The Edmonton Oilers come home from the road with five of eight possible points, an overtime duo that terrifies other teams and a new kid who can flat-out rip the puck.
During four games away from Rogers Place last week, the Oilers found reasons for renewed optimism as they edge their way back toward what passes for respectability.
At 6-9-2, their record with 20 per cent of the season in the books still has them near the bottom, looking up at all the teams they’ll have to pass to make the playoffs.
Things were much uglier only a week ago.
On the plus side, there’s the weekend play of rookie Jesse Puljujarvi, called up from the AHL on Friday. Though fans have been braying for weeks for a chance to see the team’s first-round pick from the 2016 draft, the team had been understandably reluctant to rush the kid.
That plan went out the window when forwards Drake Caggiula and Anton Slepyshev went down with injuries.
On Saturday, in the first period of his first NHL game this season, Puljujarvi scored against the New York Rangers. During the shift that led to the goal, the 19-year-old worked hard on the forecheck, then finished the play with a one-timer from high in the slot.
He shot the puck like a goal-scorer, and the Oilers are in desperate need of that kind of skill.
Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can all shoot like that. Beyond those three, the team has no legitimate snipers who can scare goalies, who are willing and able to fire the puck from almost anywhere.
That’s one reason scoring has been a problem all season, and it didn’t change this week.
With eight goals on the road trip, the Oilers remain the lowest scoring team in the league, averaging a measly 2.18 per game.
But the Oilers have, at last, found a reliable way to win. They simply keep the score tied until regulation time runs out, then send McDavid and Draisaitl over the boards and watch the fun. The two combined for a pair of electrifying overtime winners in back-to-back games against the Islanders on Tuesday and the Devils on Thursday.
Another tally on the plus side is that the defence, wobbly as a toddler’s first steps a few games ago, has finally found its footing. Credit coach Todd McLellan for shaking up his top two pairings. Promoting Darnell Nurse up to play alongside Adam Larsson has worked so far, as Nurse proves game after game he can grow into his new responsibilities at both ends of the ice.
Now comes the really bad news.
The power play is more myth than reality. The Oilers score on 14.9 per cent of their chances, which means opponents don’t pay much of a penalty shorthanded.
On the other side of the ledger, the penalty kill surrendered two more goals against the Rangers on Saturday. Without those, the road trip might have ended on a much more positive note.
Still, two wins and a shootout loss earned them five important points. The Oilers have now inched by Buffalo and Florida and sit 28th in the league — hard to believe that’s also part of the “good” news.
After sitting out six straight games as a healthy scratch, Jujhar Khaira got back into the lineup against Washington on Sunday and had his best game of the season. He scored a workingman’s goal in the second period. He was also victimized in the third when his line got trapped too long in the defensive zone and ran out of gas. That led directly to the tying goal.
It was too much to hope that McDavid and Draisaitl could pull another rabbit from their overtime hat.
Unless the defence reverts to its early season form, scoring will be the biggest challenge from this point on.
In the Western Division last season, the eight teams that made the playoffs averaged 238 goals. The Oilers have scored 38.
If we use last season as a benchmark, they need to manufacture 200 goals over the next 65 games to have any real chance. That’s a little better than three per game.
Given this top-heavy lineup, where will those extra goals come from?
For now, pencil Puljujarvi in on the second line with Nugent-Hopkins and Lucic. Those three players now have 10 goals. McDavid, Draisaitl and Patrick Maroon have 16. The rest of the team has chipped in a dozen.
How long can Maroon stay on the top line, given his lack of finish? He scored 35 goals in his first 98 games with the Oilers, while shooting at 16 per cent.
This season, he’s come back to earth, and has four goals on 44 shots. He was never a legitimate 30-goal man.
If he can’t match last season’s production, who will make up the slack?
Unless the Oilers can get more production up and down the lineup, they won’t be around for the playoffs.