CHICAGO – The Edmonton Oilers feel like they're headed down the same path that took the Chicago Blackhawks from an also-ran to 2010 Stanley Cup champions in short order, but they still have a ways to go.
They're still lacking some needed grit and experience, plus the actual Blackhawks are still one of the League's best teams – as they proved by beating Edmonton 6-3 on Sunday night at the United Center.
Chicago scored two goals within the first 5:30 of the game against Oilers goalie and former Blackhawk Nikolai Khabibulin (29 saves) – who came into the game leading the League in goals-against average and save percentage. Toews and Montador scored 34 seconds apart – both on pretty individual plays – and just like that Edmonton (9-6-2) was playing catch-up.
"That's a skilled team that maybe doesn't have a lot of experience, but you can't take them lightly," Toews said of the Oilers, who beat the defending Stanley Cup champions last season in Chicago. "We talked about what happened in our own building early last year and they're a team that's having even more success this season. We wanted to have a good start against them and we did."
Ryan Smyth, Jordan Eberle and Shawn Horcoff each scored for Edmonton – which ended a six-game road trip of its own by dropping four games on the trip and a third straight, all against elite competition. The Oilers lost to the current defending Cup champion Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings prior to coming to the Windy City.
Now they'll head home knowing there's another level they need to reach before truly joining some of the NHL's top teams.
"We understand the depth of the people we're playing and the experience they've had with winning and we're still working on that – but there's no excuses," said Edmonton coach Tom Renney, who was upset with the defensive effort in front of Khabibulin. "We needed to man up tonight and we didn't do it. If we're better in front of our goaltender in every aspect of the game and pay attention to the detail that's required to set up your offense, our goaltending is going to be good enough every night."
Instead, Khabibulin didn't have much of a chance on Sunday.
The Western Conference leading Blackhawks wound up scoring three times in the first, including two by Montador, for a commanding 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission. Meanwhile, the stunned Oilers looked all out of sorts.
The onslaught continued into the second, when Chicago upped the lead to 4-1 on Toews' second goal and put five goals on the board and through the first 16 of their 35 shots on goal. Keith also added his second goal in as many games in the second, giving the Hawks three more goals by defensemen during a recent hot stretch by Chicago blueliners.
Chicago's defensemen have now provided 12 points and six goals in the past three games – all wins that came after an overtime loss and two defeats in regulation.
"We've talked about it long before it was happening on the scoresheet," Montador said of the back-end scoring splurge."You need to have a four- and five-man rush to be a part of the game and obviously a lot of the goals … start with point shots and come off tips and rebounds. It was just a matter of time. We obviously have some talented guys on the blue line. Coincidence? I don't think so. We've just been practicing it and talking about it for a while."
Toews got the scoring started early by roofing a shot past Khabibulin from the bottom of the right circle just 4:55 into the game. Montador then added his first of the game 34 seconds later by taking a nice pass from Kane, stickhandling through the slot and tucking the puck between the pad and right post for a quick 2-0 lead.
Smyth scored his team-high 10th goal and 17th point six minutes later for Edmonton by stuffing a shot under the pad of Hawks goalie Corey Crawford (20 saves) to stem Chicago's momentum.
It was only a temporary fix thanks to Montador, who scored his second of the period with 3:49 left in the first to cap a power play that put the Hawks back up by two goals, 3-1 – deflecting a point blast by Leddy. Toews' second of the game just 22 seconds into the second period and pushed the lead to 4-1 after he chipped a puck over Khabibulin's right pad into the net and it looked like a full-on rout was starting.
Instead, Eberle made up for the penalty that he took that led to Montador's power-play marker in the first. A puck skipped past Keith at the blue line in the Oilers' zone, and Eberle zipped past the Hawks defenseman and scooped the puck before zooming in alone against Crawford. He deked the Hawks goalie to the ice and tucked the puck between the pad and left post to make it 4-2 just 6:17 into the second.
Keith made up for his own gaffe by scoring his second goal of the season 1:30 later – throwing a puck at the net through traffic from the point and watching it get past Khabibulin for a 5-2 lead. Horcoff cut the margin to two goals once again 45 seconds before the end of the second, but the Oilers couldn't get any closer.