As the hype meter reaches unprecedented levels in Edmonton with each passing minute, the Oilers are closing out their regular season as players and fans' minds have already moved on to the postseason. It may be jarring to not see any Oilers at the World Hockey Championships this year, but attention now turns to the team's first-round opponent.
The Oilers' 3-2 win over the Canucks on Saturday night carried two implications-- not only does the team continue their momentum, catching fire lately with a 10-2 record in their last 12 games, they captured home ice advantage and secured at least second place in the Pacific Division with 101 points and one more game to go.
At this point in the season, it's as important to get the win as it is to look for continued positive signs that will be crucial for playoff success.
"It's been a season where we've gotten better as the season went along," said Jordan Eberle, who scored the opening goal of the game. "We're playing our best hockey right now, which is what you want to do going into the playoffs and get some confidence, individually and as a team. We've had a number of improvements, from our goals against to our penalty kill and power play, it's just all-around better."
Head coach Todd McLellan similarly echoed the need to continue growing and improving, whether it's in the regular season or playoffs-- as much as making the playoffs is a big moment for the team, this is by no means the end of the road but rather a point in time on a continuous path of development.
"Perfection doesn't exist until you've won your last game and we're a long way from that," he said after the game. "So we'll continue to grow our team and try and improve it on a daily basis."
Tonight, there were plenty of positive signs-- we saw another stellar goaltending performance by Cam Talbot, all three goals from non-first line players, and another great game from Milan Lucic, the beast awakening at just the right time.
It was Lucic's show of superhuman strength, with shades of the Boston Lucic fans hated so much, that set up the eventual game winner in the third period. He made coming out of the penalty box look like a beast being unleashed from prolonged captivity, fighting off a determined Troy Stecher (the poor guy really tried) with every bit of his 236-pound body en route to getting a shot away, which went off the immensely pitiful Stecher's face and left him lying on the ice in pain. Iiro Pakarinen leapt in with opportune Finnish timing to tap in the rebound for a 3-1 lead that would hold up as the game-winner.
The first period of this game was scoreless and relatively even, featuring lots of tight checking with shots slightly favoring the Canucks at 11-9.
The second period was when things opened up, featuring end-to-end action with a litany of scoring chances for both teams. Jordan Leslie Eberle, whose Mr. Clutch tendencies have been waiting seven years to be unleashed in the Playoffs, took the lead for the Oilers with a deflected shot just 1:01 into the second period for his 17th of the season.
The Canucks, however, turned on the pressure in the second half of the period, and despite a flurry of spectacular saves by Talbot, Brock Boeser capitalized on the power play to tie the game at 1-1, his fourth in just eight games (shoutout to Boeser for being an all-around good guy).
The Oilers then retook the lead on a four-minute power play after Drake Caggiula was hit by a high stick, as Mark Letestu redirected Connor McDavid's shot for the 2-1 lead 3:04 into the third. It was Letestu's 16th goal of the season (!!), McDavid's 98th point, and Oscar Klefbom's 37th point, for anyone who's counting (aka me).
And then came Lucic, charging out of the penalty box to set up Pakarinen's second of the year for the 3-1 lead. Patrick Maroon missed an empty net with around a minute remaining, allowing Reid Boucher to tap in a rebound on their other end to make it a 3-2 game with 40 seconds left, but Talbot stood strong as Edmonton took the first of two back-to-back games against the Canucks.
(Tonight’s Good, Bad and Ugly will be set to titles from the iconic Canadian musician Justin Bieber. #HDMH)
- Strong- There’s no better time for Milan Lucic to awaken from his recent nap. After a natural hat trick against San Jose that may have single-handedly clinched home ice advantage for the Oilers, tonight was vintage Lucic, mean and strong. As one of the only Oilers with extended playoff experience, his leadership and heart will be invaluable down the stretch on a team of, well, playoff noobs.
- Confident- The top line of Maroon-McDavid-Draisaitl performed very well despite not getting on the scoresheet often, all three players finishing in the top five CF%-wise, all above 66%, and combined for eight shots.
- Be Alright- The second line of Lucic-Nuge-Eberle is really clicking recently, combining for 11 shots and three points on the night— their continued success ensures the top line stays intact and the chemistry is starting to materialize increasingly in recent games.
- No Pressure- The Sekera/Russell deserves a shoutout- this pairing is the understated and quiet veteran tandem that keeps it together night after night. It’s really hard to imagine where the Oilers would be without them, providing cover for the younger pairings to develop. Sekera finished with a +19/-9 CF and Russell a +21/-13 despite a Zone Start% below 50% for both of them.
- Trust- Cam Talbot was fantastic, stopping 29/31 shots, many of them tricky shots or mad scrambles in front of the net. It’s a nice feeling to feel confidence that anything that should be stopped will be stopped by your netminder.
- We Are- The Oilers led in almost every category tonight— shot count (35-31), FO% (51%-49%), hits (16-13), blocks (16-12), and had less giveaways (3-9). They may not have bested their opponent significantly in any one category, but by being consistently better in all of them, it ensured a well-rounded high level of play throughout.
- Recovery- It’s also worth just pointing out, with trepidation in case this jinxes anything, that the Oilers have no significant injuries at all. Seeing the battered Canucks team reminded me of this unusual good fortune, perhaps good karma after the bodies piled up last season.
- Sorry- Despite a good night in most aspects, the defensive coverage in the second was sloppy, leaving Talbot exposed and having to bail out his team at many points with many odd-man rushes or turnovers right in front of the net.
- What Do You Mean?- When are referees going to start actually calling blatant penalties on Connor McDavid? Being very good doesn’t mean it’s okay to get slashed egregiously without a call.
Game in a Haiku
Milan Lucic has
risen from the dead and you
are all Troy Stecher.