|Ryan Smyth tests Jonathan Quick during last night's 3-0 victory over the Kings in Los Angeles (Getty Images).
When the Oilers leave their dressing room to take the ice at Rexall Place, before they walk by the display of 5 Stanley Cup's with room for a 6th, they pass underneath a wall with two words painted on it in large gold italics: Relentless Together. For this team, they're not just letters on drywall. The 2011-2012 Edmonton Oilers have adopted that slogan and, so far, are doing it proud.
You have to go back to March of 2001 to find the Oilers last 6 game winning streak, 8 regular seasons ago if you're scoring at home (the team did win 7 straight games through the Western Conference semi-final and final in the playoffs of 2006). Winning, that thrilling jolt of adrenaline that hasn't been felt nearly often enough in Edmonton over past years, is a pretty powerful catalyst. That is to say: winning breeds more winning.
On a winning streak, everything is easier. The gameplan looks simpler, the shotblocks don't hurt so much and the individual statistics don't matter. This Oilers team, it would seem, has figured out how to win a little bit sooner than most people expected. Don't confuse that for a prediction that they remain at the top of the Conference, but instead a statement of doubt that anyone had them reeling off 6 in a row versus the likes of Vancouver, Washington and Los Angeles.
Skeptics will point to the all world goaltending that the Oilers have been receiving, claiming that the team will come down to earth when the numbers start to soften. And, you know what? That's probably true...to a point. I don't think any team goes on a lengthy winning streak without superb goaltending, and when the point comes that Nikolai Khabibulin
starts to allow more than 0.98 goals per game, the team will probably find some results sliding out of that far left column. I think, though, that we should probably wait at least until Khabibulin suffers a regulation loss to talk about his numbers going soft.
Giving some of the credit to those playing in front of the goaltenders, let's reflect on last night's 3-0 victory in Los Angeles. Khabibulin made 19 saves for the shutout and, I ask you, how many of them do you recall being above average saves? How about saves on second chance opportunities? The answer to both questions is zero, because he didn't have to. He had to be square to the puck, technically strong, and all of the things that make a good NHL goaltender, of course. But not exceptional. The team in front of him did an excellent job of controlling time of possession and, when it was in the defensive zone, blocking shots. Ladislav Smid
, the NHL leader in that category, had 5 more last night. There was a point early in the 2nd period when Smid and Khabibulin both had 4 saves. The team, as a whole, stopped 22 shots from getting through, as they sit 2nd in the NHL in blocked shots.
This team hasn't scored the bucket of goals that most of us had predicted they would, yet they've still found a way to have a lead in 11 straight hockey games. The top line, with the kids, has been exceptional on most nights and the secondary scoring has been timely, though still a little too rare. The skilled players on this team get so much attention, and it's well deserved. But, what about the other guys?Ladislav Smid
leads the NHL with 45 blocked shots.Eric Belanger
is 58% in the dot. Shawn Horcoff
is 53%. They both anchor a penalty kill that is 5th in the NHL.
35 year old Ryan Smyth
leads the team in goals and is tied for the team lead in points.Corey Potter
has 8 points in 10 games and is +2 playing 20 minutes a night.
Tom Gilbert is 4th on the team with 16 hits.
There's no question that the talent on this team has been dramatically bolstered in the last couple of off-seasons. Taylor Hall
, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
, Jordan Eberle
, Magnus Paajarvi
, Anton Lander
...these are special players, and you should never bet against talent. Talent, though, is nothing without hard work, and that attitude has also changed here over the last couple of years. The veteran core of the team has been refreshed and, with that, a true harmony has re-surfaced amongst the group.
It's not the word "relentless" that's important in the team slogan. Heck, I think they could even do without it. There's only one word that's important to have up on that wall, a word critical that the team embrace. A word that this team HAS embraced: Together.
This isn't just about hot goaltending or a top line of young stars. This team doesn't have any passengers, from 1 right on down to 23.
As Tom Renney might say, it's all arrow up so far.