The time for Edmonton Oilers to step up is “right now” as brutal home stand winds down

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Game Day 28: Columbus at Edmonton

Tonight the Edmonton Oilers get one last chance to salvage something, anything, out of their season-high six-game home stand. So far, so bad: five consecutive losses, all in regulation.

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Add in a loss in their most recent away game, at Seattle back on Dec 03, and it’s been two long weeks since the Oilers last got a result of any description. After that 5-2 win over Pittsburgh on Dec 01, they had the highest points percentage in the NHL at .762, based on a 16-5-0 record.

Since then, bupkis. In two short (well, “long”) weeks the club has plummeted to the middle of the pack. Entering tonight’s game vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, the Oilers are right on the playoff cut line: 4th in the Pacific Division, 8th in the Western Conference, 16th in the NHL. At this moment they hold the second wild card spot in the West, 1 flimsy point ahead of Winnipeg and San Jose.

What’s gone wrong? Easier to ask “what’s gone right?” to which the only correct answer was coined by Edwin Starr in his hit single War, half a century ago. “Absolutely nothing!”

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Say it again, y’all.

In the six-game slide, the Oil have:

  • allowed the first goal every game, all of them in the first period
  • trailed after the opening frame each time
  • trailed after the second period each time
  • scored just 9 goals while allowing 24

Simply put, in the last fortnight, the team can’t score and it can’t defend. Other than that, everything’s peachy.

The turnaround from the 9-1-0 start has been almost complete. The Oilers averaged 4.4 goals per game over that heady span, spending 325 minutes in the lead, just 102 trailing. Whereas in the last six the Oil have never once held the lead, and have only been tied for 63 of 360 minutes.

Suffice to say that the Oilers’ play — or at least, their results — with the score tied has been shockingly terrible. During those 63 minutes they have been outshot 45-31 and outscored 9-0. Nine to zero! In barely an hour of hockey, against six different opponents. In scored-tied situations over the past two weeks, they are dead last in the NHL by a considerable margin in both shooting and save percentage, while their PDO of .800  is over 100 basis points behind the second worst club. It’s bad, folks.

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It’s taken a while to build to this point, but the Oilers have had a propensity to start slow for quite some time now. They’ve allowed the first goal in 15 of their past 18 games; put another way, that’s 3 for, 15 against with the score 0-0 over the past six weeks. For quite a while they were able to outscore those early mistakes, ultimately putting up 5 or more goals in 12 of their first 21 games. But as the scoring has dried up in recent times, those persistent early deficits have been mountains, not molehills.

Here’s a colour-coded representation of the score by period in the season to date. Green is good, grey is neutral, brown is bad.

Turns out that when the team has performed well or even held their own in the early part of a game they have tended to get a good result at night’s end. But when they’ve trailed after 20 minutes, they’ve wound up trailing after 60 each and every time.

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The obvious solution is to play better from the drop of the puck. The Oilers did just that in their most recent game, vs. Toronto on Tuesday, and nearly made it to intermission in a scoreless tie. But in the last minute of the first, disaster struck in the form of a bad penalty followed by a horrendous penalty kill, and just like that 19 minutes of hard work was wasted. That they were headed for another loss already seemed inevitable.

Indeed, in all 5 home games to this point the Oilers have fallen into an 0-2 hole and have basically been skating uphill all night. They have had some stretches of good play, with score effects playing a prominent role. But night after night they’ve struggled to finish plays, while seemingly running into a hot goalie 100% of the time. Their own netminding on the other hand has been mediocre at best, further compromised by a succession of glaring defensive errors. And that is not a formula for success in today’s NHL.

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The challenge tonight for coaches Glen Gulutzan and Jim Playfair along with each and every player under their command is to play with urgency bordering on desperation, and to maintain their focus for 60 minutes. Starting with the first one.

Tonight’s line-up

…is a work in progress. More bad news with the word that forward Devin Shore has been placed in COVID protocol, joining Ryan McLeod along with head coach Dave Tippett . Meanwhile, neither forward Zach Hyman or netminder Mike Smith is ready to go.

With Shore on leave, it’s all hands on deck for the 12 forwards who remain standing. Recently recalled Brendan Perlini will draw in at wing, but how the Oilers will replace Shore at centre remains an open question. One option is to go to the “Centres Three” model where all three of Connor McDavid , Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins drive their own lines, leaving Derek Ryan in place at 4C. Other options include either Kyle Turris or Colton Sceviour moving into the middle on a bottom six line.

One certainty is that Stuart Skinner will get the start between the pipes, while Elvis Merzlikins will get the call for Columbus.

Game time is 7pm MST, with tonight’s affair to be televised on Sportsnet West and Sportsnet One.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: Koskinen’s rollercoaster ride

LEAVINS: Player grades in loss to Leafs

McCURDY: Tippett, McLeod both out out of the lineup due to COVID protocol

STAPLES: Oilers get veteran D-man back but lose their best winger

McCURDY: Player grades — Oilers sticks turn to sawdust vs Hurricanes

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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