It’s spring in Edmonton. You dress in your finest plaid attire and get ready for a nice stroll alongside the North Saskatchewan River. You’re more than ready to break from the dreary depths of winter.
You drive down but park your car not far away. You get out and begin the quick walk down.
Then, it hits you. That cool, refreshing air of the rushing rapids off a freshly thawed river.
That’s exactly what Jay Woodcroft’s first game as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers felt like Friday night. It was familiar, yet completely foreign. It ended with La Bamba playing loud.
There’s no denying how difficult the decision was to fire Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair. Ken Holland said it himself even having stuck his neck out less than a month prior, but ultimately, that gut feeling might be the move that was needed to right this ship.
“It’s a good team win, it’s a good team win. I enjoyed the way the game was played today,” said Woodcroft when asked about how his first win as an NHL head coach felt, immediately deflecting from himself to his players. “I thought our players really played hard for each other. Mike Smith turned in a performance that allowed us a chance to work our way into the game tonight.
“And what I really liked to see was when the game was on the line in the third period, we valued hard plays. That’s a credit to the players in the dressing room.”
Hard plays indeed. The Oilers start was sluggish against the Islanders, who came hot and heavy. But it was Smith in net who turned aside 37 of the 38 shots he faced keeping Edmonton in it from the get-go.
Small tweaks, as referenced by Woodcroft and Zach Hyman, were about all that could be implemented. After all, it was less than 24 hours after Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson arrived that their first game was played.
But it was some of those small changes — aggressive play in the offensive zone, tight-checking in the neutral zone, and the crowding of their own blueline — that kept the game simple for the team and pushed the Oilers to victory.
“To keep it simple, I think Woody and Mans came in to highlight a few things and one of the key things was tracking through the middle, tracking through the neutral zone, and helping prevent rushes,” said Hyman, a clear point towards a part of the Oilers game that has sorely lacked. “I thought our d did a great job standing and protecting the blueline.
“I think it’s a big difference when you’re standing, protecting the blueline and you make them go through you.”
While Smith stood tall in net, these small tweaks helped get the Oilers their first goal on a Cody Ceci blast from the point.
“Nothing came that wasn’t tactical in any way, it was just the principals put into place right off the bat,” said Woodcroft. “In terms of tactical, we felt we could improve our physicality in the offensive zone.
“I felt the first goal was a great example of that. We wanted to be hard and physical on offence.”
Tallies from Zach Hyman and Jesse Puljujarvi pushed Edmonton ever-so-close to the win in what was quite simply one of the Oilers’ most well-rounded games of the year.
Things weren’t pretty, no, but when games get tight in the playoffs and down the stretch, Edmonton needs to know how to close out games like they did last night.
It’s a style of play that’s seemed foreign to the Oilers, but Woodcroft’s approach is a fresh look at managing a lead.
“When we got to the third period, and I saw it was 2-1, we let our team know we weren’t sitting back, that we were going to be aggressive, that we were going to play on our toes and we wanted to go after them,” he explained. “I thought those players that played a lot in the third period had a lot in the tank and had more to give, and they gave it.”
For the Oilers, that fresh river air will only last for so long. The honeymoon phase will end with the new coach and adversity will surely be faced once again.
But this new, team-first approach may just be what the team needs.


  • Cody Ceci played a season-high 26:24 for the Oilers last night. He opened the scoring for the team in the first with a well-placed point shot through a screen. With him on the ice at 5×5, the Oilers controlled 45.45 percent of the shot attempts and 49.69 percent of the expected goals. I thought his play was rock solid and the numbers back it. Not too high, not too low. Average can be a good thing.
  • Woodcroft made Devin Shore a late scratch opting to roll 11F and 7D. I liked the way he deployed both Philip Broberg and Markus Niemelainen last night. I’ll have more on this later today.
  • Down in Bakersfield, Colin Chaulk won his first game as an AHL head coach with a 3-2 win over the Henderson Silver Knights. He was promoted to the interim tag with Woodcroft’s promotion to the big club.

Zach Laing is the Nation Network’s news director and senior columnist. He can be followed on Twitter at @zjlaing, or reached by email at [email protected]