The Edmonton Oilers are playing their best hockey of the year at the right time.
Coming off a successful five game road trip that saw Edmonton earn seven of a possible ten points, the Oilers continued their recent strong play on Thursday night against the Vancouver Canucks, earning a 3-2 victory at home. The Canucks would enter Thursday nights clash at Rogers Place tied in the Pacific Division standings with the Oilers, with both sitting with 65 points heading into the key divisional match-up.
The top line of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Zack Kassian would lead the way once again for Edmonton, while goaltender Mikko Koskinen would suit up for his tenth straight start and record 35 saves for the victory.
With the Canucks having played the night before the Oilers would come out of the gate looking to press the issue, getting a step ahead of Vancouver early and drawing the games first powerplay within the opening minute of action. The Canucks would kill off the minor penalty to Derrick Pouliot, but would trail in shots 7-2 nearing the games five-minute mark.
The Oilers would break the ice at the 5:21 mark, after some hard forechecking from forward Sam Gagner. Gagner, who started the season with the Canucks, would strip the puck from Derrick Pouliot behind the Vancouver net before centering the puck for Alex Chaisson. Chaisson would make no mistake for his 19th of the season, putting the Oilers ahead 1-0. Gagner would also record his 300th point as an Oilers with the primary assist on the goal.
After struggling to gain proper zone entry for the opening ten minutes of the first period, the Canucks would begin to move their legs just passed midway through the frame. Canucks’ defenceman Alex Edler, who is the franchise’s all-time top scoring defenceman, would spark his club with a solid hit on Zack Kassian just below the red line. The Canucks would head to their first powerplay of the game soon after.
It would be the Oilers who would seize momentum however, as after killing off the penalty to captain Connor McDavid, a fresh Number 97 would jump out of the penalty box and onto the attack along with Leon Draisaitl and Zack Kassian. After Draisaitl would freeze the Canucks defence with a quick stop up on the left wall, the German born forward would leave the puck for McDavid, who would make two lightning quick moves before centering for Kassian.
The former Canuck would make no mistake on the play, tapping the puck through the wickets of Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko. The young netminder wouldn’t have much of a chance on either two of the Oilers first period tallies, after missed coverage in the goal mouth would hamper the Canucks early. For Kassian it’d be his fourth goal in the last four games, while Draisaitl would extend his point streak to twelve games.
On the other side of the ice Mikko Koskinen would make his best save of the opening frame on Canucks forward Josh Leivo, after Leivo would take a feed right in front of the net before the Finnish goaltender would flash the left pad. Vancouver would battle back to take the edge in shots, but the period would come to a close with the home team ahead 2-0 on the scoreboard.
Just over a minute into the second period the Oilers would add to their lead, after several Canucks skaters would get caught up down low. The puck would come to Connor McDavid in the high slot, with the captain taking a few steps into the middle of the ice before sending a perfect pass to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the side of the net. RNH would re-direct the puck passed Demko for his 21st goal of the season, and now has over a point a game average versus the Canucks this season.
The Canucks would return to the powerplay not long after with a chance to cut into the lead, but it wouldn’t be long lived. Some aggressive penalty-killing from the Oilers would negate any offensive opportunities, while Canucks’ defenceman Troy Stecher would take Vancouver off the powerplay after a hold on Zack Kassian. The Canucks would then get a scare just after the games midway point, as forward Josh Leivo would leave the ice in difficulty. Leivo would favour his back, but after being looked at by trainers would stay on the bench. Leivo currently provides skill and sandpaper to the Canucks top line featuring himself, Brock Boeser and rookie phenom Elias Pettersson.
Late in the period the Canucks would finally cut into the Oilers lead on a gift from Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen. On what at first glance would look like a routine chip in would end up disastrous for the Oilers, as the puck would deflect off the inside of Koskinen’s pad and sit directly in the middle of the crease. Canucks’ forward Jay Beagle would be Johnny on the spot, and reach out to poke the puck over the goal line. Connor McDavid would come within inches of restoring the three-goal lead before the period expired, but a solid stop by Demko would keep his team within striking distance heading into the third period.
Through two periods of play Canucks defenceman Alex Edler, who entered his 800th career NHL game on Thursdsay night, would lead all skaters in ice time with 18:18 logged through fourty. His defence partner Troy Stecher from the University of North Dakota would also see a spike in TOI, as Vancouver coach Travis Green would shorten the bench in hopes of climbing back into the game. Their efforts would pay off in the third as Edler would snap home his 7th of the season from the point, pulling his team within one.
Ken Hitchcock and the Oilers would challenge for goalie interference on the play, but it would be ruled a good goal by officials. The Oilers would get a glorious chance to add some insurance nearing ten minutes left in the game, after a Canucks giveaway in the neutral zone would send Oilers all-star Leon Draisaitl in all alone on Demko. Draisaitl would deek to the backhand before the outstretched pad of the former Boston College goaltender would rob him.
The Canucks would get another great opportunity to tie the game minutes later, but a too-many-men penalty would negate their powerplay.
Draisaitl would continue to skate well throughout the final frame, using his long, powerful strides to create a great chance for Alex Chaisson to get his second of the night. Chaisson would storm through centre ice before getting a one-timer away, but the left-shoulder of Demko would steer the puck over the net. The Canucks would press late but would be unable to complete the comeback as they did a night prior against the Maple Leafs.
At the start of the week Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock spoke about how the teams recently improved checking has led to more offence from the Oilers, which was on full display tonight. The Oilers would play their most physical in the offensive and defensive goal mouth areas, and would turn multiple won battles behind the net and along the wall into high quality chances all night. All night the Oilers dedication to strong positioning in front of their own net as well as to winning puck battles in the key areas (walls and corners) made the difference.
Thursday night would mark the fourth and final meeting of the season between the two rivals, with both teams now splitting the season series with two wins each. The Oilers would also welcome back forward Jujhar Khaira, as the recently sidelined forward would a positive night in Edmonton’s bottom-six forward group.
Tobias Rieder, though not contributing as much offensively as some would like, displayed an impressive 200 foot game on Thursday night. Of twelve Oilers takeaways on the night, Reider would be responsible for half of them. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl continue to roll as the two blossom into mega stars, with the two on-ice leaders extending their point streaks to seven and twelve respectively.
“You gotta find a way to get two points and it seems we’ve been able to do that lately,” said forward Alex Chaisson. “Obviously our goaltending has been key, and we were able to get off to a good start at home, something we haven’t done in the past.”
With an assist on Alex Chaisson’s opening goal, recently re-acquired forward Sam Gagner continues to make his mark offensively. The Ontario-born forward, who began the year in the opposing dressing room of the Canucks, has five points in ten games including a game-winner since re-joining the club that drafted him back in 2007 sixth overall.
Gagner is a player with good offensive instincts, but some of his best play comes beneath the goal line as the 511 forward is able to use his quickness to strip defenders of the puck and make plays. Gagners linemate Alex Chaisson then spoke about connecting with Gagner on the games first goal.
“He’s been in the league for the while and he’s crafty,” said Chaisson. “He understands the game really well and knows where the space is, just a good play by him being relentless on the forecheck.”
With their victory on Thursday night the Oilers have now won four straight games and six of their last eight, keeping pace in the western conference playoff race. Edmonton currently remains seven points out of a wildcard spot however, as the Minnesota Wild were able to top the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier on Thursday.
Since the Valentine’s Day trade that saw goaltender Cam Talbot shipped off to Philadelphia, Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen has earned a 5-3-2 record in his last ten with a .920 save percentage.
Since then only Arizona goalie Darcy Keumper and Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy have more wins than Koskinen, who also became just the second Oilers goalie in the last ten years to record four plus shutouts in a season last Saturday. Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock discussed the status of his number one goalie following Edmonton’s 3-2 win over Vancouver.
“He hasn’t played this many games in his career so he’s out of his comfort zone now.” said Hitch. “Were going to run with him the rest of the way here and hopefully keep winning hockey games.”
Zack Kassian continued his offensive production on Thursday, finishing off a highlight reel goal set up by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. With the tally the power forward now has goals in four straight games, which is a career high. The Canucks are a team that Kassian knows quite well, after being a member of the team from 2012 to 2015. In that time, Kassian recorded 59 points in 171 games while adding nearly 300 penalty minutes, but would see his time with the Canucks end after a trade to Montreal in 2015.
This season Kassian has become a great fit alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, two highly skilled players that demand quick transition and high IQ. Coach Hitchcock then spoke about what how Kassian’s found success with arguably planet Earth’s most skilled hockey player.
“Any smart player knows to get him the puck early, and that’s what he does.” said the former Stanley Cup winning coach. “He knows by the time he counts to four, it should be in Connors hands, and he’s really smart that way.”
While regarded typically as more of a grinding forward with some offensive skill, its been interesting to see how the deployment of Kassian by NHL coaching staffs has changed over the passed few seasons. One thing that was very apparent during Kassian’s time in Vancouver, was how lethal and underrated his wrist shot is.
Instead of standing in front of the net, Kassian would often set up in the high slot near the wall, up near the high point. This would allow more opportunities for Kassian to shoot the puck, because after all when he was drafted 13th overall by the Sabres in 2009, his physical attributes were considered supplementary to his natural offensive instincts.
Story & Photos by Alex Rodgerson