EDMONTON — There are floor-to-ceiling windows in the room where the Edmonton Oilers conduct their postgame interviews. Inside, the players are calm and quotable, just two games into a nice start to the NHL season.
Outside on the street, it was bedlam, with 300-400 fans banging on the windows and cheering on Jesse Puljujarvi as he sat at the podium next to Leon Draisaitl, chanting “MVP! MVP! MVP” when it was Connor McDavid’s turn, and generally acting as if it were June, not October.
The Oilers beat Calgary 5-2 on a sudsy Saturday night in The Big E, and the local superstar had a hat trick. McDavid even scored one on that one-timer he’s been working on at practice. You remember, the one Draisaitl had joked was “fluffy” when asked about McDavid’s shot a few days ago.
Draisaitl was ready when he took to the podium after the game.
“If you watch the replay, it WAS a little fluffy,” he kidded. “It came off nice, but it was fluffing. It was a nice shot, I will give him that. A very nice shot. Good for him.”
Good for him.
It was a metaphorical pat on the head from a 50-goal scorer with one of the best one-timers in the game, to a player who scores every which way but like that — until Saturday night. Like Rory McIlroy saying, “Nice drive,” when you “blister” one 225 yards down the middle.
“It’s funny,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “I knew as soon as it went in, the players were so happy for him. They’re laughing and because you (media) guys have brought it up in the last week or whatever — so it’s kind of out there that we’re looking for results now — and he got results. It’s a light moment, put it that way.”
Fans crowded in the streets partying to a 2-0 start. Laughs at the expense of McDavid, who set a team record with his third career regular season hat trick against the Flames. An emerging star in Puljujarvi, who has 2-2-4 in two games and could be destined for 30 goals playing alongside McDavid all year, and Draisaitl for much of it.
What’s up in Edmonton?
We’re not quite sure, but somehow this is different than just a couple of superstars working their way towards a Hart and an Art Ross Trophy, as is the norm in these parts. There is so much more talent below the big line in Edmonton these days, and when Tippett went to three lines with the score 4-2 in the third period, it was a workflow that we haven’t seen here for ages.
“There was a flow and a rhythm to our game,” Tippett said. “Everybody was on the same page and… we’ve got three lines that are just going hard and playing a similar style. It doesn’t matter who the players are, you can do that and look like a pretty good team.”
For years Edmonton has iced a first line, with two third lines and a fourth line. Then they split McDavid and Draisaitl up last year, and they had a first line, a second line, and two fourth lines.
With smart centreman Derek Ryan (who scored Saturday) between two big, fast wingers in Warren Foegele and Zack Kassian, Edmonton now has a legit third line like we haven’t seen in a long, long time.
Is this what a real hockey team looks like? Is this how a proper set of forward lines is supposed to look?
Forgive us, but it’s been a while.
A fourth line that doesn’t get caved in five-on-five? “What’s that?” asked every Oilers observer in the past decade.
Look, it’s early. The Oilers are still taking too many penalties, and but for a few breaks, Calgary could have found a better fate Saturday.
But watching Edmonton closely now through two games, you see the plan. It’s evident, the structure of a roster that was augmented with the right kinds of players this summer, and now comes over the boards in a fashion that a well built roster does.
There’s copious skill at the top with McDavid and Draisaitl, danger on Line 2 with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman, size and speed on Line 3 and a fourth line that fills in the blanks with a couple of penalty killers.
On defence, Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie are a pairing with two top players — an Olympic hopeful and a righty who quarterbacks a mean powerplay. The way a top-skill pairing is supposed to.
Below them, Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci were impeccable Saturday, a pairing that appears destined to silence the detractors who want to write players off before they’ve even played a game for their team. They were excellent Saturday.
Evan Bouchard is being worked in on the third pairing, like a young defenceman is supposed to. He is being given as much responsibility as he can handle, with the requisite veterans around to usurp that ice time on a night when it’s not going Bouchard’s way.
And in goal, Mike Smith has been the better goalie in each of the first two games, making 45 stops Saturday. We’re not saying he’s the best goalie in the Pacific, but he was a shade better than Thatcher Demko in Game 1, and out-duelled Jacob Markstrom in Game 2.
“He’s been amazing,” McDavid said. “He’s come back and picked up right where he left off. He’s an ageless wonder. He was unbelievable again tonight.”
It’s only two games, but at this point, there’s no reason not to believe.