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Game Notes Oilers @ Kings: Meaningful Games Are Fun

In the past 17 seasons, Oilers fans haven’t had many years where they were anxiously anticipating a key matchup in the final weeks of the regular season. In 2006, 2009, 2013, 2017, 2020 and 2021 the Oilers were in the playoff hunt. They made it 2006, 2017 and 2021. In 2020 the season stopped abruptly when the Oilers were comfortably in a playoff spot, and ended up in the expanded 24-team playoff five months later, and in 2009 and 2013 the Oilers came up short.

— In 2013 (the lockout-shortened 48-game season) the Oilers were in eighth place on April 3rd. They had 12 games remaining (1/4 of the season) and the race was close.

The Oilers had 39 points, St. Louis had 38 (14 games to play), Nashville 38 with 11 games remaining, while Columbus, Arizona and Dallas each had 36 points with 12 games to play. Six teams within three points for the final playoff spot. Detroit wasn’t completely safe either as they had 41 points and 12 games remaining.

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The Oilers fell off a cliff and went 1-9 in their next 10 games. They went 0-7 v. playoff teams and 1-2 v. non-playoff teams. They went from eighth to 13th in a span of 21 days. They did win their final two games over Vancouver and Minnesota (both playoff teams), but the damage was done.

— On March 1st, 2009, the Columbus Blue Jackets were in seventh spot in the West with 68 points, the Oilers and Ducks were tied for eighth with 67 points, Nashville had 66 points and Minnesota had 65. Minnesota had 21 games remaining, Edmonton and Nashville had 20, Columbus 19 and the Ducks had 18. Anaheim went 11-5-2, Columbus went 10-5-4, Minny was 10-7-4, Nashville 9-6-4 and the Oilers went 7-9-4. Columbus finished in seventh with 92 points, the Ducks 8th with 91, Nashville and Minny had 89 and the Oilers had 85.

The Oilers were 5-4-1 against playoff teams, but only 2-5-3 against non-playoff teams.

— In 2008 the Oilers made a crazy run in the final six weeks to make it interesting, but they finished ninth and missed the playoffs by three points. With 20 games remaining no one thought they’d be close. On February 22nd they were 14th in the West with 59 points (27-30-5). But then they got hot and went 14-5-1 down the stretch. They moved up from 14th to ninth and passed St. Louis, Columbus, Phoenix, Chicago and Vancouver. The Canucks (8-11-2) struggled down the stretch and dropped from 8th place on February 22nd to 11th.

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The Oilers went 6-4-1 against playoff teams and 8-1 v. non-playoff teams.

— Did you notice the trend? How you perform against the non-playoff teams down the stretch is a major factor. Very few teams are going to dominate the other playoff teams. The fact the Oilers went 6-4-1 in 2008, despite struggling in their first 62 games, was impressive. Even in 2009 they had .550 points% against playoff teams. In 2008 they crushed the other non-playoff teams, but in 2009 their inability to beat those teams down the stretch cost them. The 2013 team was a bit of smoke and mirrors in the first 36 games, and they couldn’t score in early April. When they went 1-9 they were outscored 33-13 and four of their goals came in the win over last-place Colorado. They scored nine goals in their nine losses.

— I’ve seen many try to downplay the Oilers’ recent success because they are beating non-playoff teams. Those wins are what get you in the playoffs. The Oilers aren’t suddenly going to dominate all the playoff teams. The Oilers are 18-7-2 since Jay Woodcroft was hired. They have the fourth best points% (.702) and are tied with Boston for most points in the NHL (38) in that span. They have played well.

— They have dominated the non-playoff teams going 12-1-1. They’ve been outstanding in games they “should” win. No teams beat the weaker teams all the time. And in their seven losses (one in OT) to playoff teams, they played well v. Carolina, Tampa, Colorado, Dallas and Calgary. They had one terrible 24-second sequence v. Dallas that cost them the game. Their power play was anemic in the 3-1 loss in Calgary. They went back-and-forth with Tampa, played a tight game v. Carolina and lost in OT to Colorado. They were very bad in losses to Minnesota and Calgary. Overall, since Woodcroft took over, the Oilers have been quite competitive.

— Tonight they face the LA Kings for the second time in five games. They defeated the Kings in a shootout last Wednesday. It was a playoff-like game, and I expect a similar style game tonight. Last week the Oilers were a two points behind the Kings before the game and finished the evening one point back with a game in hand. Today they are one point ahead of LA and still have a game in hand. A regulation win would be huge for the Oilers. Even an OT/SO win would move give them some breathing room. A loss won’t crush their playoff hopes, it will just make the race even tighter.

Leon Draisaitl has a bruise and that kept him out of Tuesday’s game. He did take part in the optional skate, and I was told it is a matter of ensuring the bruise has healed enough that if he takes more contact it won’t make it worse. If last night was a playoff game I think he would have played. Smart for the Oilers to be cautious. I do wonder if they were playing LA last night if he might have played. Draisaitl’s availability will have a significant impact in the game. Having him in the lineup, as Captain Obvious would say, would be a huge boost. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t play tonight.

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Connor McDavid extended his point streak to 14 games with his OT winner of a delightful pass from Mike Smith. McDavid’s reaction and post-game comments showed how much the team loved that goal. “It was pretty special to be a part of that play,” said McDavid. “It was one of the more special ones I’ve been a part of. Schmiddy’s been here for a few years now and he’s always asked me when we’re going to connect for a breakaway… Couldn’t have picked a better time there,” smiled McDavid.

Did you notice Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ celebration after his short-handed goal? He was fired up. Much more than usual. That was a big goal for him and the team, and they really wanted the two points. Give the Sharks credit — they didn’t give the Oilers very much at 5×5 or on the PP. But the Oilers scored shorthanded and on 3×3. The importance and excitement of these games shouldn’t be understated. It is great for players to play in, for fans to watch and for media to cover. The raw emotion is much different than games in November and December.

— McDavid’s OT winner was his 41st goal of the season. He scored 41 in 2018 and 2019, and will set a new career-high this season. He needs nine goals in his final 11 games to reach 50 goals. Make no mistake, that is a goal of his and I’d bet he reaches it.

Mike Smith was very good v. the Sharks. He made some key stops in the final two minutes and then one in OT, before he made his great pass to send McDavid in all alone. Smith is 4-0-1 in his last five starts with a .931Sv% and 2.19 GAA. I don’t think that means he is back to the level he was at last season, but he’s clearly improved from where he was in January. In his 13 starts since Woodcroft was hired Smith is 8-5-1 with a .913Sv% and 2.74 GAA. And that includes allowing four goals in seven shots v. Minnesota. If you remove that start for Smith he has .921Sv% in his other 12 starts. You can’t ignore the Minnesota game, I’m just showing how one really bad start, over a small sample, can really skew the numbers. Smith wasn’t very good, but neither were the Oilers playing their fifth game in seven days.

— Remove the Calgary 9-5 debacle and Mikko Koskinen has a .915Sv% and 2.66 GAA in his other 12 starts. The Oilers goaltenders aren’t elite, but I felt if they could be between .910-.915 most nights then the Oilers would be quite competitive. And they have been, excluding the Calgary and Minnesota games. I’d expect Koskinen to start tonight, and it will be interesting to see how Woodcroft rotates his goalies over the final 11 games. They don’t play back-to-back until April 28th and 29th, so the split over the next nine could foreshadow who starts game one of the playoffs.

— If you look at their total minutes played since Woodcroft took over Koskinen and Smith are very close.

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In 14 appearances Koskinen has a .906Sv% and 3.01 GAA in 797 minutes.
In 14 appearances Smith has a .908Sv% and a 2.90 GAA in 766 minutes.

Remove the Minnesota and Calgary games, where both played, and their numbers read like this:

In 12 appearances Koskinen has a .920Sv% and 2.67 GAA in 726 minutes.
In 12 appearances Smith has a .921Sv% and 2.45 GAA in 718 minutes.

For Koskinen, 71 minutes (8.9% of his total minutes) where he got beat for eight goals on 27 shots dropped his Sv% from .920 to .906.
For Smith, 48 minutes (6.2% of his total minutes) of eight goals on 33 shots dropped his Sv% from .921 to .908.

You can’t ignore those poor performances, but I just wanted to illustrate how two bad games significantly alters the numbers for both goalies. And it illustrates how in 25 of the 27 games under Woodcroft the Oilers goaltending and their commitment to defence has improved significantly.

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If a team averages a .921Sv in 93% of their games they will win much more than they lose, which is what Oilers have done going 18-7-2. One bad loss can skew individual stats, more than the standings or W-L results.

— One criticism I find odd: I asked on Twitter if Smith’s recent play has changed your recent opinion on him. The answers varied, as expected, but the one that I disagree with was those saying Smith is only beating non-playoff teams so his numbers are inflated. Okay, if that is your stance, then do you think the same about Stuart Skinner? Skinner only made two starts against current playoff teams, and he lost both and had a .888Sv% and 3.50 GAA. I doubt those who want Skinner in Edmonton devalue his play due to the quality of competition.

— Vegas lost to Vancouver last night. If the Oilers win tonight they will be seven points up on Vegas with 10 games remaining. If the Oilers go 5-5 in their final 10 games Vegas would have to go 8-1-1 to tie them. Both Edmonton and LA want a win, but an OT/SO victory would help both teams gain ground on Vegas. The wonders of the Bettman point would haunt Vegas for the second time in eight days.

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