The NHL Western Conference is always competitive and that’s clearly the case after a month or so of regular season play. The Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues are tied for the lead with 21 points, one ahead of the resurgent Vancouver Canucks with 20 points. All told, there are 11 teams separated by total of six points vying for 8 playoff spots. The Central Division is always competitive but this year the Pacific Division has been downright ridiculous with only 4 points separating the first place Oilers and the 6th place Coyotes. And as luck would have it, a matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes is among the featured games on Monday night’s NHL hockey card.
Edmonton has responded well to new head coach Dave Tippett and has shot to the top of the Pacific Division standings. There are a few differences between this Oilers’ team and some of their recent vintage squads that bode very well for the long term. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are scoring plenty of goals but they’re getting help from some new faces in the lineup–most notably the resurgent James Neal. Neal was left for dead in Calgary last year, scoring only 6 goals and the Oilers somehow convinced the Flames to take Milan Lucic off their hands in return. Lucic has 3 assists and 30 penalty minutes in his time with the Flames and was just suspended two games for a cheap shot sucker punch on Kole Sherwood of the Blue Jackets. James Neal, meanwhile, has been reborn in Edmonton with 11 goals and 2 assists including 8 power play goals. He *should* be the third Oiler on the All Star team this year if he continues this kind of performance.
More impressively–the 2019-2020 Oilers are doing it with defense. They rank #19 in goals scored per game at 2.87 but the have the #7 team defense in hockey giving up just 2.47 goals per game. Both netminders have been solid–Mike Smith is 5-3-1 with a 2.12 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. Mikko Koskinen is 5-1 with a 2.39 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. No longer do the Oilers have to play ‘video game hockey’ and outscore their opponents in a end to end matchup just to win games. The Oilers’ special teams have also been excellent–they’ve got the #2 power play in the NHL (27.9%) and the #8 penalty kill (85.4%).
Arizona has also been doing it with defense and it’s been downright nasty. They’ve got the #2 team defense in hockey allowing just 2.15 goals per game right behind the #1 Boston Bruins. Their offense could use a boost but that’s something that can be fixed. It’s a lot more difficult for a team to play tough defense and the Coyotes have definitely been doing that. Phil Kessell has been a nice contributor to the team with 3 goals and 6 assists but the biggest factor has been the emergence of the Coyotes young talent–23 year old Nick Schmaltz leads the team in points and assists, 23 year old Conor Garland has 7 goals to lead the team and 21 year old Clayton Keller has 8 assists. They Coyotes are no longer a downtrodden team on the verge of relocation–they’re a more defensively oriented version of where the Colorado Avalanche were a couple of years ago.
We’ve been big on what Edmonton has doing this yer but we really like the Coyotes in this matchup. Oilers are playing the first of three home games and this could end up being somewhat of an afterthought with the St. Louis Blues on deck and former Edmonton standout Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils slated to come to town on Friday. We’ll look for Arizona to scrap out a win in a hard fought game that stays ‘Under’ the low 5.5 total.