Truth be told, the Edmonton Oilers have been playing at the high level many expected of them since the calendar turned to 2023. The middling start from the fall portion of the 2022–23 season is a fading memory, the Oilers have been controlling play at a higher rate, an effectiveness of process that has translated into improved results in the standings.
Funnily enough the Oilers aren’t the only team that appears to have patterns based on the time of year, and there are certainly worse habits to have than finding a higher level as the season grows longer.
What has changed for the Oilers
There have been several key twists and turns on the road to here, from Philip Broberg’s promotion to the NHL, the penalty kill improving with call ups in Mattias Janmark and Vincent Desharnais, the forward depth returning from the injured reserve, and finally some deft manoeuvring at the trade deadline.
Anecdotally, the overall sharpness and attention to detail has returned, the so-called Jay Woodcroft effect we saw take place after the coach’s promotion last season. With all these changes it is safe to say that the Oilers are looking better than they have ever looked in this millennium, and no better time than now in the primes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
This does not mean the performance over these months has been perfect. Jack Campbell’s play has reverted to concerning after a stronger January. Losses have been earned, particularly against some of the league’s weaker teams, notably twice against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets. While some fans can’t be faulted for fixating on these low points, it is crucial to remember that the NHL regular season is (too) long, filled with stretches adverse to peak performance, let alone the inherent chaos that professional sport, and hockey for that matter, offer.
Oilers no longer outclassed
All the positives surrounding the Oilers were on full display Thursday March 9 during a road game against what might be the greatest regular season team of all time, the 2022–23 Boston Bruins. Famously, the Bruins had yet to lose a game in regulation when leading after both first and second periods. A 2–0 lead for the Bruins after the first, off of two goals that squeaked through the ascendant Stuart Skinner, the Bruins appeared to be in full control yet again.
What transpired the rest of the game was a terrific display of hockey. Both the Oilers and Bruins were playing at a high level, contesting every inch of ice, applying and navigating pressure, tight checking and crisp playmaking counteracting each other in concert.
Despite the outcome of the game, the Oilers proved that they could play with anyone, even the most incredible teams, a fact that might have been in question following the Western Conference Final loss to the Colorado Avalanche last season. In that series the quality of the Oilers team as a whole was no match for the eventual Cup champions.
While the Bruins might have their own gripes about what transpired, rare miscues from their top players, having the promising Jeremy Swayman in net as opposed the Vezina favourite Linus Ullmark, the Oilers deserve full credit for their efforts. Even Bruins coach Jim Montgomery had to concede that his team was outworked by the Oilers, as he did during his post game availability. Sure, the Bruins can and will have better games, but this win was full value.
Edmonton found other ways to win
The Bruins managed to keep McDavid and Draisaitl in check, a difficult task that will start to occur more frequently against top teams in the lawlessness of the NHL playoffs. Even more, the Oilers had only one power play opportunity in the game, on which they did not score—a frequent criticism being that the Oiler rely too much on their historically strong results with the man advantage. In years past this would be more than enough to dismantle the Oilers, yet this iteration of the team showed it has the strength to overcome these circumstances.
This starts with playing a strong team game, or proverbially “not beating yourself”. The Oilers blueline is much improved, and more balanced, with the addition of Mattias Ekholm, which certainly helps.
Despite some miscues, Skinner is continuing along his path that might see him earn a roster spot on a best-on-best team Canada, were such a thing to ever come to fruition.
The forward depth is significant, with contributors like Nick Bjugstad, Ryan McLeod, Warren Foegele, Janmark, Klim Kostin, and the always reliable vintage of Derek Ryan making the distinction between third line and fourth line irrelevant.
These questions of depth are exactly what a championship level team requires, players that could contribute more pushed lower in the lineup. All the while each player has a clear role, a function within the group, areas to contribute and the willing embrace of such. For example McLeod has proven capable of third line centre duties since the beginning of last season. His playing (arguably) lower in the lineup than this hasn’t discouraged him, and still a key member of the penalty kill McLeod has been steady.
The same might be said for Philip Broberg, more and more often a healthy scratch, who showed that he is ready for full time NHL action. While he might be able to further prove himself with a bigger role, a reality that may materialise through sheer attrition, this lineup decision comes more from the reality of the immense strength of the blueline than it does from Broberg’s play specifically. With elite defencemen in Darnell Nurse and Ekholm, as well as the capable Brett Kulak, all occupying the left side above Broberg, the Oilers find themselves with an enviable problem.
After some over-ambitiousness from Brad Marchand, the Oilers took a turnover and turned it into a four-on-one, leading to a Evan Bouchard goal that brought the Oilers to within one, down 2–1 after the second period.
Ekholm’s arrival is conducive to Bouchard’s coming of age. Bouchard had been limited to second unit power play and third pairing duties this season despite showing fantastic underlying metrics. After flirting with second pairing minutes last season, Bouchard has enough of a resume to be considered a legitimate top four defenceman at this point, a stock that will likely continue to rise throughout the remainder of McDavid and Draisaitl’s current contracts.
Authoring a triumphant win
The aforementioned McLeod tied the game in the third after two of the best defensive players in the league, Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy, combined for a rare miscue. Finally, the game’s eventual first star Nurse fired a shot from the blueline that found its way through traffic and to the back of the net to give the Oilers the lead.
The Bruins gave a valiant push down the final five minutes of the third, applying pressure and forcing the Oilers to defend. Long an issue for the Oilers, the team kept its composure, blocking shots and winning faceoffs, embracing the dirty work required to finish the Bruins off.
In all it was a spirited game of high quality that led to Oilers play by play announcer Jack Michaels, and many spectators, openly wondering if the two teams might meet in a Cup Final this June. There is a long way to go yet, but the Oilers performance in this game is a punctuation on their resume as legitimate contenders. With the Western Conference fairly wide open, morale through Oil Country deserves to be sky high, and hopes that the “City of Champions” moniker might become relevant once more are justified.
Back-to-back years winning a playoff series is a rare feat, reserved for franchises that have consistently displayed excellence. If the Oilers are able to deliver on their promise to do such, if not more, it should go a long way towards the reputations of all involved. Despite a slow start, Woodcroft is not a flash in the pan. Even with his share of tough contracts, Holland isn’t an incompetent GM. Despite a large contract, Nurse is a viable top pair defenceman. The Oilers are more than McDavid and Draisaitl, a favourite in the Western Conference, and a contender in the NHL as a whole.
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire