A few weeks ago, there was a crossing-of-the-generations moment in Edmonton, when the members of the Oilers' 1984 Stanley Cup championship team arrived in town the day before the current edition played its home opener. For two days, all the old stories were spun like cotton candy at the fair – of how a young talented group ultimately learned to win championships.
Not every young talented team does. And if you distill it all down to one essential truth, the players collectively kept coming back to goaltending. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and all the rest were able to flourish offensively because of their trust and confidence in the work of Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog. It wasn't that they stopped every shot, but they stopped the shots that mattered in the games they absolutely positively had to win. The Oilers attacked because they had supreme confidence in their goalies' ability to bail them out as needed.
In an era where increasingly, people want their analysis quantified, confidence cannot easily be distilled into a mathematical equation. Confidence ebbs and flows. So on that night with all the Oilers' greats in the house, the 2014-15 team began the year by laying an egg – dropping a 5-2 verdict to the Calgary Flames, one of the few Western Conference teams that had even lower expectations than the Oilers going into the season.
And the difference was goaltending.
Calgary's – in the person of Karri Ramo – was very good. Edmonton's – from Ben Scrivens – wasn't. And over the course of the first four games of the season, as the Oiler losses mounted, Scrivens's struggles continued, to the point where – only a fortnight into the season – it looked like déjà vu all over again. Edmonton's season was submarined by poor goaltending at the start of last year – and it was happening again at the start of this year.
But something happened on the way to another year of waiting for a draft lottery win. The goaltending made a complete about-face.
In short order, it went from being the Oilers' weakest link to its greatest strength. Scrivens rattled off three consecutive wins and this past Monday, on the same day he was selected the NHL's second star for the week, he kept the roll going, shutting out the Montreal Canadiens 3-0.
His goals-against average plunged; his save percentage improved, but the most noticeable change of all was how Scrivens' strong goaltending play had a ripple effect through the rest of the Oilers' lineup. Suddenly, all those turnovers and positioning errors and breakdowns in defensive-zone coverage weren't necessarily ending up in the back of the net. The confidence of the 18 position players, so fragile in the first two weeks, started to improve.
Now, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was a whispered presence at the start of the season, was looking more assertive offensively. The defensive zone awareness improved. The questions about Dallas Eakins's readiness to coach in the NHL seemed less relevant. And for the first time in a long time, the cloud that had been hovering over the Oilers' franchise was slowly starting to lift.
"Players that play on their toes are better than players who play on their heels," suggested Darren Pang, the former NHL goaltender and now a colour commentator on St. Louis Blues television broadcasts. "The reason why players play on their toes is because they're confident in their goaltender – and when they play on their heels, it's because they're not.
"In my experience, I knew when my players were confident in me – you could tell by the way they looked at you, talked to you, touched you on the pads. But then I also knew when they had zero confidence in me – no eye-to-eye contact, they don't want to say too much. They start patting you on the pads trying to build you up, but the worse you did in goal, the fewer times they came over to you.
"We are an individual playing a team sport and you can feel it throughout the room and on the ice – on both sides."
According to former NHL and WHA goaltender John Garrett, the calming effect of an established goaltender is usually the difference between being inside or outside the playoff picture, something Edmonton has had trouble establishing during their long rebuild.
"How come Tampa went from being an also-ran team to a contender?" asked Garrett. "They got Ben Bishop. He proved he can be a guy that can run the table. You get Ryan Miller here in Vancouver. He's got that confidence, that swagger. There's an air about him and it's contagious. He makes the key saves when you have to have them. If Edmonton had that goaltending last year, with the talent they have … but they're young and they can get deflated pretty easily."
The Oilers wrap up their seven-game homestand Saturday against the same opponent, the Vancouver Canucks, who were the visitors a fortnight ago. The Oilers took a point off the Canucks that night, but it's the only point they've earned against a Western Conference opponent all season. Edmonton was reeling then; but until they lost 4-1 to the Nashville Predators Wednesday night, they had forged a nice four-game winning streak against Eastern Conference opponents to extract themselves from the Pacific Division cellar. If Scrivens can stay hot and play lights-out good and prove this surge isn't an aberration, then maybe this is finally the start of something good coming in the city of champions.