Things can change fast in the National Hockey League. Just ask Connor McDavid.
Seven months ago, he stood in the visitor’s locker room at T-Mobile Arena visibly frustrated and disgusted with the direction the Edmonton Oilers were going. They had just been eliminated from playoff contention for the third season in a row after losing 3-1 to the Vegas Golden Knights on April 1.
The Oilers fired Peter Chiarelli two months prior, the general manager that captained the sinking ship with no desire to let go of the wheel. Ken Hitchcock was likely not coming back as coach. It was McDavid, the best player in the world, as the captain of one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the league.
The Golden Knights, meanwhile, had clinched a playoff spot in their second year in existence. They traded for Mark Stone and looked like a threat to reach the Stanley Cup Final with a loaded roster.
Here we are seven months later, talking about the Oilers being the class of the Pacific Division, while the Golden Knights are in the cliched ‘take one step forward and two steps back’ mantra, looking anything but a team that could hoist the Cup come June.
McDavid scored two goals to extend his point streak to 10 games, and the first place Oilers defeated the Golden Knights 4-2 at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday. The Oilers, now at 15-7-3, showed Saturday why they need to be taken seriously in this Western Conference conglomerate.
“Obviously, we’ve had a good start,” McDavid said. “We’re trying to build something up here, but it takes a lot of work, a lot of focus. I’ve liked our start. We’ve continued to build on it, and we need to continue to build.”
The stars came out to play for Edmonton; McDavid’s two goals gave him 23 points throughout his streak, and linemate Leon Draisaitl continues to play like one of the best players in hockey with 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) in his past 15 games.
Draisaitl (47) and McDavid (46) are the top point scorers in the NHL and have paced Edmonton to a first place spot in the Pacific for the first time in four seasons.
“There’s lots of talk about us right now, but I thought it was a complete effort tonight. It started with [goaltender Mike Smith], it was a good bounceback game for him, a great bounceback game for our whole group, a great bounceback game for Leon and I, and [linemate Zack Kassian]. We weren’t good enough in L.A., so we responded well.”
The Oilers were trounced 5-1 on Thursday at the Kings, an effort as McDavid eluded to that not everyone played well. But these aren’t your older sibling’s Oilers; they’re playing well, and it’s been a consistent sense of playing well. They’ve led the Pacific Division for all but two games this season. The resurgence of James Neal has been a major help, but the machine goes with McDavid and Draisaitl carrying them.
“They’re obviously vital cogs to what we’re trying to do, but they’ve really bought in to a team atmosphere, the way we want to play as a team,” said Oilers coach Dave Tippett. “They have their high-end talent that they put on display every night, but they’re also playing without the puck really well and they appreciate the guys killing penalties and defending, and it’s led to a good team effort, but obviously they’re a part of that.”
Much like a dysfunctional franchise can turn its trajectory at a flip of a switch, a contending team can make some tough decisions in one offseason and come back possibly worst than the year before. The Golden Knights are in that territory.
After back-to-back wins against Calgary and Toronto that should’ve signaled the turnaround the Golden Knights were looking for, they lose out on a crucial point Thursday against the Sharks, and end the four-game homestand Saturday with an otherwise uninspiring performance against a team they should’ve been up for.
“They were a lot better than we were, a lot quicker,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “We didn’t defend well in the d-zone and made some mistakes, and they took advantage of it, for sure. We didn’t do our job in the d-zone good enough.”
It’s difficult to contain the Oilers in the defensive zone when McDavid and Draisaitl team up for things like this.
Reilly Smith tried. He really did. But you can’t stop that.
But then you get to goals allowed like this, while a great pass from Draisaitl to set up Ethan Bear from the high slot (and maybe one Marc-Andre Fleury should’ve stopped), the confusion in front of the net is staggering.
“They’re a huge part of their team,” said Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored a goal Saturday. “They bring that skill, they bring that offense, and they bring that speed and I just didn’t think we were closing our gaps enough. We were giving them a little too much respect. They’re great players and they’re going to make you pay. They are playing a lot of minutes; we had to do a better job of just playing as a team.”
Not playing as a team sounds problematic when this is a group that should be one of the tops in the Western Conference. Alas, the Golden Knights (11-10-4) have not won more than two games in a row this season. They are 6-5-3 at home, in what will soon be a far cry from the 29 and 24 wins they had their first two seasons. T-Mobile Arena is not a home-ice advantage right now, and that’s one of many blown opportunities for Vegas to this point.
This six-game stretch they wrapped up, with five of them at home, ends at 2-3-1. Forget overtime losses, because they’re irrelevant at this juncture — the Golden Knights went 2-4 in six games, losing to Chicago, Los Angeles and San Jose. Those are three winnable games. Vegas has not taken advantage of the winnable games (hello, Detroit), and it’s been costly.
Now, the Golden Knights go on the road for a two-game Central road trip. Their first opponent? No big deal; just the hottest team in the Western Conference, the Dallas Stars, who are on an 11-game point streak (10-0-1) and have won 13 of 15 (13-1-1) after starting the season 1-7-1. This does not look like a team that can go into American Airlines Center and win. If they look outmatched against the best duo in hockey, try stopping a Dallas team rolling four lines, three good defense pairings, and a goaltending duo that is as good as anything going right now.
The Golden Knights looked like they figured it out, but the reality is they’re nowhere ready to tackle the big boys in the Pacific Division. It’s not just because McDavid and Draisaitl have more talent between them than Vegas has combined in their top six.
Vegas just isn’t good right now, and the road to figuring out how good they can be, in the short term, isn’t looking any better to being figured out soon.
“I’m not happy about it. I’m not happy the way we’re playing like tonight,” Gallant said. “A big game, a first-place team in your division and you got them in your building, and you think you’re going to come out with some fire, and there was no fire. There wasn’t enough fire for me. Disappointing in that part.”