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Back in early February, things were not going well for the Edmonton Oilers. After a red-hot 16-5-0 start to the season, they proceeded to go 7-13-3 over their next 23, and as a result were five points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
It was at that time that general manager Ken Holland chose to fire head coach Dave Tippett and replace him with Jay Woodcroft — a move that clearly rejuvenated this group.
They were able to turn things around quickly with their new bench boss, and locked up the second seed in the Pacific Division, which earned them a date with the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite being heavy favourites coming into the series, it is by no means a given that they will advance to the second round. Case and point being each of the past two years, where they were eliminated in the opening round — first against the Chicago Blackhawks, second to the Winnipeg Jets — despite being favoured. With that being said, the Oilers have a different feel this year and have many, including this writer, believing they will have some playoff success this time around. Here are the main reasons why:
More Offensive Support
For years, one of the main critiques facing the Oilers was that they had no forwards who could put up offence aside from their two-headed monster of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. While those two have continued to dominate in 2021-22, there have been many others who have contributed their fair share.
One of those players is Zach Hyman, who Holland signed to a seven-year, $38.5 million deal last summer. The first year of the deal has worked out great for the Oilers, as the 29-year-old fit in very well with this team's top six and posted career highs with 27 goals and 54 points.
On top of Hyman’s play, both Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto have improved this season, combining for 36 goals and 77 points. They have helped shore up the wing positions, an area that had been lacking in a big way in years past.
The biggest addition of them all has been Evander Kane. Despite not joining the team until late January, the 30-year-old winger made his presence felt quickly, and adds a dynamic of both grit and goal scoring that the Oilers have not possessed in a long time. He has meshed well on a line with McDavid from the get-go and had an impressive 22 goals and 39 points in just 43 games this season.
With the added help up front, teams hoping to shut down the Oilers' offence won’t have nearly as easy of a time doing it as in the past. On the season, their 290 goals ranked seventh among all NHL clubs, and would have been even higher if they had Kane on the roster all year.
Goaltending Heating Up
The biggest question mark surrounding this Oilers team heading into the season was goaltending. Mikko Koskinen had been far too inconsistent in past years to be counted on, while plenty doubted Mike Smith’s ability to stay healthy at the age of 40.
The doubts seemed very well-placed for a large portion of this season, as Koskinen was good enough to rack up wins but far from spectacular, and Smith battled a number of injuries that kept him sidelined quite often. While the questions do still remain, there is no denying that their goaltenders appear to be heating up at the right time.
Smith, who is the confirmed starter for Game 1, is coming into the playoffs on a nine-game winning streak. In 22 games played since the All-Star break, he owns a stellar 2.55 goals-against average (GAA) paired with a .921 save percentage (SV%). He played well in two games against the Kings this season, posting a 2.00 GAA and a .938 SV%.
As for Koskinen, his numbers aren’t as solid as Smith’s, but there is still reason to be confident in him if he does end up seeing game action. Though his play remained inconsistent at times during the season, he was able to do the one thing a team needs from its goalie, which is to rack up wins. This past Friday, he was able to win a career-high 27th game, giving him a very solid 27-12-4 record on the season. He is by no means starting-netminder material, but has proven to be solid enough to pick up wins if the Oilers do need to call on him.
Team Play Under Woodcroft
Prior to his firing, the Oilers had a record of 23-18-3 under Tippett for a points percentage of .557. Since Woodcroft has come in, they have bumped that points percentage up to .724 with a 26-9-3 record through 38 games. He is regarded as more of a player's coach than Tippett, and it is clear from the record alone that the Oilers are responding much more favourably to that approach.
Since Holland made the coaching change, the Oilers have become one of the league's best teams in a number of categories. Their 26 wins since the change are tied for first, while their points percentage is second. Their play has improved at both ends of the ice, proven by their +40 goal differential over that time, which ranks second among all NHL teams. Both their goals for per game (3.82) as well as their goals against per game (2.76) are tied for fifth.
The swap appears to have done wonders for both Smith and Koskinen as well, as both are thriving under Woodcroft. The team's .915 SV% with its new bench boss ranks third in the entire league.
West is Open for the Taking
By no means will the Oilers have an easy path to the Stanley Cup final. Every team that qualified for the playoffs has several strengths and will not go down without a fight. With that being said, this is a better Oilers team than in years past, and it is in a great position to succeed this spring.
Everyone is aware of how good the Colorado Avalanche are, and teams like the Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames deserve a ton of credit for their seasons as well. There is no denying, however, that the Vegas Golden Knights missing the postseason has given several teams a much better opportunity to come out of the West. The Oilers are one of those teams, and if they are able to carry over their great play from the second half of the season, they could be in store for a lengthy playoff run.
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