Oilers inch closer to matching Golden Knights’ blueprint after big win

EDMONTON — A revenge win over the Vegas Golden Knights was nice enough for the Edmonton Oilers. Aside from surrendering two late goals and having to rely on the shootout, the way in which they did it was perhaps more important.

The Oilers used the Golden Knights’ formula to secure a 5-4 extra-time victory on Tuesday, the first matchup between the two teams since their playoff series in May.

Vegas won that second-round battle in May in part because the Oilers crumpled in the last two games but also on the strength of having four forward lines and three defence pairings that were relied upon and effective.

The Oilers at least hung with the Golden Knights in the latter regard in the grudge match. They got contributions from unexpected sources and those filling in for veteran winger Zach Hyman, who missed the game with an illness.

“Everybody did a good job,” captain Connor McDavid said. “It was a team effort to fill in for Hymes.

“A lot of guys stepped up.”

It started with the opening goal of the game, scored by a seldom-used winger who didn’t even begin the season with the Oilers due to injury.

Sam Gagner wasn’t scheduled to play Tuesday night and even stayed out late to get extra work after the morning skate. He was put on standby only before leaving the rink because Hyman wasn’t feeling well.

Hyman did show up for the game but was sent home a couple of hours before the puck drop. That’s when Gagner got the tap.

Gagner scored his third goal of the season after firing a puck on net from the boards off a faceoff. The goal came in his return to the lineup after being scratched for the previous four games.

“He scores a lot in practice because he’s always shooting to score,” coach Kris Knoblauch said. “Immediately, he shoots that. It’s a bad angle, but he knew what he was doing. It was a good play.”

Gagner took Hyman’s place in the lineup. Mattias Janmark took Hyman’s place on the top line alongside McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Knoblauch chose Janmark in that spot because of his defensive responsibility, ability to play with skilled players, penchant for keeping pucks alive and his willingness to drive to the net.

Fittingly, Janmark scored his first goal of the season — also his first point — to put the Oilers up 2-1 in the second period by standing right outside the blue paint.

It wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty. A shot from Mattias Ekholm was stopped by goaltender Logan Thompson, but the puck then hit Janmark in the chest and went in. They all count, right?

“You need guys going to the net,” Knoblauch said. “He absolutely benefitted by going to the net.”

Completing the trifecta of those producing in Hyman’s absence was Evander Kane.

Kane time-shared the first-unit net-front job on the power play with Hyman for the end of the 2021-22 season after he signed with the Oilers that January. He’s been relegated almost exclusively to second-unit minutes since sustaining a gruesome wrist injury last November.

He’s the ultimate replacement, though, which he showed when he corralled an Evan Bouchard point shot off his shin pad and deposited the loose puck near Thompson.

“They’re both excellent options,” Knoblauch said of Hyman and Kane. “They do things a little bit differently, but a lot of teams don’t have that option on their first unit to have either one of those guys. We, fortunately, have two options.”

The goal was Kane’s 11th of the season.

“My confidence level is where it usually is,” Kane said, smiling.

The Golden Knights were missing two of their top four defencemen, Shea Theodore and Alec Martinez. They started Thompson and not Adin Hill, the netminder responsible for ending Edmonton’s season.

But it’s not like the Oilers were fully loaded. After all, they played without Hyman — whose 12 goals lead the team.

They had other players to pick up the slack.

Connor McDavid scores a goal during the shootout against Vegas goaltender Logan Thompson. (Perry Nelson / USA Today)

Oh yeah, and McDavid had a goal and two assists, too. He’s up to 12 points in the last three games. His 28 points have him ninth in NHL scoring.

“There’s a lot less frustration with him than there was previously, two weeks ago,” Knoblauch said.

It was the ultimate team effort as most skaters down the lineup earned full marks. The penalty killers were high on that list.

The Oilers were perfect in that capacity again, denying the Golden Knights on all five opportunities and improving to a 91.2 percent success rate in eight games since the coaching change.

“We’re in sync,” Ekholm said. “We’re better at the entries. We’re pressuring teams more to make plays.”

The PK work was part of a staunch defensive effort — at least until the last 6:30 of the game.

That’s when the Golden Knights’ depth guys, usual extra defenceman Ben Hutton and fourth-line winger Keegan Kolesar, scored in quick succession to tie the score. That sullied things a bit.

“We just can’t let games like that slip away and give a team in our division we’re trying to catch a point,” Kane said.

Let’s be real about that. The Golden Knights are 15 points ahead of the Oilers. This hasn’t been much of a race.

Their depth is a key reason why they’re so good.

The Hutton and Kolesar markers were par for the course for a Golden Knights team that so regularly gets different guys pitching in. Kolesar became their last forward to score this season; all the others to dress in Edmonton have potted at least three goals. Depth winger Michael Amadio also found the back of the net on Tuesday.

But the Oilers were right with the Golden Knights in terms of unsung heroes. That’s a good change of pace in these parts.

That helped them earn their third straight win and fifth in eight games under Knoblauch.

“We’ve got all four lines going,” Ekholm said. “There’s a lot of things to like about our game right now.

“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We know that (winning) three games is not a lot in the hole that we’ve dug ourselves.”

“There’s definitely momentum in our room,” McDavid said. “We can feel it.”

It’s not like this win signals the Oilers are a perfect team. They’re still 8-12-1, lest we forget.

It’s not like it even signals they’re soundly constructed. The Oilers are still considered a top-heavy bunch that — in terms of their skaters — could use some more offensive punch, some bottom-six heft, and another blueliner.

What it does signal is they’re in the right direction under a new coach, and they should continue to keep pushing that boulder up the hill — and up the standings — until management can find reinforcements by the trade deadline.

That’s when we’ll know if the Oilers can truly and consistently hang with the Golden Knights from top to bottom.

Until then, the Oilers will take the positives where they can.

“It was a huge win for us again,” Ekholm said. “We’re working towards a game that can be successful every night.”

(Top photo of Sam Gagner after scoring a goal against the Golden Knights: Perry Nelson / USA Today)

Originally Appeared Here

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