After last night’s win in Calgary, the Oilers have a chance to sweep this two-game edition of the Battle of Alberta back home in Edmonton.
1. If you came into last night’s game expecting fireworks and a heated Battle of Alberta match, you would have been disappointed. But, if you’re an Oilers fan, there isn’t much you can complain about from last night. The team went into Calgary, put forward a complete, 60-minute effort and came out with a 2-1 victory. That was the strongest I’ve seen the team play defensively this season.
2. The Oilers really looked like a Dave Tippett team last night. I remember watching the frustratingly-good Phoenix Coyotes back in the early-2010s with wave after wave of forwards who were quick, relentless on the forecheck and backcheck and how difficult it was to get anything going against them offensively. Edmonton had four lines moving last night, all of them consistently engaged in rushing and battling for pucks. As a result, the Flames never looked comfortable and they seldom had time to get anything started offensively.
It’s miserable, frustrating hockey to watch when you’re on the wrong side of it, but it’s a thing of beauty when it’s your team executing that style of play. It’s also the exact style of play that can take you deep into the playoffs. But one step at a time.
3. I was surprised to see Mike Smith get the start on Friday given the fact he had just faced 35 shots in Edmonton’s win against Winnipeg back on Wednesday but the veteran was up for the task. Smith stopped 20 of the 21 shots Calgary threw at him and the Flames’ only goal came when Rasmus Andersson was able to sneak into the high-slot unchecked. That situation was one of the few last night in which the Oilers didn’t have a tight backcheck.
4. Another lineup decision that worked for Tippett last night was scratching Kyle Turris and operating with Jujhar Khaira and Gaetan Haas as the third- and fourth-line centres. Though Khaira’s line was on for the one goal against, they were rock-solid otherwise, outshooting the Flames 9-to-5 at even-strength. The Haas line buried the game-winning goal and also outshot the Flames 12-to-7. I can’t think of many games this season in which the Oilers’ bottom-six has handily outshot their opponents as the Khaira- and Haas-led lines did last night.
5. Tippett also put a lot of faith in the veteran shutdown pairing of Kris Russell and Adam Larsson on Friday night and they rewarded him with a very, very good game. Both Russell and Larsson have struggled at times this season and there’s been debate as to whether they’re still NHL-calibre defencemen, especially when it comes to the former. That wasn’t a question last night.
The Russell-Larsson pair was rock-solid. They logged just under 19 minutes together at even-strength and allowed the Flames to put two pucks on the net over that time.
6. Smith has now been very good for the Oilers in four of the five games he’s played since being activated off of the Long-Term Injured Reserve. Outside of allowing four goals on 11 shots against Winnipeg on Monday, Smith has stopped 118 of 122 shots this season. I can’t see Tippett going to Smith again on the second leg of a back-to-back, but you might as well ride him while he’s hot. Mikko Koskinen can use the rest and practice time after the gauntlet he went through early on.
7. Speaking of Koskinen, the big Finn started for the Oilers in their first meeting against Calgary back in early-February. That outing was Koskinen’s worst of the 2021 season, as he allowed six goals on 28 shots. The difference between that game and this one is the fact Koskinen came into it having made 11 starts (350 shots against) over the course of three weeks.
We’ll see if he fares better now that he’s rested. Koskinen has played just twice since that loss to Calgary. He had a 40-save win against Ottawa and played 35 minutes in relief of Smith back on Monday.
8. Koskinen faced Calgary three times last year. Two of them were starts and both resulted in losses and one was a 20-minute relief appearance after Mike Smith had been tossed from the game for fighting Cam Talbot. In his first start, Koskinen allowed 20 goals on 24 shots, and, in the second, he allowed four on 33 shots.
9. Circling back to the beginning, the Battle of Alberta being boring might not be ideal for observers, but it’s what’s best for the Oilers. The Flames do well in these match-ups when the Oilers lose their cool and get distracted, mostly by Matthew Thachuk. The team didn’t fall into the Tkachuk Trap at all on Friday night and, as a result, there wasn’t an opportunity for the Flames to flip momentum in their favour. Focus on your own game and good things will happen.
10. Edmonton now sits second in the Canadian Division in terms of points but fourth in terms of points percentage as the Jets and Habs both have some games in hand. This is a great chance for the Oilers to put some distance between themselves and the Flames. A win in regulation tonight would put the Oilers seven points up on Calgary with the Flames having two games in hand.
Doing well in the Battle of Alberta is key to getting the Oilers into the playoffs.