Of course it sucks that the Edmonton Oilers will be without Connor McDavid for two to three weeks with a quad injury, but if losing one player — even the best player on the planet — is enough to drop them out of playoff contention, they don’t deserve a place in the post-season.
Call me a homer, but I don’t see the Oilers folding their cards that way. The only caveat to that is if we’re not getting the, ahem, real goods from the team on McDavid’s status and he’s out for more than the period we’re told to expect. If McDavid is out for 14 days, he’ll miss seven games, starting tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks. If he’s on the shelf for 21 days, he’ll miss 10 of the remaining 27 games.
There’s no good time to lose your best player, so set that aside. This happens. Down the road, the Calgary Flames are staying in the Western Conference playoff race without Mark Giordano and Travis Hamonic. The Arizona Coyotes have been playing without starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper for seven weeks. The Vancouver Canucks are without Brock Boeser. None of those players are as good as McDavid, but none of those teams have Leon Draisaitl.
The Draisaitl factor aside, a check of the standings shows the Oilers, 29-20-6 for 64 points as they face the Blackhawks, aren’t staring down Murderer’s Row over their next 10 games. Outside of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, they’ve got a bunch of winnable games here. The Oilers don’t have to go 7-3-0 to stay in the post-season race, they just don’t want to go 3-7-0. I don’t see that happening.
TALKING THE TALK
What the Oilers need with McDavid out is to get the same mileage out of Draisaitl that they’ve been getting until now. They need Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to continue to contribute as he has. What they need more than anything else is to buckle down and play a more defensive game — something they’re going to have to do if they make the playoffs. They need to win some 3-2 games and stay away from the run-and-gun they can play with McDavid healthy.
“First of all, it is a big deal,” Draisaitl said. “He’s the best player in the world. If he’s missing on any team, you know it hurts. We’re not going to find a way around that, but we have to come in with the right mindset and find our own game away from him. Without him. It’s going to be a tight-checking group in here that’s going to defend like crazy and try to win games that way. I think we have the guys in here to do that. I’m very confident in this group.”
Can Draisaitl keep the power play clicking without McDavid? Can coach Dave Tippett squeeze a little more out of Kailer Yamamoto, Josh Archibald and maybe Sam Gagner? More important, can the blueline tighten the screws? Can Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen put together the kind of stingy stretch they started the season on?
“When it really turned around for us was when we buckled down defensively, and played a 200-foot game,” Smith said. “The more we understand that that is what it takes to win close hockey games, the more we’ve grasped that and gotten points because of it.
“This team is figuring out how to win close games . . . the better we can play defensively and as a five-man unit, the better chance we have of being a real good team down the stretch here and be a tough team in the playoffs.”
THE WAY I SEE IT
The Lightning, Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes are the only teams the Oilers face in the next 10 games that have more points than them as of right now. Chances are, the Oilers lose that game in Tampa with McDavid anyway. The Bruins are here Feb. 19, and that’s a tough test as well. Then again, they’ve also got games against the LA Kings and Anaheim in this stretch.
Bottom line, this is a bit of rough road the Oilers can navigate if they settle in and play the kind of game Draisaitl and Smith talked about today. Less sizzle, more steak in the form of paying attention to keeping the puck out of their own net. This is a stretch where I see the Oilers picking up 12-13 points in the next 10 games. That keeps them in the race.
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