The success of Darryl Sutter with the Calgary Flames this season has been to recognize that today’s NHL, as he frequently repeats, “is a 3-2 league.”
The jolly rancher from Viking has convinced his team to play all-in, 60-minute, 3-2 hockey and the Flames essentially secured first place in the Pacific Division heading into Saturday’s final Battle of Alberta game against the Edmonton Oilers on Hockey Night in Canada at the Saddledome.
The Flames went into the weekend averaging 3.43 goals per game and 2.43 goals against to build a 38-17-8 record for 84 points, well clear of the rest of the Pacific Division riff raff.
Jay Woodcroft, since he was promoted to be Edmonton Oilers head coach 21 games ago, has built a 13-6-2 record basically trying to do the same with this team.
But Woodcroft now looks to be coaching a different Edmonton team for the remainder of the regular season. And the question after the Oilers ran their record to 14-4 versus Pacific Division opposition with a 5-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks to make it a six-game home winning streak returning to Rogers place from double defeats in Denver and Dallas is if they can be a 3-2 team, too?
I don’t think so. And I’m good with that.
And yes, I go back to 1984 when the Oilers had to prove to themselves in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final that they could win a playoff game against the four-in-a-row New York Islanders 1-0. And, yes, the most important number in the Oilers 5-2 win over the San Jose Sharks Thursday at Rogers was the “2.”
Thursday was not an insignificant game in Oilers history.
For the first time since the fabulous first few weeks of the season that began with a 16-5 record, the team that the Oilers sent over the boards was healthy.
And, other than having no Dwayne Roloson acquired to play goal and no Chris Pronger on defence, was arguably the best team for Edmonton to take into the playoffs since the Kevin Lowe-managed Craig MacTavish-coached team that went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2006.
That team made significant changes coming out of the lockout including moves made around the trade deadline including Roloson, Jaroslav Spacek and Sergei Samsonov.
Those Oilers finished eighth in the conference and received remarkable production from Fernando Pisani up front and from most of the added pieces to the puzzle.
The team the Oilers appear to be taking forward to the playoffs certainly seemed to come into focus for most members of the team Thursday as Leon Draisaitl scored his 43rd and 44th of the season to become the highest scoring German hockey player in history and move within one of Auston Matthews for the Rocket Richard trophy.
And Connor McDavid ran his point-scoring streak to eight games with a two-point night to separate himself from the pack in points for the Art Ross Trophy.
Yamamoto and Kane both had big games and extended point streaks and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returned to help both the power play and penalty killing go two-for-two.
The Oilers didn’t take their team picture Thursday. But it was there to behold.
When the Oilers took the ice against San Jose, the occasion combined the return of Nugent-Hopkins from injury and Holland’s two bargain basement trade deadline acquisitions, Stony Plain defenceman Brett Kulak from the Montreal Canadiens and Derick ‘Suitcase’ Brassard from the New York Rangers.
The reaction of 10-year Oilers veteran Nugent-Hopkins looking around the room and seeing Zach Hyman, Evander Kane and Duncan Keith joined by recently injured top-six forwards Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, caused ‘The Nuge’ to make a significant statement prior to the game.
“The depth on this team now is something I’ve never experienced before in my career here. You look up and down that lineup and you can almost throw anybody against anybody. It’s exciting.”
And it inspired Hyman to make another statement after the game.
“We started to see our team fully healthy and with all of our guys now and it was awesome to get that win.
“I think you saw all sorts of depth, all four lines contributing and playing the full 60 minutes.”
The Oilers are proceeding to the playoffs with three potent lines. If Woodcroft can at least continue to convince them to maintain a degree of attention to detail defensively, this could be fun.
Starting Thursday the Oilers essentially have three GAG lines. Kane-McDavid-Yamamoto, McLeod-Draisaitl-Hyman and Brassard-Nuge-Puljuvarvi all have Goal-A-Game identities.
Even with playoff checking, superstar shutdown strategies and referees forgetting to bring their whistles, there’s reason to envision and expect success again for the first time since American Thanksgiving.
“I think this is the first time our group has returned to full health and I can tell you that we have a lot of productive players and putting together tonight’s lineup was not easy,” said Woodcroft.
It makes you think what a second round playoff series against the Flames might look like.