The Oilers were a monumental flop in the first quarter of 2013-14 despite a lineup studded with young guns and a much ballyhooed coach. But it's goaltending that will save the Oilers and the presence of Ilya Bryzgalov is elevating Devan Dubnyk's game.
As a Calgary native, it pains me a little to say this, but I’m fully expecting a huge second-quarter resurgence in the Edmonton Oilers. I expect they’ll have among the top 10 records in the NHL in Games 21 through 41. In fact, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see them among the top five.
It all starts in goal. Signing free agent Ilya Bryzgalov was a move I thought the Oilers should have made months earlier. Incumbent Devan Dubnyk has never rated higher than 20th on my list of NHL goalies. Yes, he posted good numbers last season, and true, he’s never played behind anything more than a mediocre defense or a mediocre defensive system, but that didn’t do it for me. He’s never had a prolonged period of excellence. But maybe he’s about to change that.
In Bryzgalov, I see a reclamation project. He may not turn out the way Mike Smith did after leaving Tampa Bay for Phoenix, or the way Sergei Bobrovsky surged in Columbus after leaving Philadelphia. But Bryz has tremendous credentials and at 33, still has some gas left in the tank.
If nothing else, Bryzgalov provides name competition for Dubnyk to spruce up his game. Since getting recalled from Oklahoma City in the AHL seven days ago, Bryzgalov has sat on the bench watching Dubnyk win player-of-the-week honors. Dubnyk had a .974 save percentage and 0.50 goals-against average in two wins last week. And I hope coach Dallas Eakins keeps playing him through a so-so game or two – even if that means Bryzgalov watches for a few more weeks.
Establishing competition behind the pipes has started to turn the Edmonton ship around. It’s not the only reason, but it shows why goaltending is the most important position in hockey. The Oilers have the offensive horses to ride solid goaltending into an extended hot streak. Sure, this is a team that has some issues in its own end and some trouble transitioning the puck from one zone to the next, but most prognosticators had this team challenging for a playoff spot based on talent alone. (The Hockey News Yearbook called for Edmonton to finish fifth in the Pacific and make the playoffs as a wildcard team.)
The Oilers sat 29th in the NHL through the first quarter of the season. They’ve won three of four games since and have a favourable schedule in the next 17 games – Calgary twice, Winnipeg, Philadelphia, Columbus, Carolina, Nashville, Dallas, Phoenix. Even with three straight wins under its belt, Edmonton sits 16 points out of a playoff spot. With competitive goaltending leading the way, the Oilers can cut that gap in half in the second quarter.
Should that happen by the mid-point of the season, don’t rule out a push for a playoff position in the second half.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN