Home > Uncategorized > Loser point still a positive for Oilers

Loser point still a positive for Oilers

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images Edmonton Oilers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov makes one of his 22 saves against the New Jersey Devils during NHL action in Newark, N.J., on Friday night. The Oilers were outshot for the seventh straight game (24-20), but salvaged another point in a 2-1 overtime loss that could have went either way.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Edmonton Oilers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov makes one of his 22 saves against the New Jersey Devils during NHL action in Newark, N.J., on Friday night. The Oilers were outshot for the seventh straight game (24-20), but salvaged another point in a 2-1 overtime loss that could have went either way. Edmonton now has points in six of its last seven games.

Seeing Cory Schneider between the pipes for the New Jersey Devils on Friday night was something of a revelation.

Could teams finally be taking the Edmonton Oilers seriously? Maybe, but more on that later.

Winners of five of their last six games, the Oilers were streaking — in a positive way for once — heading into the Olympic break. Had they prevailed again Friday, it would have been their third three-game winning streak of the season and second in as many weeks.

It wasn’t meant to be, however, as rookie defenceman John Merrill netted his first career NHL goal in overtime, lifting the Devils to a 2-1 victory.

Yet, even though the Oilers couldn’t extend their season-best run to six of seven, they earned a loser point that was very deserving. And they proved, at least to me, that they haven’t given up on this season.

The odds of catching up over their final 22 games following the Olympics are slim to none, but don’t tell Dallas Eakins or his players that. They are looking like a team very much in the fight these days, despite being 17 points behind the Phoenix Coyotes, who leapfrogged the Vancouver Canucks on Friday night for the Western Conference’s final wild-card playoff berth.

Shaughn Butts/Edmonton Journal Edmonton Oilers forward Nail Yakupov, seen here chasing down New Jersey Devils defenceman Peter Harrold during NHL action in Edmonton back on Oct. 7, 2013, has enjoyed a recent resurgence and is largely responsible for Edmonton's success over the last seven games.

Shaughn Butts/Edmonton Journal
Edmonton Oilers forward Nail Yakupov, seen here chasing down New Jersey Devils defenceman Peter Harrold during NHL action in Edmonton back on Oct. 7, 2013, has enjoyed a recent resurgence and is largely responsible for Edmonton’s success over the last seven games.

Perhaps the poster boy for Edmonton’s improved efforts (and results) as of late: Nail Yakupov.

The 20-year-old sophomore forward has been hitting his stride over the last couple weeks after struggling in the early stages of his second season and even serving as a healthy scratch on a few occasions. Now, the 2012 first overall pick has points in three straight and six points in seven games. It’s no coincidence that the Oilers also have points in six of seven.

That’s not to say Yakupov is suddenly the straw that’s stirring Edmonton’s offensive drink, but he’s certainly having a hand in that success and becoming more dependable at both ends of the ice.

Look no further than the third period of Friday’s game. Tied 1-1, Yakupov made one of the plays that really stood out on the night, recovering to strip the puck off Jaromir Jagr after getting dangled by the sure-fire Hall-of-Famer just inside the defensive blue-line.

Of course, Yakupov’s perfect pass to Taylor Hall on a give-and-go rush in the first period — resulting in Edmonton’s only goal of the game — was also a thing of beauty. It was an unselfish play by the shoot-first kid who has been doing his best to be a team player and complement his linemates. Yakupov’s doing exactly what the coaches are asking of him, and it’s paid off in a promotion to play alongside Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the two No. 1 picks before him.

If that trio can keep clicking when the NHL schedule resumes, with the Oilers home to the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 27, then Edmonton just might make a move in the standings.

The perfect storm would need to occur in order to make the post-season, including the Oilers essentially running the table, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Edmonton could climb out of the West basement and potentially out of the draft lottery.

Some fans don’t want that. They are already resigned to missing the playoffs for an eighth straight spring and would rather take another top-5 pick. That mentality has its merits, but I’d personally much prefer to be entertained down the stretch and I can only assume Edmonton’s season-ticket holders would share that sentiment.

This team needs to win sooner than later, and the sooner it starts winning, the better in my opinion.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider was a somewhat surprising starter on Friday night, given the visiting Edmonton Oilers were playing on consecutive nights and long-time No. 1 netminder Martin Brodeur had already  backed up  for four straight games. But in this 'what have you done for me lately' world, the Devils stuck with Schneider and he backstopped them to a 2-1 overtime victory, making 19 saves in the process.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider was a somewhat surprising starter on Friday night, given the visiting Edmonton Oilers were playing on consecutive nights and New Jersey’s long-time No. 1 netminder Martin Brodeur had already backed up for four straight games. But in this ‘what have you done for me lately’ world, the Devils stuck with Schneider and he backstopped them to a 2-1 overtime victory, making 19 saves in the process.

Revisiting that initial thought, it’s no secret that several opponents opt to start their backup goaltender against the Oilers.

Since Christmas, which is about the time most considered Edmonton to be mathematically out of the playoff equation, the Oilers have played 21 games and faced 9 backups — albeit, some of those because of injuries to regular starters.

That’s still an alarming rate of second-stringers — 43 per cent to be exact. And since Jan. 7 when Brian Elliott backstopped the St. Louis Blues to a 5-2 win at Rexall Place, that percentage rises to 53 (8 of 15).

Without taking the time to fact-check this, it’s hard to fathom any other team seeing that many backups over the same span. Not even the last-place overall Buffalo Sabres, simply because points are at more of a premium in the Eastern Conference and clubs can’t risk an off-night by a backup. And the Sabres also have Ryan Miller, one of the league’s elite starters, so it’s often a low-scoring goaltender’s duel against Buffalo.

That wasn’t the case on Monday, when Buffalo started seldom-used Jhonas Enroth, and Edmonton won 3-2 thanks to a shorthanded breakaway goal by Matt Hendricks.

This, after the Oilers were blanked 4-0 last Saturday morning by Boston’s bench-warmer Chad Johnson, who earned just his second career NHL shutout.

It was during Thursday’s 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers, in which Yakupov scored the winner, that a received a text from a friend: Does a team ever start a first-string goalie against the Oilers?

That got me thinking, with the Rangers also giving Henrik Lundqvist the night off in favour of Cameron Talbot, a rookie with surprisingly impressive statistics. But Talbot is no Lundqvist, a perennial contender for the Vezina Trophy awarded to the league’s top goalie.

It made me contemplate: Were the Oilers actually in the (winning) zone. Or were their opponents just zoning out when they saw Edmonton on the schedule.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, a combination of these extremes.

To some extent — and the aforementioned numbers back up this statement — the Oilers are surely being overlooked, underestimated and-or brushed off as incompetent bottom feeders.

Even with Edmonton’s reputation as a talented offensive team full of firepower in its top-six forwards, roughly half its opponents were using the Oilers as an opportunity to rest their starter. Or as a chance to ‘ease’ their backup into action, gaining valuable experience in what should be an ‘easy’ win.

Not anymore. And not on Friday night.

Granted, Peter DeBoer’s thought process for starting Schneider might not have had much to do with Edmonton’s recent turnaround. It may well have been more about Schneider’s familiarity with the Oilers, having spent the past few seasons playing in the same division with the Vancouver Canucks.

Or it could have revolved around the fact that Martin Brodeur, another Hall-of-Famer in waiting, hasn’t been at the top of his game lately and hasn’t played since being yanked at Yankee Stadium in New Jersey’s 7-3 outdoor loss to the Rangers on Jan. 26.

Brodeur surrendered six goals on only 21 shots that day before being replaced by Schneider for the third period. Since then, Schneider had made four straight starts prior to facing the Oilers on Friday.

Had Edmonton not been on fire (by Edmonton standards), one has to wonder whether Brodeur would have got the starting assignment instead. After all, this should have been the perfect setting to boost Brodeur’s confidence, especially considering Edmonton had still been outshot in six straight contests coming in. But the Devils played it safe — or perhaps smart — by sticking with Schneider, who turned aside 19 of 20 shots in New Jersey’s fourth straight game that extended beyond regulation.

That has amounted to six points — two overtime wins and two OT losses — and the Devils, like more than a half-dozen teams in the East, are desperate for points in the ultra-competitive standings.

New Jersey closes out its pre-Olympic schedule on Saturday in Washington against 40-goal man Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. It will be interesting to see who gets the start there, tasked with stopping the league’s most lethal sniper.

Every bit as intriguing will be watching to see who gets the bulk of starts for the Oilers after the Olympics.

Ben Scrivens and Ilya Bryzgalov have been sharing the crease since Scrivens was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 15.

Both are unrestricted free agents after this season, and at least one could be signing an extension to stay in Edmonton.

Most would bet on that being Scrivens, a local product from Spruce Grove, rather than Bryzgalov, an enigmatic Russian who has openly expressed his distaste for cold climates in years past but was left out in the cold to start this season with essentially no other option besides Edmonton.

Nobody has really discussed the potential for both to return and continue platooning next fall.

With Bryzgalov turning 34 in June and Scrivens turning 28 in September, that might be an option worth exploring for rookie general manager Craig MacTavish, providing they both keep playing above expectations and both want to make Edmonton their future home.

Time will tell on that front, but goaltending has been the least of Edmonton’s concerns since Scrivens’ arrival. He’s been great and Bryzgalov has been almost as good, including his 22-save performance in a losing cause on Friday.

Edmonton fans can only hope that tandem picks up where they left off, but it’s also possible that one or the other gets in a groove and Eakins goes with the hot hand for an extended portion of the remaining schedule.

Stay tuned as we all turn our attention to the Olympic tournament for the next two weeks.

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