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In the tight Western Conference games against most west opponents seems more important than ever. The Oilers sit in first place in the Pacific Division, but they are only six points ahead of ninth place Vancouver, who have two games in hand. Minnesota is seven points back, also with two games in hand, and with the cross over potential for the wildcard spot available games against Central Division teams pushing for a playoff spot are equally important.
Edmonton is 2-4-1 in their last seven games, and tonight they will once again look to avoid a three-game winless streak for the first time this season. They’ve been on the ropes a few times this season, but have always found a way to punch their way back into the fight and avoid taking on more punishment. Can they do it again tonight?
1. The Wild had points in 11 consecutive games (8-0-3) from November 14th to December 5th, before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes on December 7th. Starting goalie Devan Dubnyk was in net for the games on November 14th and 16th, but he hasn’t played since. He went home after their game on the 16th and found his wife, Jennifer, ill. He rushed her to the hospital and has been focused on her health ever since.
2. He returned to practice on November 28th and shared a bit of what happened to Jennifer. “I don’t know how much I want to say, details-wise,” he said. “It’s just something that I need to be here for, and I need to be with her and the kids. There were some days in the hospital over the last week that were tough. It’s still pretty foggy as far as what’s going to happen going forward.” Dubnyk joined the Wild late in the morning skate today, but he won’t dress tonight.
3. I applaud the Wild’s handling of this situation. They put family first, as they should, over hockey. Dubnyk is very popular among his teammates, and with the Wild being the oldest team in the NHL, many of their players are married with kids. This situation hits home for many of them, and I’m not surprised the Wild went on a winning streak afterwards. You realize pretty quickly that hockey is just a game. Of course they want to win, but the angst and frustration they get from losing pales in comparison to how you feel when a loved one becomes sick. It puts things in perspective.
4. Minnesota is 7-1-3 without their starting goalie. Alex Stalock is 5-1-2 with a .909sv% and 3.00 GAA in Dubnyk’s absence, while rookie Kaapo Kahkonen is 2-0-1 with a .946sv% and 2.00 GAA. The WIld have allowed 34.2 shots/game over the past eleven. They haven’t played stellar defensively, but their offence has picked up, scoring 3.36 goals/game. They averaged 2.65 in 20 games prior to Jennifer being rushed to the hospital.
5. The Oilers need to create some powerplays tonight. The Wild have allowed a powerplay goal in five consecutive games, and in nine of their previous 10. Their PK is an ugly 64.3% in that 10-game span. The Oilers’ PP success rate is virtually identical at home or on the road. They are 31.5% at home (17 of 54) and 31.8% on the road (14 goals on 44 chances). The major difference is they’re only averaging 2.58 PP/game on the road compared to 3.38/game at home.
6. Their PK is a league-best 90.8% on the road killing off 49 of 54 penalties. The Wild home PP is 27.8% (sixth best), so special teams could be a major factor like they were Tuesday against the Hurricanes. The Oilers PK has been great all season, but after allowing three goals to the Hurricanes, and allowing too many seam passes, Dave Tippett will want them to fix that right away.
7. Mikko Koivu played his 1,000th on December 1st, all as a member of the Wild, but then he got injured two nights later against the Florida Panthers. The Wild had a pre-game ceremony recognizing his great accomplishment Tuesday against the Ducks. Koivu didn’t play, but he did get dressed in his hockey gear for the ceremony. The Wild surprised him by bringing in many of his former teammates, including injured Oilers forward Kyle Brodziak. Mike Russo had a great story on what the Wild planned for Koivu.
8. The Oilers have sprung a leak defensively allowing 26 goals during their 2-4-1 slide. They need to tighten up defensively, and their top gunners need to produce a bit more at 5-on-5. The Oilers have scored 15 goals in the past seven games, but only eight at 5×5. Zack Kassian has three goals, in only four games, while Jujhar Khaira has two, and Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald and Connor McDavid have one.
9. Leon Draisaitl, James Neal, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins need to finish more. Draisaitl still leads the NHL in 5×5 points with 30, but he only has one point at 5×5 in his last seven games, and he’s been getting scored on too much. He can play better, and I fully expect he will soon. RNH and Neal haven’t done nearly enough at 5×5 all season, and if the new Draisaitl-RNH combination can produce some points the Oilers’ skid will likely stop.
10. The San Jose Sharks fired head coach Pete Deboer last night. They are the fifth team to change coaches in the past 21 days, and second in the Pacific Division. The Leafs are 6-3 under Sheldon Keefe, the Calgary Flames are 6-0 with Geoff Ward, the New Jersey Devils are 0-3-1 and the Dallas Stars are 1-0 under Rick Bowness. The Sharks sit sixth in the Pacific with 32 points and are looking for a spark. If it works then the Pacific will only become more competitive and the need for the Oilers to stop their skid becomes even more important.
11. The response to my article yesterday was outstanding. I couldn’t reply to all of your comments, but many of you made great points. A member of the Oilers business team reached out to me and said the comments were read and noted. We’ll see what comes of it, but good on your for replying with well thought out and honest comments.