Sam Gagner may have shown his teammates miracles are possible but realistically speaking, the Edmonton Oilers have no real chance to make the NHL playoffs.
But that is not what matters to this team right now. What matters is that thanks in large part to Gagner’s heroics of the last week, an eight-point night against the Chicago Blackhawks followed by three points against the Detroit Red Wings, the Oilers recaptured the feeling of being a young team on the rise just as their fans were losing their patience.
The Oilers came into Toronto to face the Maple Leafs on Monday night with a three-game winning streak and four wins in their last five games. They are still 13th in the Western Conference with a 21-26-5 record, 11 points out of the eighth and last playoff spot but the malaise that lingered in their room after a good start to the season petered out is gone.
“The last five games have been so much better than the previous five or 10,” said Taylor Hall, who scooped up four points himself as Gagner’s linemate on the latter’s big night. “That makes for a better atmosphere in the dressing room, so along with Sam that’s great.”
Jordan Eberle is the third member of the hottest line in hockey, one that may be the youngest to draw special attention from opponents. Gagner is the eldest at 22 and is in his fifth NHL season, while Hall, 20, and Eberle, 21, are both in their second season in the league.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson made it clear his shutdown pair of defencemen, Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson, will be on the ice whenever the Oiler trio shows up.
“They have a deep group of forwards so we’ll have a lot of discussion [about checking assignments],” Wilson said. “Right now, [Gagner’s] feeling confident, thinking whatever he touches turns to gold. If he’s getting eight points a night, Hall is getting four points. They are very dangerous players and [the Oilers] have a lot of firepower up front so we have to make sure we’re on our toes.”
The confidence Wilson spoke about is running right through the Oilers’ lineup right now.
“We just want to keep this feeling,” said Oilers assistant coach Ralph Krueger. “Nothing replaces winning. “
Krueger handled the coach’s media duties after the morning skate because Oilers head coach Tom Renney was felled by a deflected puck during the session. The puck hit him on the head and he had to go to a local doctor for stitches.
“He’ll be fine,” Krueger said. “I watched the puck deflect upward and there’s a good reason why all young coaches wear helmets [in practice].”
Renney’s injury had everyone thinking about Hall, who drew a lot of attention recently when he received a nasty cut in the pre-game warmup because he followed the custom of many NHL players and wasn’t wearing his helmet. There was a lot of discussion about making helmets mandatory in warmups. Hall didn’t mind offering his perspective on the similar habits of NHL coaches who are not known to wear helmets in practice sessions.
“I don’t know, when we were in minor hockey the coaches had to wear helmets and now the Zamboni drivers have to wear helmets,” Hall said. “Maybe some day the NHL coaches will be flying around with buckets on.”
The Oilers will make one lineup change for the Leafs game. Defenceman Tom Gilbert will return from a 14-game absence due to a knee injury. Andy Sutton will come out of the lineup for Gilbert. Devan Dubnyk is expected to start in goal.