Back when it was usually a hair-on-fire dash to the wire just to make the playoffs for the Edmonton Oilers, they often looked like they were out of gas by the time they got to Texas for what became an obligatory exit at the hands of the Dallas Stars. Getting there isn’t half the fun when you’re running on fumes by the time you arrive.
When there’s no margin for error, when every point can be the difference between getting into the playoffs or waiting until next year, coaches like Ron Low, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish didn’t have the luxury of taking their foot off the accelerator. There was little or no time to rest the best players, to mix in youngsters for game experience in case you needed them later, to ease off long enough to catch your breath. Go, go, go. Get in. Go some more.
This edition of the Oilers is taking another road. They’ve known they’d make the playoffs in the North Division for weeks and they made it official by beating the Vancouver Canucks 5-3 Monday in their 50th game. That gave coach Dave Tippett options going into the rematch last night and he took advantage of them on the way to a 4-1 waltz against the utterly gassed Canucks.
Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear got a rest in favor of William Lagesson and Evan Bouchard, who shook off the cobwebs from months on the taxi squad and scored the 3-1 goal. Connor McDavid continued his pursuit of 100 points with two assists and played under 20 minutes for the second game in a row. Likewise, Leon Draisaitl, who scored two goals. We saw more of Ryan McLeod and the line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins between Kailer Yamamoto and Dominik Kahun. Kyle Turris got back in.
IN THE MIX
Teams like the Oilers don’t have the luxury of flipping off the switch and then expecting to be able to flip it on again when playoffs begin. It doesn’t work that way. This isn’t that. It’s more subtle. It’s about easing off the ice time of McDavid, Draisaitl and, at some point, Darnell Nurse just a little. It’s about having Jones, Bear and Bouchard ready to go. It’s about giving workhorse Mike Smith, who made 28 saves last night, a rest and making sure back-up Mikko Koskinen is sharp. Details.
“You have to continue to play well. You can’t take your foot off the gas and expect to jump on it again. We have to play solid hockey,” Tippett said. “You’re going to need a lot of bodies. Playoffs, knock on wood, you never know when injuries come along, and the different mix of your lineups you’ll be looking for. So, we try to have everybody stay engaged.”
Bouchard certainly was engaged. He logged 20:13 of ice time paired with Lagesson. Considering all the time he’s spent watching instead of playing, he was exceptional. Bouchard’s 3-1 goal on the power play was slick — he faked a slapshot, slide-stepped into the middle and eased a wrist shot past Thatcher Demko.
“I thought it went pretty good,” Bouchard said. “To get back in the game was a good feeling. Everyone wants to play, but you have to take advantage of what’s given to you. I had a lot of practice time, a lot of time to work on what I wanted to work on, specifically my skating. It was good to take advantage of that.”
The look-see at Bouchard likely doesn’t happen if the Oilers are playing for every point like their playoff lives depend on it, but their 14-4-2 record over the last 20 games provides that option. That doesn’t mean they don’t want the points in their final five games because they do, but they don’t need to run the big horses into the ground because they need them.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Smith, who has been an absolute stud in the blue paint and sits at 19-6-2 with a 2.25 GAA and a save-percentage of .925, will get a game or two to watch over the next five and get ready for either the Winnipeg Jets or the Montreal Canadiens. A competitor like Smith will never say he isn’t ready to play, but at 39, a night off or two will do him good.
“It’s everything. That’s why we play,” Smith said of gearing up for playoffs. “The last quarter of the season has gone by so slow. It’s nice to see the end in sight and be playing good hockey going into the most important time.”