The Oilers arrived in Toronto late Monday in their worst funk in years. It is one thing to play poorly when that is what is expected but not now, not like this. They enter Wednesday’s contest against the Maple Leafs with just two victories in their last dozen games.
They are not the Arizona Coyotes or the Montreal Canadiens but for the moment they are floundering around like them. They barely cling to a wild-card position after a 16-5 start and they may have to go ahead without Connor McDavid, who tested positive on Tuesday for COVID-19.
For an Edmonton fan, the most disconcerting thing is that its struggles are not a head-scratcher. There are a few areas where they need to improve but their fatal flaw is goaltending. It was two years ago, it was last season and it remains so now.
As the Oilers have sunk in the standings, they have allowed the first goal in 11 of the past 12 contests and 20 of the last 24. Not even McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can consistently drag their teammates out of the ditch through so many lousy starts.
Mikko Koskinen shot a puck over the glass to give the Rangers a power play 15 seconds into Monday’s 4-1 loss, and then wandered too far out of the net and allowed Alexis Lafrenière to shoot into the gaping hole five minutes later.
After a 12-2 run to begin the season, Koskinen has now lost six straight. To say that his gaffe left Dave Tippett chapped is kind. The Oilers coach was as prickly as a porcupine when asked about it afterward.
“Our goaltender wasn’t very good …” Tippett said. “It was a brutal mistake. Call it what it is.”
Edmonton banked on the Mike Smith-Koskinen tandem last year and got away with it until it was swept in the first round of the playoffs. Smith is 39 now and often injured, and Koskinen has proven to be less reliable than hoped. With Smith hurt, Koskinen has been overworked, which is not his fault. That falls on the shoulders of general manager Ken Holland who has failed to fortify an obvious soft spot. Stuart Skinner, a 23-year-old rookie, may get the call in Koskinen’s place at Scotiabank Arena. He is 4-5 with a .916 save percentage – better than either Smith or Koskinen – but nowhere near as battle tested.
There are potentially a handful of experienced goalies available around the league – Marc-André Fleury, Braden Holtby and Linus Ullmark among them – but to acquire one of them would exact a high price. But that cost will only continue to rise as long as the Oilers are stuck in quicksand.
The argument for doing it, of course, lies in wasting another year of spectacular play from McDavid and Draisaitl. They are first in points and goals respectively in the NHL.
Edmonton is 0-4 on a road trip that has included overtime defeats at New Jersey and on Long Island. Its first loss was a toughie in St. Louis and then it was soundly beaten by the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Toronto has won three straight and seven of its last 10 and is just a few points out of first place in the Eastern Conference. Jack Campbell, who is second in the league in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts, is expected to be in the Maple Leafs crease on Wednesday. He has been as terrific as the Oilers’ netminders have been fretful.
It is unclear if either Auston Matthews or McDavid will play. Matthews was positive for COVID-19 after a rapid antigen test on Monday and was negative in a PCR test on Tuesday, but sat out practice for precautionary reasons. He will be tested again Wednesday morning.
McDavid didn’t participate in the morning skate in New York on Monday but played on Monday night. He was absent from Edmonton’s practice in Toronto on Tuesday and Tippett later confirmed he tested positive. He will be tested again on Wednesday and if he is out a length of time it is a huge blow for the Oilers.
“It is easier to play when you are confident and winning and it gets tougher when you are going through something like this,” Cody Ceci, the Edmonton defenceman, said following their most recent defeat. “We have got guys in and out of the lineup and we are not sure who is playing.
“It is just a frustrating time.”
Ceci, who had a rough go in one season with Maple Leafs, seems to have found a home on the Edmonton blueline. At this point, however, the team is flirting with self-doubt.
“It is definitely affecting the mood of the players,” Ceci said. “When you start to get down on yourself and with teammates and whatnot. I think a win will go a long way for this group. We started the year off really well so we know we can do it.”