While Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl stole the show as they have countless times already this season for the Edmonton Oilers in Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights, there was more to the two points they plucked than that before jumping a jet to Arizona to face the Coyotes tonight.
In what was a bounce back game from a lousy effort in a 5-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the Oilers had McDavid and Draisaitl doing their thing, but they also got very good minutes from the blueline and goaltending that gave them a chance to win. They looked determined as hell in improving to 15-7-3 for 33 points, good for a share of top spot in the Western Conference.
What I’m seeing is a team that’s got more than one way to win games, that’s challenging opponents with more dimensions than we’ve seen from the Oilers in a long time. They’ve got the best two players on the planet right now. Special teams are a collective strength, not a black hole. On the blueline, Oscar Klefbom is an anchor and baby faces Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones are playing like they belong. Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith are shoving it to the critics who were casting sideways glances at them in pre-season.
McDavid called it a “great bounce back game,” and that was true from top to bottom in a lot of aspects. The process, of course, is ongoing and this team has more work to do, but I’m seeing a lot of buy-in with what coach Dave Tippett is selling and, for the first time in a long time, enough dimensions to turn that buy-in into something tangible.
We knew McDavid and Draisaitl were going to be the engine that drives the Oilers this season, nothing new there, but they’ve both outperformed expectations. Draisaitl has points in 14 of his last 15 games and leads the NHL with 16-31-47 after three assists against Vegas. His set-up on McDavid’s second goal to make it 4-2 was just another example that last season wasn’t a fluke, but a preview of what’s to come. McDavid has points in 10 straight games and is second in league scoring with 18-28-46 overall.
With 93 combined points, they’re the most dominant twosome in the game, and it isn’t even close. Points-wise, Boston’s tandem of Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are next in line with 75 combined points. Down the road in Calgary, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau have just 39. Draisaitl and McDavid not only have a shot at finishing one-two in the scoring race, they could be Hart Memorial Trophy finalists at the pace they’re playing at now. Imagine that.
Even with the absence of Adam Larsson, who is working his way back into the lineup after missing time with a broken fibula, the blueline has more than held up. The biggest single reason for that has been Klefbom, who not only leads the league in ice time at 25:50 per game, but has scored 1-16-17. He’s had plenty of help.
Bear has been a revelation so far. After an 18-game look-see in 2017-18, he’s stepped in and provided the kind of poise and quiet consistency you don’t expect from a 22-year-old. The kid doesn’t get rattled. He’s a work in progress to be sure, but that progress outstrips every reasonable expectation. And what about Jones? We haven’t seen as much of him, just five games so far, but he’s also looking like the prospect we saw flashes of last season. There are no gaping holes here.
THE BLUE PAINT
Smith was back in the crease against the Golden Knights and battling his ass off as usual. With the win, he’s 7-6-1 with a 2.66 GAA and a save-percentage of .911. If he can stay close to those last two numbers, he’ll have proved me wrong. Koskinen already has. The towering Finn is 8-1-2 with a 2.42 and .921. Spelled off by Smith, he’s thriving instead of struggling like he did late last season when he was run into the ground by overwork.
Rather than force one of the two into a clear-cut starter’s role, Tippett has stuck with the plan to use them as a tandem, resisting any urge to fix what isn’t broken. We’ll see Koskinen against the Coyotes in the second of back-to-back games tonight. Nothing else matters without good goaltending and the Oilers are getting it.
Oilers PP so dangerous. Showing no signs of slowing down. Draisaitl’s backhand passing is so good people expect him to make those passes constantly. There might be debates over who is best passer in NHL, but no debate who is beat backhand passer. Draisaitl does it regularly.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) November 24, 2019
When your power play ranks second in the league and your penalty killing is the same, you’re going to win games. That’s where the Oilers are sitting now. The PP is cruising along at 31.5 per cent and the PK sits at 87.6. That’s the big swing for the Oilers – they were ranked 30th last season at 74.8. The PP finished ninth last season at 21.2 per cent. Percentage-wise, the Edmonton’s special teams are a combined 119.1 compared to 96.0 in 2018-19. When you’re above 105 or so with that combined number, you’re cooking with gas.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Opponents are always going to circle the names McDavid and Draisaitl on the whiteboard in the dressing room and it’ll be no different in Arizona tonight. There’s no doubt whatsoever they’re the key cogs. It doesn’t take a vast intellect to figure that out. They have their fingerprints on just about everything. Having the two best players in the game isn’t a bad place to start, but there has to be more. This much we know.
Bit by bit and little by little, we’re seeing other dimensions come into play. A Zack Kassian here, a James Neal there. Veterans with something to prove. Kids taking places in the line-up because they’re capable of earning a spot and keeping it instead of being handed a job. A coach who remains consistent in his expectations for the roster from top to bottom.
Stay that course and you win.