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Did the Edmonton Oilers turn the corner in Carolina and Washington?

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Photo credit:Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
2 months ago
After the Oilers lost 6-3 in Carolina, I didn’t need to go far into Oilersnation to find despair — not that it was an uncommon refrain across Oilers fandom and the media that cover the Oilers. The team stood at a record of 5-12-1, looking up at almost all of the National Hockey League.
To make matters worse, the Oilers had lost three in a row in the Southeast United States and really had played unevenly since the unceremonious dismissal of Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson. The coup de grâce was the loss to Carolina, where the team was down 4-0 before the first period even ended. For reasons past understanding (or perhaps good luck), I missed this game live. So when I rolled the tape Friday morning before the Washington Capitals, I was prepared for the worst. Phrases like “forgot how to play defence,” “lazy,” and “selfish,” had cascaded Oiler fandom and ran through my head.
Weirdly though, I didn’t mind the game the Oilers played. Some people pointed to the third period as a sign of positivity. I agreed with that because it really did not feel like Carolina was in the “score effects” part of the game. Mostly though, I could not wrap my head around the outrage of the first period. Indeed, the 4-0 score helped the anger. However, while the fancy stats available to fans were pretty one-sided, I didn’t see it that poorly.
Before I watched again to watch again, the time came for the Washington Capitals to blow out the Edmonton Oilers. Or so it seemed. Weirdly though the Oilers didn’t get routed and instead, the Oilers ended the first period up 2-0 having outshot the Capitals 21-6. From there, it was clear sailing to a 5-0 win and the Oilers jetted home salvaging their road trip.
So, I went back to the Carolina Hurricanes tape to review the game and see what happened. The irony though was that as I watched the game, I saw a lot of similarities. In fact, by the time I finished watching, I had, perhaps stupidly, posted on the X the following:
Now, some of you have pointed out there may be questions about my IQ. Indeed, my love for Uncle Buck and Animal House would be further evidence. So, of course, some of you reached out worried about whether I was suffering concussion-like symptoms. While I am the product of several of them, I felt clear-headed about this post. Furthermore, I was sure the Oilers had turned a corner in their season. Don’t believe me? Let’s go to the tape machine and review the evidence.

Carolina

This game was replete with a lot of good play from the Oilers and started right from the opening whistle. The Oilers had some really solid moments structure-wise. Take a look at this great forecheck sequence early in the game against the Hurricanes. Watch this very aggressive forecheck with a nice disciplined F3. There is a great read and reaction by all three players and a nice interchange.

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The Oilers mainly had good moments coming out of the zone. Again, for the Oilers to be successful on the breakout during play, they need to be quick with the first decision and the forwards have to be available for short passes all over the ice. Here is an example that almost worked perfectly with just a little hiccup at the end.

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Even the neutral zone mainly had great moments against Carolina. Look at how hard the Hurricanes had to work to get through the neutral zone with four Oilers on their side of the neutral zone. It leads to a change in possession which is precisely what this type of neutral zone strategy should accomplish.

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Now, as we know, the fall came quickly. However, let’s look at 4 of the first five goals against. Here is goal number one. No question, Nurse gets caught a little up ice, but you can see he recognizes it and starts to get back. The actual shot is pretty harmless, and Kulak is in a good position. He is not a screen and should be in a decent place for the rebound should there be one. The fact the puck took a fortunate bounce to another Hurricane who had to corral it before putting it home is really tough. Could the Oilers have defended better? No question. However, the instinct to do the right thing was there. Honestly, but for a fluke bounce, it likely is an easy freeze by Skinner.

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The second goal, in my opinion, is even more weird. The Oilers defended so well on this play that Ekholm activated perfectly up the ice when the transition happened. Should someone have anticipated Ekholm losing control, I guess. It was, however, a bad break, and 99 out of 100 times, the puck either gets to the net or gets deep.

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On the third goal, the internet spent a lot of time critiquing Cody Ceci’s play. No question, he likely has a better chance if he’s inside his player and off the back post. However, players are taught in this defensive structure to attack the players on the wall in the same numbers as the opposition. So really all three players did their job. Again, there was a chance for Broberg or McLeod to win a battle on the strong side and they needed to. That said, the puck comes out on a brutal bounce that could have gone anywhere. Instead, it went to the front of the net and into it.

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I will skip the fourth goal, which is Stuart Skinner all day. It needs to be saved. Period. Full stop.
The fifth goal is the one that really got a lot of play as well. It showed McDavid, Drasaitl, Kulak and Ceci standing still as a Hurricane deposited the puck into the net from six feet away. Is that bad? Oh, for sure. However, this wasn’t a lazy play or a selfish play. It wasn’t a play where the players lacked understanding. The group was in a perfect box, ready to defend. This was a tired play. Whether it was physical, mental or even emotional, it was a play borne of exhaustion. Look at McDavid’s reaction after the goal.

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Now, here is the thing. Those players had done 99 percent of the hard work. They got back into the proper structure. It was simply McDavid not realizing fast enough it was his player quickly. Is that bad? Sure, but  a coach would look at this and say, “Connor, just take one more stride and the play is dead.”

Washington

Maybe you think I’m a “glass half full guy.” Maybe I am, but take a look at these clips from the Capitals game before you accuse me of celebrating 4/20 too early. Let’s start with these two clips. Brett Kulak makes an atrocious attempted pass that leads to a short 2v1 for Washington, Fortunately, the puck was heeled wide.

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Now watch this clip. Ryan McLeod, I’m going to sacrifice live chickens for you soon because you need divine intervention. However, that play was just as big a deal as the Kulak miss.

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The point of these two clips. Bad plays happen to every team, and the difference between who they impact comes down to a very small margin.
Now, watch these clips from the Washington game and tell me how much different they look than the Carolina game. Nice tight structure that shaped well as the puck moved. Eventually, both lead to turnovers and away the Oilers go — the difference between this and Carolina is one more step which created nice tight gaps and pressure.

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How about exiting the zone? Look at this great clip of the Oilers quickly falling back into the good defensive structure. When the puck pops loose, Desharnais is immediately looking up the ice for an outlet.

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Could the Washington Capitals have had a better fate in the first period? For certain, but can we not say the Oilers could have gotten out of Carolina’s first period in better shape? I think we can. More importantly, the Oilers executed quite well against Carolina for most of this game. They executed in a manner that looked quite similar to the Washington game. This is not the first time this has happened either. Both Tampa and Florida were there for the taking. Those games could have tilted the Oilers way with one of two breaks or a save.
The margin of error in the NHL is minimal. Indeed, typically NHL teams share the puck equally for most games. It’s that fraction of difference that makes up the wins and losses. For Oiler coaches, I think they should be encouraged about the Carolina game. It was a game that could be “coached up.” The Washington game could be an “I told ya so” moment where the Oilers were rewarded with better bounces for taking one more stride and getting a save.
Now, does this mean the Oilers are home and cooled? Not certainly. The team still looks hampered by injuries. The goaltending needs to take a step with Stuart Skinner leading the way. Most importantly, other teams must lose some games when the Oilers go on streaks. Can they make the playoffs? It is too close to call, like the difference between the Hurricanes’ game and the Capitals’ game.
Thanks for reading this long piece folks. I look forward to the feedback always. Reach out to @bcurlock on the X or right here below this very article. Cheers.

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