stay there.
It goes without saying the Flames, riding high with 65 points and on a 7-1-2 roll in their last 10 games, will do everything they can to kick the Oilers in the teeth, which is how it should be. Fittingly, the Flames will likely have a hand in where the Oilers finish. After Saturday, the teams won’t meet until Edmonton’s final game of the season on April 6. At long last coaching in his hometown since taking over from Todd McLellan, Hitchcock knows that angle well.
“I was once part of a group that once felt like that,” Hitchcock said of the battle for provincial bragging right between the Flames and the Oilers the other day. “I don’t think there was even a person I liked one per cent of who lived in Calgary. I hated everything about Calgary, including the road . . .”
THE BOTTOM LINE
As somebody who cheers for the best storylines rather than the outcome, the Oilers are shaping up as a pretty compelling tale right now, from where I sit. How much will the return of Klefbom help? Will Chiarelli add to the mix by actually making a trade that helps or detract from what Hitchcock has to work with by getting stiffed in a deal?
Can captain Connor McDavid crank it up yet another notch, as he has in the second half of recent seasons, or will the minutes he’s played dragging this team along see him used up when the Oilers need him most with the money on the table? The same goes for Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is quietly putting together his finest season as a pro.
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