Each victory is worth two points, but there are some games in a season that carry more meaning and say something about a team's character. Tonight's 6-3 victory against the Winnipeg Jets was one of those games. Facing all sorts of pressure and adversity after an embarrassing loss against the Leafs, the Edmonton Oilers battled through familiar demons early in the game to emerge triumphant in the end.
Faced with glaring problems on the power play and mental concentration, pressed up against the wall to improve upon their last three games, how does this team respond? Tonight, the Oilers proudly stepped up with their answer- Mark Letestu.
It was a somewhat unconventional night, with scoring from the unlikeliest of players, and emotions were dangled to all sorts of places, from explosive exasperation to absolute euphoria. I'm not here to suggest that the Oilers read the article I wrote this morning, but I think they read the article I wrote this morning (they definitely didn't). Better shot selection? Check. An improved power play? How about 3/4? Secondary Scoring? I'll take two goals from Letestu, and one each from Maroon and even Pouliot. Intensity? The Oilers finished with twenty one hits, almost double the Jets’ total (11), along with an early scrap from Patty Maroon that seemed to ignite the team. This is the team we know they are capable of being, and why the past few losses felt so infuriating.
This is not to say this game didn't have its warts, because warts aplenty there were. This is apparent from the fact that the usual top Swede Dream pairing of Klebom and Larsson had only 16:20 and 16:31 of ice time each, respectively, the lowest of all the blueliners tonight. But the resilience shown by the team to keep fighting despite their problems was very encouraging and brought a tiny tear to my eye. Despite the lopsided score, they could very easily have lost control of this game at many points, and it was their ability to dig themselves out of these situations that became the highlight of the game.
As Coach Todd remarked in the post-game interview, it was the work ethic that made the difference in this match.
"Work ethic went up, execution went up, power play performed. I thought we had a little more pace to our game, a little more resilient than we had been in the past. Once they pushed 30 seconds into the game, we pushed back, even in the third period when they got the momentum, right off the bat when they got the five-on-three. The main factor was the work ethic, we got it back to where it needed to be and we'll need that this weekend."
The last time these two teams met, it resulted in a 3-0 win for the Oilers during the Winter Heritage Classic that put them at 5-1-0 for the season and was really the first time I started to believe that the early results were not merely a fluke. It was a turning point, and this game, if the Oilers can sustain the good habits and continue to suppress the bad ones, could turn out to be another turning point in the season. Let's explore in the recap.
The first minute of this hockey game made me a very sad human.
Just as I was mid-sentence telling my roommate how important it is for the Oilers to win this game, and play a good game defensively 5-on-5, the Jets score a mere 35 seconds into the game. For some reason, it was a familiar feeling.
This was now how life was supposed to unfold today. Blake Wheeler was able to enter the zone and get a shot, then another shot, then a clean pass right in front of the net, as Bryan Little capitalized to put it in for his first of the season. Given that even strength defensive coverage was what Todd McLellan emphasized over and over post-practice and pre-game, you can presume there was a good amount of steam coming out of his ears. Oscar Klefbom was once again caught looking on the play after a horrid showing against Toronto, and it may explain the fact that he would end up with the lowest ice time of all defensemen tonight.
Instead of writhing in their painful start, the Oilers recovered very well from the initial lapse, starting when Patrick Maroon took a high stick to the face, earning the team's first power play of the game. When the initial whistle was blown, I shouted at the TV, "BLEED, PATTY, BLEED! DO IT FOR THE TEAM!" The poor man tried so hard to squeeze some blood out and show the referee, because pain without blood is worthless in the NHL, but alas, it was only a two minute call. I would have punched my own tooth out to draw a little blood for the team, but with the way the power play had been going lately, maybe it wouldn't matter anyway.
It turns out two minutes was all the Oilers would need, as the soondubu power play converted at 2:31 in the period to tie the game up at 1-1. Who knew that Mark Letestu was the hero we needed? Draisaitl finally did the smart thing early in the power play and just shot the puck, and Letestu, whose name I had only associated with the penalty kill for the entirety of our acquaintance, deftly lifted his stick for the deflection, scoring the third of the season. With that, the power play evolved past soondubu status and reached medium firm tofu level.
The Oilers actually put in a really solid five minutes of sustained offensive pressure after the first Jets goal, and they got another crack at the power play when Mathieu Perreault, who looks like a sinister French-Canadian version of Aragorn, took a boarding call at 5:25. The Oilers didn't score on this power play, but it was significant because it was the first time we saw McDavid commit to shooting the puck-- he took three shots at the net, two of them resulting in good scoring chances, and Draisaitl almost tipped home one of the rebounds. This approach would prove highly effective for the rest of the night.
But before that, the Oilers had to get some routine Oilers things out of the way. The world collectively cringed as Benoit Pouliot took an offensive zone penalty-- it's not even so much being frustrated as him at this point, as my emotions have evolved to pity when things like this happen to him. I know he means the best, and probably has woken up multiple times drenched in cold sweat from nightmares about this very situation.
Anyways, because the world continues to collectively conspire against Benoit Pouliot, Patrik "Gun Shooter" Laine's shot, which makes me salivate with jealousy, goes in on the power play to put the Jets back up 2-1. If Eberle's shot is like a badminton birdie coasting through the air, Laine's is like a freaking bullet on its way to murder your family.
Here is another point when the Oilers could either let that Jets lead increase and fall into futility, or claw back into this match-- what happened was a scrap between Patrick Maroon and Chris Thorburn, the Sinister Aragorn II on the Jets, that more resembled a prolonged hug than anything, but the effort was surely appreciated by the bench. Connor McDavid played like the deity he is all throughout the first period, with multiple great scoring chances thwarted only by the solid play of Connor Hellebuyck. Of note was a ridiculous steal in the corner and move to the net that was barely kept out of the net by Hellebuyck's persistent toe. I will copy pasta my nightly sermon about his mindblowing speed and determination, because I just cannot grow complacent about the captain's excellence.
In fact, it felt like the entire first period, aside from the first period and the Jets' power play, was dominated offensively by the Oilers. They outshot the Jets 13-5, and most importantly, had eleven High Danger scoring chances to the Jets' three. The score didn't reflect it, but it was a good start.
Connor McDavid started off the period with his usual ferocious burst of speed and drew a holding call just five seconds in. Let's take a moment and pity the plebs who are tasked with trying to contain the brilliance of the chosen one.
What happened next was beautiful-- the medium firm power play finally evolved to become firm tofu as Draisaitl tapped in the rebound from McDavid's shot on the power play to tie the game at 2-2. It is safe to agree at this point that Connor McDavid shooting the puck is generally good for this world. His smile during the celebration is such a rare thing that seeing it freaked me out a little.
McDavid and Lucic picked up the assists on Draisaitl's eighth of the year at 0:51 into the second, and the Oilers would increase that lead when Mark "Rocket Richard" Letestu got his second of the night on yet another power play goal at 5:06 in the second period to give the team their first lead of the game.
At this point, Mark Letestu had his second goal of the game before even the halfway point of the match, the Oilers power play was 3/4, and I pondered the wondrous nature of this strange universe. Of course, Connor McDavid was very much involved on this play, helping to draw the penalty in the first place with a great pass to Russell in front of the net, and setting up the Letestu goal with a wonderful zone entry. Milan Lucic, now quietly on a six-game point streak, got his second assist of the night, showing great patience before feeding Letestu, who was charging in from the middle of the ice, with a perfect pass.
Let's keep the happiness going. Because the two goals from Letestu weren't enough to embody the definition of secondary scoring, Patrick Maroon potted his seventh of the season at 11:43 with a strange shot from the side of the net that got past Hellebuyck, thanks largely to a perfect screen by Zack Kassian, who got the assist on the goal and reacted by looking like he had won Lotto 649. Because he can, Letestu also got an assist on this goal, his third point of the night, and seeing those three embrace after this goal was the most heartwarming moment of the night for me. For Maroon, this goal broke a nine-game scoring draught, and it was Kassian's first point in 16 games-- you could see the joy and relief glowing from their bro hugs. The Oilers took a 4-2 lead and would maintain it until the end of the second.
Interestingly, the Jets won the Corsi battle 26-13 in this period, but it was the Oilers who had the three goals. We know that feel, Jets fans.
Because a win isn't as fun if you aren't made to sweat during the process, Benoit Pouliot misses a pass coming out of the zone, leading Kris Russell to take a penalty on the ensuing play to prevent Byfuglien from getting a point blank shot at the net. Then, Nugey puts in the hook on a shorthanded breakaway to give the Jets a prolonged 5-on-3, during which Patrik Laine fired his Finnish gun again and the game was suddenly close at 4-3 1:44 into the third. It really didn't have to be this way, but somehow it turned out this way anyways.
Here was another point at which the Oilers of the past few years would have let the opposing team, starting the period with a ton of energy after a good talking to from their coach, back into the game. And here we see why this year's team is not just visibly better, but actually much more resilient. They clamped down on defense, and despite a flurry of offensive pressure by the Jets after their power play goal, it was Leon Draisaitl who scored his second of the game at 7:13 to restore the two-goal lead with a beautiful spin move to put in the rebound off a Larsson point shot.
And then, defying all the rules in this universe, Benoit Pouliot scored just twenty seconds later. Yes, that Benoit Pouliot. His deflection of Sekera's point shot was his first goal in 15 games, and this really is the ultimate indication that the Oilers' fortunes have turned, right?
Also worth mentioning is Cam Talbot's excellent play towards the end of the game to maintain the 6-3 lead-- he made a spectacular save with about a minute left on Tanev, and his performance overall can be considered a good bounceback from his game in Toronto.
- Anton Slepyshev and Tyler Pitlick didn't get on the scoresheet, but they were noticeable all night. The injection of speed and energy was so refreshing after the past few games, and they had a couple of good scoring chances in the first period, generated mostly off their aggressiveness and drive. At one point, Slepyshev's hustle led Helluybuck to fumble the puck and almost led to a scoring chance. I think the lineup is a lot better with these two in. Pitlick even made some good defensive plays in the second with a good stick and puck clearing during a period of sustained offensive pressure from the Jets.
- Connor McDavid was Connor McDavid, and that is just about the highest praise one can give to anybody. He was consistently generating chance after chance all throughout the night and finished with three assists, cementing his lead atop the points leaderboard in the NHL with 34 points, six more than whichever pretender is in second place. He also drew, like, all the penalties, and his increased penchant for shooting the puck on the power play made a substantial difference in the offensive output tonight.
- Leon Draisaitl finished the game with eight shots and a team high 78.57% CF%. Holy Jesus. The Deutschland Dangler even threw in a check in the third period, chirping a bit with Laine, which just elevated the perfection of his game tonight. His chemistry with Connor was undeniable enough for me to start brainstorming couple names for them (McDraivid?), and he himself professed his love for his new linemate in the postgame interview. "For me, he's just such an easy player to play with," said Dr. Drai, and more importantly, it looks like it's easy for Connor to play with Leon. What I mean by that is it often seemed like McDavid's wingers had trouble reading him and catching up to his playmaking, while many have remarked on Draisaitl's hockey smarts and vision. Maybe, just maybe, Leon is the one. Coach Todd commented on this new pairing, saying, "I know they like playing together. We'd like them to continue doing that, but that only happens if the rest of the group is pulling their weight through the middle and the wingers are playing well like they did tonight."
- Mark Letestu underwent his metamorphosis tonight and emerged a goal-scoring butterfly. He had two great chances after his first two goals to actually get his first hat trick of the season, but just missed. "I know his teammates want him in," said Coach Todd after the game. "They appreciate his ability to almost coach the team at times; he's smart, he's bright, he takes control of situations." Letestu finished with 17:45 of ice time, second to only Connor McDavid amongst forwards, with 3:12 on the power play and 3:39 on the penalty kill. I remember last year when Iiro Pakarinen randomly had a hat trick. It turned out to be a fluke-- let's hope Letestu sustains his good play and turns out to be a PP and PK double monster.
- Andrej Sekera deserves some props for playing a team-high 24:59, two assists, and a team high six shot blocks. He took over much of the duties on the power play from Oscar Klefbom, with 3:12 of power play time tonight, and did very well in the role.
- Patrick Maroon also deserves a shout out. I should just shout out to the world at this point. A valiant effort to bleed, a fight, and a goal-- not bad for the big teddy bear.
- Something happened tonight with the Larsbom pairing and it wasn’t not good. Usually the ones hard carrying the ice time on the blueline, they finished with the two lowest ice time totals. Perhaps it was Klefbom's role in the opening goal, or his performance in his previous game, but he was definitely being punished as he was so invisible during this game that I started panicking that he had been injured. It did not help that Klefbom had the puck blatantly stripped from him on his last shift of the game. As a professional lobbyist for this pairing, I hope they are back to form on Saturday.
- The team had a rather disappointing night in the faceoff circle, finishing with 39%. Nugey had a particularly bad night with 27%, and Connor McDavid was 17%, proving he is perhaps mortal after all. The bright side was Leon Draisaitl, finishing with 56% for the night.
- The team did commit 15 giveaways (vs the Jets' 8) tonight, speaking to the sloppiness that was present in the game despite the end result.
- Some unnecessary penalties by Pouliot, Larsson, and Nugent-Hopkins allowed the Jets to score on their dangerous power play and unleash the Gun of Laine. Their offensive production made up for it tonight, but some more discipline would be nice in future games.
Game in a Haiku
The hero we all needed
was Mark Letestu.