EDMONTON – The Edmonton Oilers aren’t a first-place team, and very likely, you won’t see anybody picking them as their Stanley Cup champion when the predictions start publishing over the next couple of days.
What they are, however, is the second-best team in the National Hockey League since head coach Jay Woodcroft coached his first game on Feb. 11, tied with Calgary with a winning percentage of .724 and trailing only Florida (.757). They are also a team that has played .868 hockey at home under Woodcroft, the best record in the game by .100 points over that span.
They may not have been one of the best teams in the NHL all season long, but they have been near the top for the final 38 games of the season – the time that matters the most, as Edmonton waltzes into the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs with some swagger and very recent success.
“I don’t think we are surprising anyone or underdogs by any means. Any time you have Connor and Leon, people are going to pay attention to you, ”said defender Tyson Barrie, who scored in a 3-2 shootout win over Vancouver to close out the regular season Friday night at Rogers Place. “But I like the spot we are in, how we have played it out, how we have finished the year, and that we have put ourselves in a position to have home ice (advantage).
“I wouldn’t want to play us if I were another team,” he added. “It’s a fun position to be in. We are excited to get it going. ”
Friday’s game No. 82 was an entirely meaningless affair against Vancouver, featuring one club that will get into a playoff game only if they buy a ticket. We’ve watched that game in this town as early as December in past years, but now the team with its golf clubs at the ready isn’t the Edmonton Oilers anymore.
The Oilers rested Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and playoff starter Mike Smith in this final, one last dress rehearsal for a team that suddenly has little to prove in the regular season – and everything to prove as a playoff team. Edmonton finishes second in its Division for the third consecutive season, the first time this organization has fielded three straight playoff teams since a five-year stretch that ended in 2001.
It was sloppy early on Friday and strange late, with a bunch of guys not named McDavid and Draisaitl skating around aimlessly in overtime. But on the strength of 39 Mikko Koskinen saves in regulation, and six more in the shootout, Devin Shore’s lone shootout goal gave Edmonton a win, as they close the season with a tidy 49-27-6 record.
“How we are playing right now, we have a system where everyone believes and has bought in,” said Koskinen. “I think that makes a difference. I really like our team. They are all good guys and we are ready to go. ”
Edmonton gets the Los Angeles Kings in Round 1. If you’re wondering if they’re ready, here are a few tidbits on the Oilers recent play.
– Oilers are 7-1-0 in their last 8 games, scoring four-plus goals in six of those games.
– Oilers are 13-2-1 in their last 16 games.
– Oilers are 19-4-2 in their last 25 games.
– Oilers are 26-9-3 under Woodcroft, a Top 2 winning percentage in the NHL.
The Oilers close the season with a home record of 28-12-1, and a mark of 14-0-1 in their last 15 home games. They haven’t lost in regulation at home since March 5th – nearly two months ago – not a bad mental picture to take into the post-season, where they’ll have home ice advantage in Round 1 against the Kings.
“Lots of really good signs,” said Woodcroft, who will give his team Saturday off, and practice Sunday before Monday’s opener. “I like that we’re getting right into things (playoffs) without having a huge… build-up to the start of a series. It allows us to stay in the rhythm. For me personally, coming up in the middle of February, it feels like the schedule has been relentless. But we’ve felt comfort in that rhythm.
“I do like where our team is at.”
As for the big boys, it was a career year for both McDavid and Draisaitl, both of whose games have developed nicely away from the puck.
McDavid’s 44 goals, 79 assists and 123 points are all new career highs, as is his 53.7% mark in the faceoff circle, an area where he went to work over the past couple of seasons to become the kind of complete centreman that has a chance to win more than individual trophies.
Draisaitl, meanwhile, snapped home 55 pucks, second in the NHL only to Toronto’s Auston Matthews. He finishes fourth in NHL scoring with an evenly split 110 points – 55 goals, 55 assists – matching his career-high in points.
An Oilers team that was bounced out of the playoffs last season largely due to insufficient depth has shown over 82 games that they have remedied that ill, producing five 20-goal scorers. Zach Hyman opened his new seven-year, $ 38.5 million deal with a career-high 27 goals, placing him behind only Sam Reinhart (33) and Pavel Buchnevich (30) in goals scored by a player who changed teams last summer.
Hyman’s 55 points were fifth among that crop of players, mostly free agents from the summer of 2021.
They’re as ready as they’ll ever be for another swing at the playoff plate.
After two straight strikeouts in ’20 and ’21, we’ll predict a base hit – at worst – this at bat.