Coaches take centre stage as Dave Tippett's Oilers look to turn things around against Darryl Sutter's Flames

Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett watches his players during a practice on the ice at Rogers Place on Feb. 7, 2020.Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett watches his players during a practice on the ice at Rogers Place on Feb. 7, 2020. Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia, file

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Game 26: Calgary at Edmonton

What a difference a week makes.

Last Saturday in this slot the Game Day post was about Edmonton Oilers’ impending three-game series with Toronto Maple Leafs. Home games all. The Oilers were riding a lengthy hot streak that had seen them post an 11-2-0 mark over the preceding four weeks. It had been a powerful recovery from a shaky 3-6-0 start to place them very firmly in a playoff spot and within striking distance of the first-place Leafs.

North Division standings thru Feb 26

  • Note: for mobile device users who accessed this post through Twitter, you may need to click the “View on Edmonton Journal” tab at the bottom of this post to see the graphics.

A week later, things don’t look nearly so rosy.

North Division standings thru Mar 05

After three straight shellackings by the Maple Leafs, the Oil can say good bye to those first place dreams, and hello to the reality that the middle of the pack from 2nd to 6th just got a whole lot tighter.

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To summarize this past week:

  • TOR 3-1-0, +14/-4, 6 points
  • WPG 3-1-0, +11/-10, 6 points
  • VAN 2-1-0, +9/-6, 4 points
  • CGY 2-1-0, +14/-11, 4 points
  • MTL 1-0-2, +7/-7, 4 points
  • OTT 1-3-0, +12/-17, 2 points
  • EDM 0-3-0, +1/-13, 0 points

Ugh. Throw a few Bettman Points into the mix, and you get nights like Thursday where those mid-pack rivals Winnipeg, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver netted a combined 7 points. That’ll cut into a cushion in a hurry.

Which brings us to this Saturday, when the Oilers host the Flames on the late game of Hockey Night in Canada. Edmonton’s lead over fifth-place Calgary has shrunk to 4 points. A regulation Flames win tonight and the 8-point lead the Oil enjoyed just a week ago would be down to 2, with Calgary still holding a game in hand. And just like that, a virtual tie for the last playoff spot.

Obviously, the Oilers have other ideas, but they need to turn their game around to achieve them. The good news is that they’ll be playing a new opponent, after getting blown out of their own barn three straight times by the Leafs to the tune of 4-0, 3-0 and 6-1. All three games were already in garbage time by the time they hit the midway point.

After a day off Thursday to lick their wounds, the Oilers took to practice ice on Friday. Predictably, they absorbed a tongue-lashing from coach Dave Tippett, whose tirade included 14 F-bombs in a 40-second  span. While Tippett didn’t enlist assistant coach Glen Gulutzan to punctuate the outburst by throwing a stick into the stands, the message was loud and clear.

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Meanwhile, Gulutzan’s old team, the Flames, have had a little coaching drama of their own. After beating Ottawa 7-3 on Thursday night, coach Geoff Ward was congratulated in the form of a pink slip, followed by the announcement that veteran coach Darryl Sutter will take command of the bench. Not immediately; Sutter has to pass through COVID protocols first, meaning assistant Ryan Huska will take charge tonight. But Sutter will certainly be watching, and one can imagine the floundering Flames will be eager to impress their incoming bench boss as much as possible while he’s still at a safe distance.

What can the Oilers do to impress their own head man? Here’s an idea: score first. Through 14 games at Rogers Place, the team that has opened the scoring has won every game, indeed has never trailed. That’s right, zero lead changes in 14 games at Rogers Place. Disappointingly, the home side has allowed that critical first tally 8 times, meaning a crummy 6-8-0 mark in the non-so-friendly confines. At least this year the Oilers haven’t been disappointing a full house of paying customers with yet another sub-par record on their home ice, but their tendency to roll out the welcome mat for visiting clubs remains a concern.

Here’s another thought: score often. The Oil had scored 2+ goals in 18 straight games before their meltdown vs. the Leafs, dating back to an earlier home ice sweep by the Canadiens back in Games 3 and 4, where the Oilers scored just once, late in garbage time, in each game. They’ve scored at least twice in every single road game, a key factor in their 8-3-0 mark away from home.

How about this one: tighten up defensively. In winning their last 6 road games, the Oilers have allowed a total of just 7 goals against. At home? They allowed 13 just during the current 3-game losing slide.

Last time the Flames came to town just two weeks ago, the Oilers put together all three of those elements and rolled to a 7-1 triumph. A lot had to go right that night, including a transcendent 3-goal-2-assist performance by Connor McDavid and outstanding netminding from Mikko Koskinen. There’s no reason to expect a repeat of that performance against what will surely be a highly-motivated opponent, but the home side has plenty of incentive as well. Even with 30 games remaining on the slate, it’s not too early to declare this one a Big Game.

Tonight’s (projected) line-up

The lines are the same as reported in yesterday’s report from my colleague David Staples. Not so for the defence pairings, at least not based on this tweet from TSN’s Ryan Rishaug:

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The “last men on the ice at morning skate” is code for “not playing tonight”, meaning William Lagesson‘s return from injured reserve is not imminent as it appeared yesterday. This scrambled the pairings a bit; we are projecting Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear, who each struggled mightily on Wednesday in particular, to each get a veteran partner in the form of Adam Larsson and Kris Russell respectively. Not impossible, though, that Tippett will team up the vets on the second pairing and the younger men on the third.

Mike Smith returns to the Oilers net as he has clearly won the #1 role. Since his brilliant game against the Flames two weeks ago, in which he stopped 43 of 44 shots, Koskinen has played exactly 1 period between the pipes; Smith, 14.

Up front, veteran Tyler Ennis has been driving the offence on the third line with Jujhar Khaira and Josh Artchibald, but had some defensive issues which have apparently drawn him a seat in the pressbox while utility forward Devin Shore draws in.

Kyle Turris also sits after a single game against Toronto, making room for Dominik Kahun to return to action. Turris is the only one among the seven extra players who can’t be placed on the taxi squad, so we are showing all the others on that latter unit.

Game time is 8pm MST.

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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