Edmonton Oilers face a major challenge in modern Battle of Alberta

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Game Day 57: Edmonton at Calgary

The odds are stacked against the Edmonton Oilers in the latest edition of the Battle of Alberta on Monday night, but as the old saying goes, “that’s why they play the games”.

The two teams meet up in Cowtown for the first time after playing the prior two games of their season series in the provincial capital. The Oilers prevailed in both games by scores of 5-2 and 5-3 despite allowing a season-high 47 shots in each contest. Mike Smith was the goaltending hero back on Oct 16 in Game 2 of the season, Mikko Koskinen played that role on Jan 22 as the Oilers snapped a 7-game losing slide to briefly save Dave Tippett’s job.

Tippett is long gone now, while Smith’s own grasp on an NHL job is becoming tenuous after a string of subpar performances and questions about his health. For now he is officially dealing with a non-COVID illness as detailed here; best information is Koskinen will face the rising Flames tonight while tweener Stuart Skinner will back up after a straight recall from Bakersfield. Meaning that for now, the Oilers have three netminders on their roster.

Suffice to say the Oilers will need a top-notch performance from their netminder to cool down the red-hot Flames who are threatening to run away with the Pacific Division.They’ve established a 4-point lead over Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights, with 3 games in hand over both second-place clubs. For their part, the Oilers trail the Flames by 9 points despite playing 2 more games.

Let’s dig a little deeper into a variety of relevant topics and comparisons. WARNING: not for the faint of heart.

Recent performance

Tough night for Oil fans on Saturday+, who first watched their own club fall 5-2 on home ice to Montreal Canadiens, who entered the game in 32nd place in the NHL. Those who hung around for the nightcap of Hockey Night in Canada got to see the Flames take down the league’s #1-overall team, Colorado Avalanche, right in Denver. Talk about two teams going in opposite directions.

That was a costly loss for the Oilers in more ways than one, coming at a time when literally all of their rivals in the playoff race were taking care of their own business. Here’s the relevant portion of the standings, with emphasis on the column at far right, “Streak”:

Couple that home defeat with the 4-3 overtime loss the Oilers suffered in Chicago last Thursday, and those are 3 badly needed points left on the table. Those results served to take the shine off the 7-3-0 start under interim coach Jay Woodcroft. Indeed, the second column from right confrims the Oilers are just 5-4-1 in their last 10, a .550 points percentage in what is currently a .554 league, so treading water at best. Not terrible considering the schedule, but just kind of hanging around in the playoff race rather than making real progress.

Meanwhile their opponents tonight are on an 8-1-1 roll over a similar span, indeed 13-1-1 over their last 15 during which time they have outscored their combined opposition by 63 goals to 34.

With the Oilers reeling from an extraordinarily difficult travel itinerary, this is not exactly the best timing for a make-up date of a game originally scheduled for Dec 27.


The Oilers are of course headed by the high-scoring duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who are currently tied for first in the entire NHL with 79 points apiece. This after the same duo finished 1-2 (or 2-1) in the league the prior two seasons. After them there is a massive drop, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman tied with 37 points apiece. Only Draisaitl (38) and McDavid (29) have as many as 20 goals. Overall the Oilers have mustered 181 goals through 56 games, an average of 3.23 per game which ranks them 10th in the NHL.

The Flames have 4 players somewhere in between those two levels, led by Johnny Gaudreau (71 points), Matthew Tkachuk (64), Elias Lindholm (57), and Andrew Mangiapane (41). The last three of those have scored 27+ goals, Gaudreau 22. The team as a whole has 188 goals in 54 games, ranking 6th in the league in per-game offence at 3.48. That’s a quarter-goal per game better than Edmonton.

Defence & goaltending

A humongous difference here, as the Flames have held opponents to just 2.46 goals per game, 3rd in the NHL. The Oilers are way down in 21st at 3.21, fully  THREE-quarters of a goal per game in arrears.

Much of the difference is in the crease, where Calgary is reaping the rewards of winning the Jacob Markstrom sweepstakes two summers ago. Markstrom is sporting gaudy stats of 25-11-6 W-L-O, 2.17 GAA, .925 Sv% with 8 shutouts and 19.7 Goals Saved Above Average while establishing himself as a strong Vezina Trophy candidate.

The Oilers lost the battle to sign Markstrom that opening day of free agency in 2020. Ken Holland’s fallback plan has been to return (twice!) to their veteran duo of Smith and Koskinen, who between them have a GSAA of -12.4 in 2021-22.

Fair to say that the Oilers winning the first two Battles of Alberta due to superior netminding goes against the form charts, yet it remains their best chance to pull off the upset tonight.

Scoring first

The Oilers have shown no signs of solving their exasperating inability to score first, having done so just 17 times in 56 games, a mere 30% first-goal share.

Let’s put that in perspective: the 1974-75 Washington Capitals are unquestionably the  worst team in NHL history, scoring 181 goals and allowing 446 on the season. That’s a 29% goal share.

The odd part is that unlike the Caps, who were simply bad all game long, the Oilers are actually decent once that first goal is on the board. In any other score but 0-0, they have a respectable goal share of 54%, based on 164 for, 141 against.

One by-product of all this is that the Oilers have a decent enough record when falling behind early, having won a third of those games (13-22-4). When scoring first, they are merely perfect at 17-0-0. Give them those win rates in anything resembling an equal share of first goals and the club would be comfortably in a playoff spot.

Drilling down further, in their most recent two games against also-rans, the Oilers were tied 0-0, 1-1, 2-2, 3-3 vs Chicago, and 0-0, 1-1, 2-2 against Montreal. They gave up the next goal all 7 times.

For their part, Calgary has scored first 34 times (25-5-4) and allowed the opening goal on just 20 occasions (8-9-3).

Special teams

Through 22 games the Oilers had the hottest special teams in the NHL on both sides of the equation, with a net +19 on 27 STGF, just 8 against (including powerplay and shorthanded goals both ways). Since then? -19, with 20 for, 39 against. Making the once-transcendent special teams at dead-even for the season: 47 for, 47 against.

Put another way, on Dec 04 the Oilers ranked #1 in the NHL in both Net PP% (35.3%) and Net PK% (92.8%). Since then? 25th in the former (13.5%) and 32nd in the latter (69.2%). That’s right, the PK went from best to worst in the NHL over two substantial chunks of games.

If you have an explanation for the simultaneous collapse of both units, I’m all ears.

As for the Flames, they are a net +14 on the season with 42 goals for and just 28 against on special teams.


Edmonton: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jesse Puljujarvi, Zack Kassian, Josh Archibald, Tyson Barrie, Kris Russell, Evan Bouchard?, Mike Smith

Calgary: None

‘Nuff said.


There is none to be had between the two teams on their current trajectories. Darryl Sutter’s crew is firing on all cylinders, from a top line that has outscored its opponents by 50 goals to 18 to a third D pairing of two big boppers in Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov who have somehow enjoyed a 60% share of shot attempts during their 10+ hours together.

For their part the Oilers are in the seventh year of the McDavid-Draisaitl-Nurse era, and the third under the oh-so-patient eye of the NHL’s highest-priced GM in Ken Holland. Small wonder then that Oilers fans have grown increasingly impatient waiting for their team to take the next step while enviously watching their biggest rivals make a giant leap above them in a single bound.

Which isn’t to say that the Oilers can’t beat the Flames, as indeed they have done in both prior meetings this season. To do so they will need Koskinen at the top of his game and Flame-killers McDavid and Draisaitl on top of theirs, buttressed by a full team effort that includes plenty of attention to detail. Conclusion: the visitors are significant underdogs in this one.

Tonight’s (projected) line-up

This is a best guess, to be updated as more information becomes available.

If Evan Bouchard is unavailable to play, the Oilers will have just 6 healthy defenders and will run a 12F / 6D line-up for the first time in Woodcroft’s tenure.

Game time is 7:30pm MST, with the game to be televised in full on Sportsnet One and joined in progress on Sportsnet West.

Source: EdmontonJournal