At the start of February, things weren’t looking good for the Edmonton Oilers. After a scorching 16-5-0 start to the season, they improved to 7-13-3 on their next 23, and as a result were five points off of second-place wildcard in the Western Conference.
That’s when general manager Ken Holland opted to fire head coach Dave Tippett and replace him with Jay Woodcroft – a move that clearly rejuvenated this group.
They managed to turn things around quickly with their new bench boss and locked in the second seed in the Pacific Division, earning them a date with the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
Although they are heavy favorites in the series, it is by no means certain that they will advance to the second round. The case and the point being each of the last two years, where they have been eliminated in the first round – first against the Chicago Blackhawks, second behind the Winnipeg Jets – despite being favored. That being said, the Oilers have a different feel this year and many, including this writer, believe they will have playoff success this time around. Here are the main reasons why:
More offensive support
For years, one of the biggest criticisms the Oilers faced was that they had no forwards capable of offense other than their two-headed monster of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. While these two have continued to dominate in 2021-22, there have been many others who have contributed their fair share.
One of those players is Zach Hyman, who Holland signed last summer to a seven-year, $38.5 million deal. The first year of the deal went very well for the Oilers, as the 29-year-old slotted very well into that team’s top six and posted career highs with 27 goals and 54 points.
In addition to Hyman’s play, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto have improved this season, amassing 36 goals and 77 points. They helped consolidate wing positions, an area that has been sorely lacking in recent years.
The biggest addition of all was Evander Kane. Although he only joined the team at the end of January, the 30-year-old winger made his mark quickly and adds a dynamic of grit and goalscoring the Oilers haven’t possessed in a long time. He fit in well on a line with McDavid from the start and has 22 goals and 39 points in just 43 games this season.
With the extra help up front, teams hoping to shut down the Oilers offense won’t have it as easy to do so as they have in the past. During the season, their 290 goals ranked seventh among all clubs in the NHL, and would have been even higher had they had Kane on the roster all year.
The goalkeeper warms up
The biggest question mark surrounding this Oilers team heading into the season was the goalie. Mikko Koskinen had been far too inconsistent in recent years to be counted on, while many doubted Mike Smith’s ability to stay healthy at the age of 40.
Doubts seemed very well placed for much of this season, as Koskinen was good enough to rack up wins but far from spectacular, and Smith battled a number of injuries which kept him on the sidelines quite often. While questions remain, it’s undeniable that their goalies seem to be warming up at the right time.
Smith, who is the confirmed starter for Game 1, enters the playoffs on a nine-game winning streak. In 22 games played since the all-star break, he has an excellent goals-against-average (GAA) of 2.55 combined with a save percentage (SV) of 0.921. He has played well in two games against the Kings this season, posting a 2.00 ERA and 0.938% SV.
As for Koskinen, his numbers aren’t as strong as Smith’s, but there’s still reason to be confident in him if he does see some action. Although his play remained inconsistent at times during the season, he managed to do the one thing a team needs from its goalie and that is rack up wins. Last Friday, he managed to win a career-high 27th game, giving him a very solid 27-12-4 record this season. He’s by no means a starting guard, but he’s proven to be solid enough to pick up wins if the Oilers need to call on him.
Team play under Woodcroft
Prior to his firing, the Oilers were 23-18-3 under Tippett for a .557 point percentage. Since Woodcroft arrived, they’ve increased that point percentage to .724 with a 26-9-3 record in 38 games. He’s seen more as a player’s coach than Tippett, and it’s clear from the record that the Oilers react much more favorably to that approach.
Since Holland changed coaches, the Oilers have become one of the best teams in the league in several categories. Their 26 wins since the switch are tied for first, while their points percentage is second. Their play has improved at both ends of the ice, as evidenced by their +40 goal differential over that span, which ranks second among all NHL teams. Their goals per game (3.82) as well as their goals against per game (2.76) are tied for fifth.
The trade seems to have worked wonders for Smith and Koskinen, as both are thriving under Woodcroft. The team’s .915 SV% with their new bench boss ranks third in the entire league.
West is open for the taking
The Oilers will by no means have an easy path to the Stanley Cup Finals. Each team that has qualified for the playoffs has many strengths and will not go down without a fight. That being said, they’re a better Oilers team than in the past, and they’re in great shape for success this spring.
Everyone knows the quality of the Colorado Avalanche, and teams like the Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, and Calgary Flames deserve a ton of credit for their seasons as well. There’s no denying, however, that the Vegas Golden Knights’ absence from the playoffs has given several teams a much better opportunity to come out West. The Oilers are one of those teams, and if they’re able to keep up their great play from the second half of the season, they could be in store for a long playoff streak.
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