Contender or Pretender: Is it time to believe in the Oilers?

Now that we are closing in on the halfway point of the 2020-21 NHL season and are starting to get a sense for what each team is capable of, we are going to take a closer look each week at some teams right on the edge between Stanley Cup contender and Stanley Cup pretender.

We start today with the Oilers, who are currently one of the hottest teams in the NHL. After their 3-0 win over Vancouver on Thursday, they are on a five-game winning streak, have won 11 of their past 13 games, and have rapidly gained ground on the Maple Leafs for the top spot in the North Division.

So with that said, is it time to believe in this team?

The situation favors them this season

And by situation, I mean the schedule and season format.

The temporary realignment of the divisions and divisional playoffs has put them with a group of teams that isn’t exactly a who’s who of Stanley Cup contenders. It is starting to look as if they might the second best team in the division after Toronto, while two of the three best players in the division play on their team. That is a big advantage.

Winning in the playoffs is not just about having the best team on paper, or even the best team during the season. There are so many other variables that go into it. Playing your best at the right time, being healthy, luck, and also getting the right matchups along the way. Being lucky enough to avoid a certain opponent. Getting a team that you match up well with. As long as Edmonton can stay in one of the top-three spots and avoid a first-round matchup with the one team that might be better than them (Toronto), it would be reasonable to consider them a favorite in any possible first-round matchup.

When you have two players as good and dominant as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are, there is always the chance they can put the team on their back and carry them through a series or two. The way they have played this season, it is certainly possible.

The same concerns still exist

The biggest problem the Oilers have had in the McDavid-Draisaitl era is the fact the team as a whole has not been able to defend or get consistent goaltending, and that the offense revolves almost entirely around the two superstars. As they go, the team goes. Stop them, stop the Oilers.

If you wanted to look for some red flags right now in the middle of this recent surge, there they are.

Mike Smith is 6-0 since returning to the lineup with a .938 save percentage and two shutouts. That level of goaltending makes it a lot easier to win and mask other flaws. What happens to the Oilers when his numbers inevitably regress back closer to what they were over the previous two seasons?

Given the number of shots they allow, it may not be good. Like most of the teams in the North the Oilers are hemorrhaging shots and goals against this season and have been one of the worst 5-on-5 shot suppression teams in the league. They lack a true No. 1 defenseman and just flat out don’t defend well. They are going to have to drag teams into a track meet and outscore them. As long as McDavid and Draisaitl play the way they have been, they have a chance to do that.

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But not even the league’s elite hit slumps and go cold for stretches, and they can’t play all 60 minutes. When neither McDavid or Draisaitl is on the ice for the Oilers this season they do not only get dramatically worse, they become one of the worst teams in the league.

With neither player on the ice at 5-on-5 this season the Oilers attempt just 42.1% of the shot attempts. They get outscored 22-13 (only 37.1% of the goals) and have an expected goals mark of just 40.1%.

In a lot of areas, that is actually worse than they have been in recent seasons.

A year ago their numbers were 47.2 (shot attempt share), 37.6 (goals for percentage), and 47.6 (expected goals percentage).

Two years ago they were 47.5 (shot attempt share), 41.2 (goals for percentage), and 47.7 (expected goals percentage).

Not good. Top-heavy teams do not tend to go far in the playoffs, and they do not tend to win championships.

Contender or pretender?

They are definitely a contender within the context of their own division. But at this point they still seem like they fall in the pretender category when it comes to the league as a whole.

For as exciting as they can be, for as dominant as McDavid and Draisaitl are, and for as favorable as the division is in their favor there are just still too many warning signs here that keep me from fully buying in as a potential championship contender.

It is entirely possible that they could win a round, and maybe even two in the playoffs. That would not shock me and it should not shock you. And if you make it to the final four you probably have to be considered a “contender” on some level because of how close you are and how random a seven-game playoff series can be. Weird, unexpected things happen in small sample sizes.

But they are feasting on favorable matchups. Would you put them on the same level as a Tampa Bay, or Vegas, or Colorado, or St. Louis, or Boston, or Carolina, or even a healthy Dallas team? Would they be winning as frequently right now with regular games against those teams during the regular season in their normal division? It is hard to envision it given the makeup of the roster.

For now, the Oilers are exciting. They play in a division against teams that favor them. That is going to give them a chance to maybe reach level they have not really been at in nearly two decades. But they still have some major flaws that need corrected.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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    Bruins extend NHL-record season-opening home win streak

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    BOSTON – Taylor Hall scored twice and the Boston Bruins extended their NHL-record streak of home victories to open a season to 13 games with a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.

    Backup goalie Jeremy Swayman made 27 saves and Brad Marchand added an empty-netter for the Bruins, whose 3-2 overtime win over Carolina on Friday broke the record of 11 set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and matched by the Florida Panthers last season.

    “For us, it’s more about our process that allows us to have positive outcomes,” Bruins first-year coach Jim Montgomery said of the streak. “We’re together on how we think things should work and we believe in that process.”

    Steven Stamkos had a power-play goal, raising his career point total to 999, and Andrei Vasilievskiy stopped 23 shots for Tampa Bay. The Lightning had won six of their last seven games.

    “I think these are the (games) you circle,” Tampa Bay center Ross Colton said. “These are the ones you want to measure up against. For the most part, I think we played really well.”

    Hall snapped off a shot from the slot for the eventual winner 2:49 into the third period after collecting a pass from Nick Foligno, who started to circle the net before quickly turning and centering the puck.

    “I think we’re showing, that no matter who we’re playing, that its really about us and how we play,” Hall said. “We’re going to get team’s bests, they’re going to come hard. I think we have the confidence that if we play our game, we’re probably going to win.”

    Swayman came across the crease, flashing his right pad to make a splendid stop on Corey Perry with just under seven minutes left in the game.

    “That’s the best he’s looked this year to me,” Montgomery said of his netminder. “Very calm in the crease.”

    Tampa Bay had tied it on Stamkos’ score with 1:40 left in the second period.

    Swayman stopped about four or five excellent chances in the period before Stamkos scored on a one-timer off a pass from Nikita Kucherov from near the left circle.

    “Even though we’ve had success in the win column, it doesn’t mean guys haven’t gone up and down in different mental states and stuff,” Swayman said. “They’re doing what it takes to perform on the ice, and that’s special.”

    In an opening period with few quality scoring opportunities, Hall made it 1-0 just 67 seconds into the game. Positioned in the slot, Hall tipped in Brandon Carlo‘s shot from the point, with the puck dropping from about waist high and going between Vasilievskiy’s pads.

    Vasilievskiy robbed Jake DeBrusk‘s short-handed bid midway into the period with a blocker stop when the winger broke free for a wrister between the circles.

    DOWN BUT NOT OUT

    Bruins standout defenseman Charlie McAvoy was down for a while after the puck deflected under his visor and hit him on the bridge of his nose. He got up slowly, headed down the runway toward the locker room, but quickly came back and didn’t a shift.

    NOTES: Stamkos, who had two goals, including the game-winner in a 6-5 OT victory at Buffalo on Monday night, notched his 26th career goal against the Bruins. . Boston defenseman Derek Forbort returned to the lineup after missing the previous 11 games with a broken finger, and forward Trent Frederic was back after being sidelined the last two games with an undisclosed injury.

    UP NEXT

    Lightning: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

    Bruins: Host the Colorado Avalanche Saturday night.

    Stars sign Hintz to $67.6M, 8-year extension through 2030-31

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    FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Stars have signed center Roope Hintz, a nearly point-a-game player in the prime of his career, to a $67.6 million, eight-year contract extension.

    “He brings so much to us,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said Tuesday. “He realizes now who he is. He came into the league three, four years ago finding his way. He started out probably as the third-line center man and very responsible, and all of a sudden he’s groomed into this No. 1 center man. You can just see the confidence that he has now.”

    The 26-year-old Hintz has 88 goals and 106 assists in his 261 games over five seasons, all with Dallas, including 139 points in 142 games since the start of the 2020-21 season.

    The Finland native set career highs with 37 goals and 35 assists last season, and has eight goals and 16 assists in 22 games this season for the Central Division-leading Stars.

    The extension takes effect after the end of this season, when Hintz could have become a restricted free agent. It goes through the 2030-31 season and has an average value of $8.45 million.

    “We wanted to do something quick if we could. We didn’t want this to drag on. It’s not easy for players during the season to live through negotiations,” Nill said. “He’s a 6-foot-3, No. 1 center man in the NHL that can skate well and has got great skills and is putting up big points, so he’s a high-demand player. He’s a hard player to find.”

    The Hintz contract is identical to the one defenseman Miro Heiskanen signed before last season. Before this season, the Stars signed restricted free agent Jason Robertson a $31 million, four-year deal, and goaltender Jake Oettinger to a $12 million, three-year deal. All three of those players are 23 years old. Robertson, a 41-goal scorer last season, leads the NHL with 19 goals in 23 games this season, and also has 17 assists.

    “We now have our core signed up,” Nill said. “Trying to get this core together, keep it together for as many years as we can, and that’s why we made this move now.”

    Devils rally from two goals down to beat Rangers 5-3

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    NEW YORK – Jack Hughes and Michael McLeod scored in the second period, Vitek Vanecek stopped 35 shots and the surging New Jersey Devils rallied from an early two-goal deficit to beat the New York Rangers 5-3 on Monday night.

    Yegor Sharangovich had two goals and Tomas Tatar also scored to help the first-place Devils win their third straight since having their 13-game winning streak snapped last week. New Jersey has won 10 straight road games and has only one loss since starting the season 3-3-0.

    The Rangers raced to a 2-0 lead just three minutes into the contest but the Devils scored twice to tie it later in the first period to tie it and then scored twice in the second period to take the lead.

    “We stayed with our game. There was a calmness on the bench,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said of his team’s early deficit. “All I said on the bench was ‘let’s get the next goal and we’ll be back in the game.”‘

    Vanecek improved to 11-2-0 as scattered chants of “Let’s Go Devils” were heard at Madison Square Garden.

    The Devils have made the playoffs only once – in 2018 – since beating the Rangers in six games in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.

    “It was great to hear the fans here on our side,” Devils forward Miles Wood said. “We can’t thank them enough.”

    Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck scored and Chris Kreider had two assists for the Rangers, who fell to 4-5-3 at home. Igor Shesterkin had 33 saves.

    New York also lost its second straight at home in a disheartening fashion. The Rangers squandered a 3-0 third-period lead against Edmonton on Saturday to lose 4-3. Last season, they won 27 of 41 games at the Garden.

    “When one thing goes wrong it starts to snowball on us,” Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren said. “We keep saying we have to play a full 60. You can’t keep talking about it, you have to go out and do it.”

    Rangers coach Gerard Gallant credited the young and hungry Devils with playing a superior game.

    “They put lots of offense at you, they play fast and they showed that,” Gallant said. “Tonight they were the better team.”

    Tatar narrowed the deficit to 2-1 at 7:31 of the first with a nifty high backhand shot past Shesterkin for his sixth of the season. Jesper Bratt had an assist on the play, giving him a point in 18 for the Devils’ 23 games this season.

    Sharangovich tied it with an unassisted goal with 6:35 left in the first.

    Hughes put the Devils ahead at 5:44 of the second after he gained a stride on Lindgren before sliding the puck past Shesterkin for his 12th of the season and fourth in the last two games.

    McLeod made it 4-2 at 9:40 with his third goal after Wood hit the crossbar behind Shesterkin.

    “I have to play better,” said , who was also in goal for Saturday’s meltdown against Edmonton and has lost three of his last five games.

    It was the fourth time in their last six games the Devils scored at least four times and New Jersey improved to 9-0-0 when the 21-year-old Hughes – the top overall pick by the Devils in the 2019 draft – has a goal.

    Trocheck scored his eighth goal on the power play for the Rangers with 6:42 left in the third to pull within one, but Sharangovich added an empty-netter with 16 seconds remaining to seal the win.

    The Devils improved a franchise-best 13-1-0 in November and an NHL-best 16-0-0 when leading after two periods.

    “It’s fun playing here,” Hischier said. “It feels great to beat the Rangers,?

    Panarin scored 1:20 into the game to end a personal 12-game goal-scoring drought with his sixth of the season and first since Oct. 30 at Arizona.

    Zibanejad made it 2-0 at 3:01 with his team-best 11th of the season.

    UP NEXT

    Devils: Host Nashville on Thursday night.

    Rangers: At Ottawa on Wednesday night.

    Stamkos lifts Lightning past Sabres 6-5 in OT

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. – Steven Stamkos scored his second goal of the game 2:44 into overtime to give the Tampa Bay Lightning a 6-5 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night.

    Brayden Point also had two goals, Brandon Hagel had a goal and an assist, and Corey Perry also scored for the Lightning, who rallied from two goals down in the third period to force overtime. Nikita Kucherov and Mikhail Sergachev each had three assists, and Stamkos added one for a three-point night.

    Brian Elliott had 32 saves to get the win.

    “We got the breaks at the end to pull us back, some big-time players got us back into it,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said.

    Tage Thompson had a goal and an assist, and Tyson Jost, Jeff Skinner, Jack Quinn and Dylan Cozens also scored for Buffalo. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 19 saves.

    “You allow good players a little bit of extra time and a little bit of extra space, they’re going to make plays on you,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “We had hesitation in our game and it was only the last 10 minutes.”

    In the extra period, Stamkos got the winner on a blast from the right circle for his 12th of the season.

    “There’s going to be games where we don’t deserve the two points and tonight was probably one of those, but we’ve been on the other side of that too,” Stamkos said.

    With the score tied at 3-3 to open the third period, the Sabres appeared to take control in the third with two goals for a 5-3 lead with a little more than 5 1/2 minutes remaining.

    Cozens put Buffalo ahead at 9:37, ripping a shot from the right circle under the crossbar and beating Elliott on the glove side. Skinner made it 5-3 with 5:41 remaining, finishing from a tight angle after an odd-man rush was initially stopped.

    However, the Lightning answered back with two goals 3 1/2 minutes apart.

    Stamkos scored just 16 seconds after Skinner’s goal to get the Lightning within one. Hagel tied it with a power-play goal with 2:02 remaining. With Elliott pulled to create a 6-on-4 advantage, Kucherov’s shot from the right circle was deflected by Hagel past Luukkonen.

    Point opened the scoring 7:54 into the game with a power-play goal from close range for his ninth.

    Perry made it 2-0 with 3:12 left in the first off a cross-ice pass from Stamkos.

    Thompson put Buffalo on the board with 2:06 left in the first, beating Elliott with some nifty stick-handling after forcing a turnover in front of the Tampa net.

    Quinn evened it 59 seconds later, finishing a nice feed from JJ Peterka on a quick offensive rush.

    Jost gave Buffalo a 3-2 lead midway through the second period, scoring his first goal with the Sabres after he was acquired off waivers from Minnesota on Nov. 19.

    Point tied it 3-3 on the power play with 3:34 left in the second after getting a pass from Kucherov.

    INJURY RETURNS

    Each team had one player return from a recent injury. Sabres center Rasmus Asplund returned after missing two games with an upper-body injury. Tampa Bay forward Cole Koepke returned after missing three games with an upper-body injury.

    UP NEXT

    Lightning: At Boston on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: At Detroit on Wednesday night.