A little over a third of the way through the season, and the Oilers have gone through several huge swings—emotional roller coasters that have taken the fans to dizzying heights, and all-too-familiar lows.
When we last left you, our faithful readers, Edmonton beat Boston in their home opener to bring their record to 3-2 on the season. Not half bad, considering two games into the season the Oilers faithful were ready to burn the city to the ground—leaving nothing but the Wayne Gretzky statue. After keeping their record above .500 in the next stretch of games, arguably the toughest of the season, facing last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winning Nashville Predators twice, with games against the last 3 Stanley Cup champions —the Penguins and Capitals— sandwiched between, the Oilers were looking great. Winning games they had no business winning, the stench of last season appeared to be clearing . . .
Not So Fast
Right when things looked like they were trending up, a tough east coast road trip reared its ugly, ugly head. A two goal loss to the Capitals could be excused, and losing to Tampa Bay the following night could be understood, but being spanked 4-1 by the Panthers (who were at the bottom of the league I might add) was borderline unforgivable. All of a sudden, we were back to the same old squad that slumping scorers circled on their calendars, and made other team’s goalies —often second or third-string— look invincible. Things came to a head when we let the Golden Knights, who finally look every bit like an expansion franchise (unlike last year), beat us down 6-3 on home ice. Something had to give.
So Long Todd
In a moment of cruel irony, Peter Chiarelli ( the architect of this substandard roster) called Todd McLellan into his office (or hotel room?) on the morning of November 20th when the Oilers were in San Jose and said, “So long, thanks for everything.” With three other head coaches getting axed that month, including number 2 on the career win list Joel Quenneville, it came as a huge surprise to pretty well everyone when the job was handed to recently retired, former sporting goods retailer and Edmonton-native, Ken Hitchcock.
What ensued was a string of very Hitchcockian one-goal games, and a focus on team defence. The Hitchcock era is young, but we’re a very respectable 8-2-2 under our new bench boss, dropping only 6 of a possible 24 points (with only 3 of those points against our division). We avenged our early Battle of Alberta loss to Matthew “The Turtle” Tkachuk in a nailbiter, and despite all the fears of disappearing offence, we managed to put up 7 in the game before and 6 in the game after. Milan Lucic is thriving (though still not scoring) under Hitchcock’s watch, Jesse Puljujarvi has been given another shot with the big club, Dr. Drai is on pace for 100 points (with McDavid on pace for a million), and Alex Chiasson has matched his career high of 13 goals in only 26 games with a pedestrian shooting percentage of 30.2%. It seems like everyone has bought into what Hitchcock is selling, and his defence-first mentality has benefited everyone, especially the goalies. Cam Talbot still has a ways to go before he wins back his position as starter, and if Koskinen keeps playing the way he has Talbot will have no chance. Koskinen has been an absolute revelation, silencing all those who thought we overspent on him in the off-season, sporting a record of 10-3-1 with a gaudy 6 and 0 at Rogers Place with a 0.91 GAA and .970 save percentage.
Once again it may be too early to tell, but the Oilers are rolling under Hitchcock and currently sit in a wildcard playoff spot. Stay tuned to the Team Ford blog for more Oilers recaps over the course of the season, and if you’re in the crowd tonight while the good guys take on those Broad Street Bums from Philly, make sure to stick around and watch the Team Ford Small Stars during intermission!