EDMONTON — Back in the day, when the Dallas Stars were simply better, deeper and richer than the Edmonton Oilers, the games became rather predictable.
If the plucky Oilers could score first — if a Todd Marchant or Doug Weight could slip one behind Ed Belfour — then the game had a chance of being entertaining. But if the Stars got the lead they just shut ‘er down and waited for the inevitable Oilers mistake, caused by a team pressing for offence.
Ken Hitchcock’s old Stars had plenty of star power and could play a fantastic brand of hockey. They just preferred to play that defensively stout game — i.e., boring — that, eventually, ate up Edmonton in the opening round of the playoffs year after year.
Fast forward a quarter century, and oh how times have changed.
The Oilers took an early lead on Dallas on Thursday night, and then concentrated on playing a defensive game that was likely their finest of the season. In the end, it was a 4-1 win on Thursday that has playoff success written all over it, the kind of game this franchise has been trying to replicate for as long as Connor McDavid has played here.
“It is a good sign and it has got to continue, that is the important thing,” said Darnell Nurse, who played just 18:47 – well below his seasonal average of 23:39. “At this time of the year, doing it one time is not good enough. You have to do it the whole time with how tight the standings are and how important each and every game is.
“It is a good sign, but it has to continue into our next one.”
We’re not sure this Oilers team can throw that kind of a blanket on a division-leading team every night. But it’s good to know that such a game exists in Edmonton, because once the playoffs begin, this is the recipe.
“I thought we were patient and we showed a level of endurance,” said Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft. “It was the type of game we needed. I thought our energy level was good and our details were good and we found a way to beat a really good hockey team.
“They were averaging five goals a game (over Dallas’ past nine games), and we won 4-1. To me, that sticks with the template we keep talking about here.”
On a black day in Edmonton, at a game that opened with a moment of silence for two Edmonton Police Service constables shot and killed in the line of duty, the home team did what it could to be a pleasant diversion.
The recipe for the Oilers is clear: In a game in which two teams split a modicum of offensive chances, the team that has the top two scorers in the National Hockey League should have a better chance of getting to three goals than, frankly, any other team in the league.
Since Christmas, Edmonton is 20-3-2 when giving up three or fewer goals. The Oilers can usually get to four, with this league-leading offence. You just can’t ask for five and six every night – that’s not realistic.
It’s a bit of a misnomer that the “high-flying Oilers” have to play “fire-wagon hockey” to succeed. In reality, in a game where the 5v5 scoring chances were 11-10 for Dallas (according to Natural Stat Trick), McDavid’s goal and assist marked the difference.
McDavid has a point in 24 of his last 25 home games, including all 15 in 2023. He set up Mattias Janmark (two goals) and then wired home a power-play goal that all but sealed the game at 3-1 with eight minutes to play.
“They got a lead, they defended hard and I think the score probably dictated a little bit of the game,” said Stars coach Pete DeBoer, who winced when he saw McDavid walking down main street after a pretty pass from Leon Draisaitl. “That’s what he does. He sticks the puck in the net and we gave the wrong guy the best look of the night.”
It’s falling into place for Edmonton these days, with roles being filled throughout the lineup:
Goalie Stuart Skinner has stepped up into the starter’s role and looks like a guy you can take into the playoffs as a No. 1. Warren Foegele has stepped up into the top six in Zach Hyman’s absence and has 12 goals, giving an option to move Kailer Yamamoto down the lineup when Hyman returns.
Janmark, an acquisition made for these kinds of games, is proving to be an excellent addition, if hard-checking, responsible hockey is the goal. The pairing of Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard has been even better than hoped, and has pulled the Nurse-Cody Ceci pair back into the teens in minutes, making them more effective.
A game like this bodes well for Edmonton, with a possible date against stingy Los Angeles on the horizon.
They’ll have to perfect the recipe, though. Just like Hitchcock’s Stars did, back in the day.