It’s always nice to sit in business class after years of flying economy.
So imagine how it feels to sit in business class after a decade of being stuffed into cold, dark cargo holds with the dogs and luggage.
That’s how refreshing this current ride is for the 7-1 Edmonton Oilers, who woke up in first place overall Saturday morning after Friday’s win over Detroit.
When you’ve spent years and years and years (and years) languishing at the bottom of the league standings, the view from the top is pretty sweet.
“It’s been fun, probably the first time in my career being 7-1,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the longest-serving player on the team. “We wanted to take pride in the start. It’s nice to be in the position we’re in, but we can’t stop now.”
Nobody is getting ahead of themselves with just 10 per cent of the season in the books, but after too many seasons when the playoffs starting pulling away from them by Halloween, they’re allowed to enjoy this.
“It feels good,” said defenceman Oscar Klefbom. “We’ve been winning some games even though we haven’t been playing our best hockey and that’s a big strength. We’re very happy with where we are right now.”
The underlying qualifier is that it’s early, which is true, but in a couple of weeks, it won’t be. And none of them are expecting the floor to drop out from underneath them anytime soon.
“Our attitude in there is a winning attitude. We go into every game giving ourselves a chance to win,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “We have the right mentality to keep it going.”
The Oilers will face a pair of teams on the limp when they visit the Jets (4-5 and on a three-game losing streak) and Wild (1-6), two more winnable games in what’s been a favourable schedule so far.
They haven’t had to play any back-to-backs or face any world-beaters yet, but they’re taking care of what’s in front of them and banking serious points in the process.
“We’re going to play everybody,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “Every team in this league is good and competitive. There are no easy nights.
“Whether it looks like that on the schedule or not, you go in knowing you can win or lose. We still have to go out there and beat teams, outwork teams, and that’s what we’ve done so far. The work ethic is something we have to keep up.”
Oil Spills podcast: It’s early, but Oilers’ signs look positive
The Edmonton Oilers’ strong start to the 2019-20 NHL season is certainly a pleasant surprise to the team’s fans.
Hockey Hall of Fame writer Jim Matheson talks to host Craig Ellingson about how the Oilers can keep producing at this level, barring setbacks due to injury, including getting production from the likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Zack Kassian on the first line as well as power-play production from James Neal as well as reliable goaltending and a maturing defence that has handled Adam Larsson’s absence well.
Goaltending, with Mikko Koskinen coming off a dreadful finish and 37-year-old Mike Smith coming off an .898 save percentage in Calgary last year, was a big concern heading into training camp.
But what some feared would be a liability is instead a strength as Smith and Koskinen take turns delivering standout performances.
Koskinen, who was probably overworked down the stretch last year, spent the summer working on North American angles and feels it made a big difference.
“I started from zero (last year),” he said. “It really helped a lot. I practised all summer in a small rink, and I was more ready this year.”
Tippett believes much of the problems with Koskinen last year were fatigue-related (he played 24 of 25 games down the stretch), which shouldn’t be a problem in the two-goalie system.
“I watched him play early on during that run where he played really well last year,” said Tippett. “Then I watched him play the last 20 games where he looked really tired, burnt out.
“In talking to both guys this summer, they were both dialled in. I think we have a great set-up where both know they are going to play and both have the mindset to play well every night. So far, it’s been good for us.”
The Oilers recalled forward Sam Gagner from AHL Bakersfield for their two-game road trip. With the Oilers looking for more production from forwards not named McDavid, Draisaitl, Neal and Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner could help on any of the bottom three lines.
He has two goals and two assists in four games with Bakersfield.
Among the most pleasant surprises in a season full of them is the play of defenceman Ethan Bear. He’s been pushed into some heavy minutes in tense situations, but he’s responded to the top pairing minutes with remarkable poise.
“Bear has been amazing,” said Koskinen. “It’s fun to watch him. His confidence level is out of this league. He’s doing everything right. It’s great to watch him right now.”
The organization has been waiting a long time for a late-round draft pick (Bear went in the fifth round in 2015) to grow into something good. It looks like they have one.
“He has just been really solid,” said Tippett. “The goals (two in the last two games) are nice, but he is playing a lot of really hard minutes. He is giving us real quality minutes on both sides of the puck.”
Without it, the Oilers might have been sunk. They looked doomed when Adam Larsson broke his leg on opening night, but Bear’s ability to step up is a big reason they could still build momentum.
“We need him right now with Larsson out,” said Holland. “He has come in and really filled the void for us. He was a surprise in camp, and now, he is a good NHL player. We need him.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019