Despite last night’s 5-1 shellacking at the hands of the Minnesota Wild, there has been little to complain about when it comes to the Edmonton Oilers of late. It was exactly five weeks ago today that this club managed to get past the Washington Capitals in an overtime thriller and in the process, vaulting themselves into what has been their most impressive stretch of the 2021-22 campaign.
Prior to that game, many had started to wonder aloud if the Oilers were going to do the unthinkable and miss the playoffs altogether. By posting a 12-3-2 mark over their past 17 games, they’ve not only put said narrative to bed but seem poised to hold off the Los Angeles Kings and Las Vegas Golden Knights for second place in the Pacific Division.
With eight games left to play, there could still be some movement in the standings but should they manage to hold onto their current spot, it’ll be interesting to see how things unfold come playoff time. It’s no secret teams prefer to have home-ice come playoff time and yet, when it comes to this Oilers side, that might not be the case.
There are those who suggest what this team did or didn’t get done during Dave Tippett’s tenure behind the bench has no bearing on what they ultimately accomplish under Jay Woodcroft’s leadership. That may or may not be the case but one thing that cannot be ignored, is what happened in each of the past two playoffs when it comes to their performance at Rogers Place.
Six games over two different post-seasons and the Oilers managed to lose five of them. Yes, those games took place in a very different setting (an arena with no fans inside of it) but the pressure of having to go out and win on home-ice is a real thing. It is something all teams feel but those who have little to no playoff success to lean on, tend to feel it a little more and it makes perfect sense.
If we take a step back and look at how the Oilers were bounced in each of the past two years, many of their same problems/issues exist. The goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith remains a big question mark. The lack of penalties called during the playoffs will continue to be a narrative, as it always is. Like it or not, it’s going to happen and this group has to find a way through it.
Teams who play a more robust style of game give the Oilers trouble and it has far less to do about physicality and more to do with so-called gamesmanship. Part of the deal with playoff hockey is finding the line of what you can get away with and to toe that line on a nightly basis. Teams do it to the Oilers every single game and they have yet to figure it out how to return the favour.
That inability to effectively interfere and play a so-called greasy game, which includes not only the defence but the forwards as well, has led to them playing a far too passive game. It kills them in the defensive zone and they do not have goaltending that is equipped to save them on a repeated basis. Again, this isn’t about a lack of physicality and everything to do with reading the game.
On the positive side of the equation, one of the biggest reasons for the Oilers lack of playoff success fell directly on Tippett and his staff. Two years of terrible player deployment and an unwillingness to make actual in-game adjustments (as shortening the bench and grinding his best players into dust doesn’t count) gave this team little chance at advancing in the post-season.
By no means is Woodcroft perfect but his openness and want to try different things have been a refreshing change and the results speak for themselves. Under the previous regime, it was this square peg is going to fit into this round hole. End of discussion. It took much longer than it should have but that mindset is what ultimately cost Tippett his job and the Oilers are better off for it.
The other big plus in their favour, the ability to score at evens. As previously mentioned, the lack of power plays in the playoffs is a reality and when your offence is predominantly built on the man advantage and your two best players, early playoff exists are an almost guarantee. This team has morphed into one of the best 5v5 sides under Woodcroft and that alone is a game changer.
With that said, these players have a ton of pressure on them. Starting off a series in front of boisterous home crowd would be nice and give them a shot at an early 2-0 series lead. However, it could just as easily go the other way and with the Oilers shortcomings being what they are, in my mind, starting on the road and trying to steal one of the first two games might just be the best option for this group.