The Oilers meet the Canadiens at the Bell Centre on Tuesday, the third game of a six-game road trip for Edmonton. They’re coming off a 4-2 loss on Sunday in Phoenix, only their third regulation defeat of the season. At 8-3-2, they are third in the Western Conference and a berth in the playoffs, something that might have been considered an outside possibility prior to the season, now can’t be easily discounted.
Of all the surprising things about the surprising Oilers, perhaps nothing surpasses their league-best defensive record of 22 goals against in just 13 games. How they’ve managed this is one of the NHL’s bigger mysteries so far, especially when you read the names on their no name defence corps and consider that three veterans, talented Ryan Whitney, and two rugged guys in Andy Sutton and Cam Barker haven’t been playing. Sutton is suspended, the other two are injured.
One factor has to be the coaching of Tom Renney. Renney didn’t get enough credit in New York for how well he got the Rangers to play team defence, masking their thin blueline corps by getting forwards to play responsibly. He’s facing the same challenge in Edmonton and getting excellent results with a group of defencemen that no one will mistake for the 1977 Canadiens — or even the 1987 Oilers.
Another reason is the goaltending of 38 year-old Nikolai Khabibulin, who was rested against Phoenix. Khabibulin’s numbers are insane: 0.98 goals-against average, a .963 save percentage and two shutouts. He hasn’t lost a game in regulation this season. None of this could have been expected coming off his dismal play last season — a 10-32-4 record, 3.40 GAA, .890 pct. — the worst since his rookie year with the original Winnipeg Jets — yeah, it was that long ago.
With a drunk driving charge in Phoenix hanging over his head (he served his sentence over this past summer) and coming off back surgery, perhaps that bad campaign was inevitable. But no one could be excused for thinking age and miles had caught up with him. However, after an off-season fitness program strengthened his core and a new approach to life after his incarceration, he seems reborn.
He’s keeping an even keel about his current success, telling Joanie Ireland of The Edmonton Journal, “We’re just 13 games in. Things can change drastically this time of the year. You have a couple of bad games and you’re just normal.”
Whether or not his teammates share his caution is unknown. They have to be at least a bit charged up by their success. The Oilers are, after all, have missed the playoffs five consecutive seasons, not playing past Game 82 since they went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006. All those bleak springtimes allowed them to stockpile high draft picks and, as most fans know, they’ve made the most of those picks.
The top line of second year wingers Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, with rookie centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, is one of the most exciting in the game. Nugent-Hopkins is tied for the team lead in scoring with 12 points, Eberle has 11 and Hall has nine. All are plus-four. Nugent-Hopkins is drawing raves for his play. “I’ve seen him play a lot,” new Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told Adrian Dater on SportsIllustrated.com, “and he’s got that half-a-frame faster development of the play in his mind’s eye than everyone else. The great players have that ability.”
Nugent-Hopkins’ play allowed Renney to move Shawn Horcoff, who had been their top centre last year, to the second line between Ryan Smyth and Ryan Jones. Some, like David Staples of the Edmonton Journal, think they are really the team’s first line based on ice time, how Renney has used of them, and their two-way play.
Smyth’s return to Edmonton after playing for the Islanders, Avalanche and Kings has been another big factor in the Oilers’ rise. The 35-year-old’s playmaking skills seem undiminished and he’s lost none of his signature determination. It’s perhaps no coincidence his departure coincided with the Oil’s playoff draught.
Veteran third line centre Eric Belanger, a UFA signing over the summer, has been excellent on faceoffs (58.5), and Horcoff is also doing quite well (52,5). Nugent-Hopkins is under 30 percent so Renney likely won’t use him for big draws.
The Oilers power play is ranked 12th, at 8-for-42, 19.0 percent. Their PK is among the best in the league, ranked 6th, at allowing only six goals in 50 opportunities, an 88.0 percent success rate.
Here’s how the Oilers might line up on Tuesday. They’ve got a couple of injured players who might make it back for this game, although as of Monday’s practice at the Bell Centre, they — Barker and winger Ales Hemsky — were still working on their conditioning. Renney might give either the green light if he thinks they’re ready.
Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle
Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Jones
Magnus Paajarvi, Eric Belanger, Sam Gagner
Ben Eager, Anton Lander, Lennart Petrell
Ladislav Smid, Tom Gilbert
Corey Potter, Jeff Petry
Theo Peckham, Colten Teubert