At the end of a road trip in November, the Oilers were shutout by the Toronto Maple Leafs by a rookie goalie in his first NHL start. They had put up a lackluster effort and it looked like it was going to be another season without meaningful games past November. However, led by the strong play of Taylor Hall, Leon Draisaitl and both goalies, the Oilers managed to rattle off 6 straight wins to land themselves in a playoff spot. They then lost 3 in a row before winning their last game before the Christmas break against the Winnipeg Jets. They currently find themselves 3 points out of a playoff spot.
This is new territory for the core group of the Oilers and it’s going to be interesting to see how they handle themselves. The Oilers have the benefit of a weak Pacific division, where the 2nd through 7th place teams are all within 6 points of each other. The hope is that they can remain within a few points or less of the 3rd spot of the division until they can get fully healthy. They have numerous key injuries and are among the top teams in man games lost. With McDavid, Yakupov, Klefbom and Davidson all out currently the Oilers will get a huge boost once they all return.
The Oilers have a key upcoming stretch here with their next five games against divisional opponents. If the Oilers have a winning record they could find themselves in a playoff spot, but a weak next five games can find the Oilers no longer in the playoff race. There are going to be some keys to the Oilers potential success:
- The line of Hall, Draisaitl and Purcell will have to continue to push the offense for the team, but if the Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Pouliot line can find some of the success they have next year the Oilers should be able to score many goals over the next 5 games.
- The Oilers defense is decimated right now with two of their top four defensemen out. Darnell Nurse has been playing more minutes than he should, so the Oilers are going to need Mark Fayne and Justin Schultz to step up and play better to take some of the load off of Nurse and Andrej Sekera.
- The powerplay has been weak lately, often struggling to get set up in the offensive zone. Also part of the problem has been the weak play of Schultz at the top of the powerplay which has allowed teams to plug up the slot and low part of the zone. The Oilers should look at using Sekera on the first powerplay as he has shown a tendency to shoot more, and does have a more dangerous shot.
- Sustained strong goaltending from either Cam Talbot or Anders Nilsson will be probably the most important key to the Oilers success, due to the state of the defense described above.
If the Oilers can have success over the next five games against their own division, coupled with key players returning from injury, the Oilers surprisingly have a shot of making the playoffs this season. At the very least, the Oilers are currently playing meaningful games and Peter Chiarelli will see how his players respond and who can help this team win in the future.