Perhaps it is a bit premature, but it appears a revival is occurring in Edmonton. The Oilers finished October with a 7-2 record. Nothing of this sort has been seen since 1985, when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were clad in orange and blue.
For the first time in many years, the Oilers are not showing up and waiting to implode. Led by their 19-year-old captain and NHL points leader Connor McDavid, and a goaltender with a hot hand in Cam Talbot, they are playing with a meaner streak and proving to be competent and confident.
“We come to games with the expectation of [winning],” Darnell Nurse, the strapping 21-year-old defenceman, said on the weekend. “It’s definitely a different mindset.”
The Oilers strung together five straight victories before losing to Ottawa 2-0 on Sunday night. It was an emotional effort for the Senators, whose goalie, Craig Anderson, learned last week that his wife Nicholle, has been diagnosed with cancer. Anderson turned away 37 shots and returned to the ice to salute an appreciative audience at Rogers Place a few minutes after the game.
The Oilers begin a five-game road trip in Toronto on Tuesday, and in November they have a stretch of 11 games against teams that made the playoffs.
It has been a decade since Edmonton made the playoffs, but these new Oilers have looked like contenders early on. They are 3-0 against teams from the Pacific Division and 5-0 against opponents from the Western Conference. Two years ago, they won four out of 29 games against division rivals, and only nine of 50 within the West.
Fans who have grown understandably cautious with their expectations are jumping back onto the bandwagon, and for the first time in a long stretch it does not look like a blind leap of faith.
“This team is making me feel things I haven’t felt in a very long time,” one supporter tweeted Friday after Edmonton beat Vancouver, 2-0, for its second shutout in three games.
Coach Todd McLellan grew agitated as his team fell into last place near the end of last season. He is less cranky now, if not quite satisfied.
“It’s always a little easier after being together for a year,” he said. “You learn a lot about each other. It’s kind of like the first year of marriage.”
During this stretch, he has noticed things about his team. Foremost is that players are suddenly holding one another accountable.
After giving up one goal in 21 shots on Sunday – the Senators also had an empty-netter – Talbot shouldered some of the blame. In the last five games, he has stopped 145 of 148 shots, sprawling across the goalmouth, kicking one leg out to deflect shots, batting others out of the air.
Talbot was a backup to Henrik Lundqvist in New York for two seasons before the Oilers acquired him for three picks at the 2015 draft, and since then, he’s proven to be their best goalie in years. This summer, he backstopped Canada’s winning team at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships and has mostly been very sharp.
“It is probably one of the best stretches of my career,” Talbot, 29, said. He has played his best over the last two weeks despite a lack of sleep. His wife, Kelly, gave birth to twins on Oct. 19. “My mindset is to make the saves I am supposed to and hopefully make a few I am not, and that will give us a chance to win.”
No, these aren’t the same old Oilers. They brought a credible presence to the dressing room when they signed Milan Lucic, a Stanley Cup-winner in Boston, this summer. During games, he skulks around giving the stink eye to anyone who looks sideways at his teenaged linemate. After games, he speak from experience as he holds camp in front of his dressing stall.
“As the season goes on, as we play more games, we know it’s going to get tough,” Lucic said, tempering expectations with a dose of reality. “We knew eventually we are going to hit a losing streak. What is important is how you respond.
“We can go back to these games we played [in October] and what the feeling was, and use that to get out of the funk.”
Lucic has seven points in nine games playing on McDavid’s wing. After bypassing offers as a free agent from other teams this summer, he said the reason he decided to come to Edmonton was to play with the young centre.
“You only get a chance to play with a player like this maybe once in your career,” he said.
McDavid is the league’s scoring leader with 12 points in nine games, and combined with his linemates has scored 25. He has regularly skated through and around defencemen; what makes it remarkable is that while his speed is not a surprise, opponents are unable to keep up with him.
“Holding him to one point, as crazy as it sounds, was pretty good,” Vancouver’s Erik Gudbranson said Friday.
After allowing 13 goals in the first three games, Talbot has allowed five in the next six. He played well enough to win on Sunday, but the game belonged to Anderson.
“It’s an 82-game season,” McDavid said. “You can’t expect to win every night. [Anderson] deserved that. He played well.”
Yes, it is early, but the Oilers look like they are poised to make some noise after a lengthy absence. The hockey world is watching, curious to see how long it lasts.
“Confidence and feeling good are earned on a daily basis,” McLellan said. “It can turn on you quickly.”
His team has been good enough to win all but two games thus far. It has been three decades since a team in Edmonton started this strongly. They ended October on top of the Pacific Division standings. Only one other team – the Montreal Canadiens – have had a better start.
“We are believing in ourselves,” Patrick Maroon, an Oilers forward, said Sunday. “Tonight was a tough matchup. It was just one of those nights. We will have the month of November to feed off what we did in October.
“It is going to be a good test. We are really excited.”Report Typo/Error
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