The Left-For-Dead Oilers Are The NHL’s Hottest Team
9:40 AM EST on January 17, 2024
Welcome back to the latest edition of What The Hell Is Up With The Edmonton Oilers, the show where we try to figure out what the hell is up with the Edmonton Oilers. It's North America's hardest game show and no one has ever won.
One game short of the halfway mark, and the Oilers are on pace for 100 points. If you had said this to someone two months ago, not even a loved one would have humored your nonsense. The early-season Oil were disastrous, losing 10 of their first 12 and 13 of their first 18. They weren't just losing; they were getting the doors blown off. They weren't scoring, and they weren't stopping pucks, and Jack Campbell was broken, possibly forever. They were jousting with the historically inept Sharks in the league's basement, possibly in some sort of sleepover pillow fight. It was bad and ugly, and if it was still early, it was bad enough and ugly enough that it looked like it might kill a whole season. There was a point you could get the same odds on them finishing with the NHL's worst record that you could on them making the playoffs.
But it's a long season, and regression comes for us all, and as of this morning, the Oilers are in playoff position. They've gone streaking: three straight wins here, eight straight there, and now, after Tuesday night's 4-2 comeback win over the Maple Leafs, an ongoing 11-game win streak—the longest in franchise history, and it's a pretty illustrious history. The sad-sack Oilers are no longer sad nor sack.
It was a fabulous crowd in Edmonton, a playoff-vibe crowd that lived and died with every rush and shot attempt. There were a lot of Leafs fans in the building, and as Toronto took a 2-0 lead they made themselves heard. But the home team fought back with four goals in the last 25 minutes, including a crucial tying goal from Derek Ryan and some nifty work from Ryan McLeod to put Edmonton up with 3:05 left.
An empty-netter later, and those vocal visiting fans went taciturn. "I’m glad we were able to beat Toronto," said goalie Stuart Skinner, who stopped 25 of 27 pucks he faced, "and beat the Toronto fans out there.”
The game was characteristic of how Edmonton's been racking up the Ws: a late surge—their third-straight third-period comeback—a balanced offense, stout defense and goaltending, and a relatively low-scoring affair. None of these are things one typically associates with the Oilers, who for the last near-decade have won (and lost) with fireworks, their megastar centers putting up gaudy numbers and carrying a one-dimensional team. That's not these Oilers of late. McDavid has been having a down year (for him), and Evander Kane's injured and ineffective. Instead they're getting goals from Zach Hyman, having a career year, and from actual depth scoring. It was third-liners Ryan and McLeod in this one, but Saturday's OT winner was Evan Bouchard's, and last Thursday's was Darnell Nurse's. Everybody's putting in the work. These Oilers are grinding. The Oilers don't, historically, grind. Maybe it translates better to playoff hockey.
Leon Draisaitl tried to downplay this new look, but even he couldn't deny the pleasure of playing for a team that, finally, appears to have more than one way to win.
"It's definitely big,” Draisaitl said. “Especially in May and June—those games, they're all going to be tight. I would have to say that we've shown it before; we've done it before. We've gone far in the playoffs before, so I don't think it's only this year. But I feel like there's a level of composure, maybe hitting the next level here.”
Let's not get ahead of ourselves (a lesson you'd think I'd learn about the Oilers after being forcefully taught it something like six years in a row). No team is as bad as it appears at its lowest, and no team is as good as it looks on a winning streak. Regression goes both ways. Still, Edmonton has played itself back into contention, and has incredibly squeaked ahead of the once-lordly Kings in a vicious Pacific race. A lot can happen; there's still half of a season to go. But these Oilers look good in a way that even previous winning editions haven't. They look like they can win games even when the McDavid-Draisaitl well runs dry. That's a much more dangerous team.
As always, I reserve the right to pretend I never wrote any of this if they get ousted by the Canucks in five.