Upon reporting to work with his new employer, James Neal sensed a collective snarl among the local fan base in Edmonton.
“With the summer they had here with no sun and all the rain, I think everyone was looking forward to some hockey,” says Neal, arguably the most popular man at the moment in this hockey-mad metropolis. “Thank God we’re on the winning side, because they would be a little bit grumpy, I guess, if we were on the losing side right now.
“They’ve been through a lot.”
They certainly have, with the Oilers missing the playoffs 13 out of the past 14 seasons. And no one could blame the battle-scared Oilers faithful for expecting little when the puck dropped Oct. 2 to open the 2019-20 NHL campaign.
Since then? The Oilers have rattled off seven victories to sit in a three-way tie with Colorado and Buffalo for first place in the overall standings. Harkening back to the good old days of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, Connor McDavid (17) and Leon Draisaitl (16) are second and third, respectively, in the NHL point race.
“I think our line has been pretty solid,” Draisaitl says in what amounts to a minor understatement. “We’ve been contributing and creating chances and creating offensive plays.”
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Neal, the Calgary Flames castoff, is tied with Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak atop the NHL goal chart with nine — a number made even sweeter by the fact he scored only seven last season in 63 games with the enemies to the south.
“This is a city that wants to win, embraces the Oilers and loves their team,” says Neal, who was even spotted autographing a baby the other day. “So it’s great when you’re winning, and we want to continue that.”
Back in the 1980s, the high-flying Oilers routinely won games by trading chances with the other team. Their sheer offensive talent and stellar goaltending made defence somewhat of an afterthought.
Riding a five-point night from McDavid, the Oilers trounced the Philadelphia Flyers 6-3 last Wednesday. In his post-game news conference, head coach Dave Tippett admonished his club for forcing Mikko Koskinen to make 49 saves for the win.
The coach even went as far as saying his netminder deserved the first, second and third star of the game.
“The goal is a lot bigger than winning on a Wednesday night, seventh game of the year,” Tippett told reporters on Friday. “To win a game that your goaltender steals or your star player has five points, it all looks fancy on the scoreboard but those two points don’t earn you the right to be a playoff team.
“It’s how you play over 82 games and how you build your team that earns you that right.”
Criticizing victories? This is bizarre territory indeed for an Edmonton team that has done little in the way of winning for the last decade. But the Oilers clearly listened to their coach and cleaned up defensively Friday night for a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.
On Sunday, they tightened things up even more in a 1-0 shootout loss in Winnipeg. Mike Smith, the 37-year-old former Flame, turned away 23 shots in yet another exemplary performance in the Edmonton net.
Keep in mind: goaltending looked to be a major challenge for the Oilers heading into this season. Nine games in, Smith has a .930 save percentage and a goals against average of 1.98. Mikko Koskinen’s save percentage sits at .934 with a goals against average of 2.21.
In 2018-19, Oilers fans bemoaned the putrid penalty kill that was 30th in the league. This season, Edmonton is fourth overall on the kill.
And all this success is without Adam Larsson (fractured fibula) on the blue line and rookie Ethan Bear logging an average of 20:43 of ice-time.
“It’s fun,” forward Zack Kassian says of the hockey buzz in Edmonton. “It’s a blue-collar market. It’s one of those things where if you’re not doing good, they’re going to let you know and if you’re doing good, they’re going to let you know.”
While the season is young — and the Oilers have admittedly been blessed with favourable schedule in the early going — hockey is fun again in the NHL’s northern outpost.
“With the start we’re having, it gives everyone something to talk about,” Kassian says. “We’re happy as players, and obviously we’re nothing without our fans. So we’re happy to put on a show for them.
“We know it’s a long year, but the start is a very important part of the season. Now we just have to keep it going.”