We learned long ago that, when it comes to winning hockey games, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Back when Jacques “The Mad Trapper” Lemaire was singlehandedly ruining the game of hockey in New Jersey, Devils fans didn’t care about aesthetics. They were collecting wins and a Stanley Cup, and the fact that the rest of the hockey world couldn’t stay awake past the second intermission didn’t bother them one bit.
So let’s talk about Friday’s “Battle of Alberta,” a game that featured precious few hits, a shot count of just 25-21 for Edmonton, and a measly 2-1 score. It was as exciting as the nightly Covid report, as titillating as a glass of warm milk.
Down in Calgary it was likely viewed as a low-event snoozer.
But 300 kilometres up Highway 2 it was a Picasso. It was also the Oilers’ eighth win in their past 10 games, with a chance to sweep this back-to-back Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada at Rogers Place.
“We’ll definitely take the points any way we can,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “It probably wasn’t our prettiest win, but sometimes it’s going to go down like that. You just have to grind it out.”
In a game that featured three five-on-five goals, the Oilers nursed a 2-1 second intermission lead all the way to the finish line. They clogged up the middle, sat rookie defenceman Evan Bouchard, and gave all of his ice time to Darnell Nurse, who was really galloping on a 30:01 night.
‘We did a lot of things well in the third,” Dave Tippett said, “but it comes down to you need some saves and you need a good play. Maybe it might be a good backcheck, or a puck that needs to get out on the wall. There are little things that have to happen to increase the odds of winning, and I thought we did a lot of those things tonight.”
A wise man once said, in any given playoff series there are going to be a couple of 2-1 games. You can play 5-4 hockey all year long, but if you can’t win those 2-1 games — or at least half of them — you won’t get far in the post-season.
This was that. A tight, boring, detail-oriented game that the Oilers walked out of with two points.
Four Lines Deep
They’ve now done it twice in 10 days.
Gaetan Haas’ line with Alex Chiasson and James Neal notched the winner and was dominant all night in Calgary, while the third line of Jujhar Khaira with Josh Archibald and Dominik Kahun has been a constant contributor of late.
Kyle Turris spent the night in the press box. He may have trouble getting back into this lineup.
“Everybody on this team wants to help those guys,” said Haas of McDavid and Draisaitl. “We’re just happy if we can do it. It’s always great if we can make some goals, and let them a little bit free for a night.”
Haas banged home his own rebound on a night when Tippett was happy to use his fourth line liberally. The Swiss import played 12:54 while Sam Bennett — the Flames fourth-line centre — played just 6:30 and was stapled to the bench for the entire third period. He was on the ice for both Oilers goals, on the rare night that the fourth line won a game for Edmonton, as opposed to a Hart Trophy candidate.
“I think everybody can see — the secondary scoring has been there,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “The third and fourth lines, they’ve both been buzzing. Haaser’s line, right from the get-go they just dominated the play.”
Edmonton now has 42 goals in its past 11 games by 16 different players. That’s a far cry from a team that was carried every night by two players — and couldn’t win when it wasn’t No. 97 or 29’s night.
It just keeps getting better for Jesse Puljujarvi, who deposited his fifth goal in the past seven games to open the scoring Friday. He’s found a home at first-line right wing, with five goals and eight points in 18 games this season.
The Flames somehow left him all alone in the slot in the first period to take a nifty pass from Tyson Barrie, and the big Finn used his clinical snapshot to give the Oilers an early lead.
“He’s a good player. We saw that early,” observed Tippett. “He wasn’t getting rewarded, but he’s a threat out there. He gets himself into scoring position and they start going in for him. He’s a dangerous player, but he’s a successful dangerous player when they go in for him.”
Puljujarvi is playing a smart, simple game, using his size to protect pucks and freeing them up by rubbing opponents out along the boards with his six-foot-four frame. He gets the puck and quickly puts it on the stick of linemates McDavid or Nugent-Hopkins, then uses his long stride to get open for a pass.
On a line with two of the better passers in the game, Puljujarvi knows what to do with the biscuit when he gets it back. He has five goals in his last seven games, and is just starting to figure out how to be an NHL scorer.