The Oilers last made the post-season in the 2005-06 season. Oil Country was re-born, heroes emerged and the team proved what was necessary for a hard-working, exuberant squad to capture the NHL's mind and attention.
The league's post-lockout era began with triumph and the Oilers' summer additions did, too. Chris Pronger and Michael Peca helped launch the copper and blue to new heights. They were division leaders by Christmas and had ultimately earned the Western Conference's eighth seed as spring arrived many months later.
Regardless of the Stanley Cup Final's unsettling Game 7 outcome, it was a magical period, one shared across Oil Country as lasting memories were had during the incredible three-month run.
Now, in 2011-12, the Oilers look to choreograph a comeback. They're only six games in, 2-2-2 and ranked ninth in the west, but some early-season parallels to the team's run almost six seasons ago have provided hope.
With high-octane skill up top with Taylor Hall
, Jordan Eberle
and now Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
, along with the Oilers' other lines counted on to produce, scoring didn't seem to be an issue heading into the new campaign; through six games, however, they've scored only 10 goals.
But with a mere 10 goals against, they're right in it and have had success, holding leads in each game so far.
A large portion of the team's success has come via shot blocking. The Oilers have stopped 88 attempts en route to either Nikolai Khabibulin
or Devan Dubnyk
, leading the league for an average of 14.7 per game.
In 2005-06, the Oilers ranked seventh in the NHL with 1321, averaging a strikingly similar 14.2 per game. Head Coaches Craig MacTavish and Tom Renney each have unique methods, but the Oilers' current bench boss has continued to push shot blocking's importance.
"We absolutely coach that," Renney explained. "I think that history would suggest because we've had a lot of injuries with ankles and whatnot in the past, it's an especially important aspect to have a hands-on approach."
Renney also considered the Oilers' past success and current trends around the league.
"It's a function of trying to help our goaltender out and trying to minimize scoring chances against; and with that, help your defensive game in general. We pay particular attention to it, as do most teams, and you're going to see one of the best in the league tomorrow night – they really put a premium on that.
"We sell it as something that's key to our game, for sure."Ladislav Smid
is far and away the team's best blocker, stopping 20 and ranking third in the NHL. He was also an instrumental force in the Oilers' 2-1 loss in Calgary. While only eight shots were blocked on the night (Smid recording a pair), clogging shooting lanes quelled Calgary's attack, forcing them to shoot wide on 15 separate occasions.
Shot blocking is only part of the equation, mind you. The Oilers' penalty kill has been operating at an 88.9-percent clip, good enough for a seventh-place ranking in the NHL. In 2005-06, it ranked eighth, killing 84.1-percent opposing power-play chances.
In the new NHL, special teams are especially important. Man-advantage opportunities happen more regularly and scores, wins and losses are usually dictated by PP and PK success.
"That includes the PK as much as anything else," Renney said when asked about the team's own-zone success and awareness. "We've worked hard to make sure we're doing the right things.
"We've tried to create a foundation that we can build our whole game on," he added. "We continue to do that. I think it's in a good place for this being early in the season, but we still have a lot of work to do for it to be better.
"Everyone's bought in."
Clearly. The Oilers have allowed only three goals on 27 shorthanded occasions.
On the other side, the Oilers' power-play has had mild success, scoring three times on 17 chances for a 16-percent success rate and 15th overall rank. In 2005-06, the Oilers ranked 14th with an 18.1-percent scoring rate.
This area can stand to improve, but has been heating up with the connection of Jordan Eberle
, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
and Taylor Hall
dominating other teams both at even-strength and on the power-play.
Since being put together, Hall has had the most success, averaging 10.36 points per 60 minutes on the power-play. RNH isn't far behind, posting an 8.45 average, easily leading the team and besting the league's most talented stars; Hall is ranked eighth, while Nugent-Hopkins has secured the 20th spot on a list composed of 357 NHL players who have seen up-a-man ice-time.
|Eric Belanger was signed to a 3-year $5.25 million contract on Jul. 1, 2011 (Getty). |
Success doesn't come without puck possession, mind you. The Oilers had long been in the market for a faceoff ace; since the departure of Jarret Stoll in 2007's summer months, the team has struggled to post an even, 50-50 win-rate.
The Oilers were second best in the NHL in 2005-06, winning 53.4-percent of the team's 4918 draws. Last season, they dropped to a league-worst 44.2 percentage, along with a second straight 30th place standing.
Six games in, 2011-12 has been a whole other ball game and a return to past success. While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
has struggled in the circle (operating at a 24.1-percent clip), helping to parlay the Oilers' overall success rate to a still-respectable 50-percent win-rate, Eric Belanger
(59.4) and Shawn Horcoff
(58.8) have killed it, launching the Oilers back into form as one of the NHL's most lethal teams on the dot.
Whether it's puck possession, gaining an advantage up-ice or on the power-play, establishing dominance in the game's waning moments or slicing the line between one point or two, winning the draw is vital; necessary, even, to climb the league's ranks in capturing a post-season berth.
Eighth-placed teams in recent seasons have proven it, too. Nashville, Anaheim, Colorado and Chicago have all had comparable numbers on the PK, PP, in shot blocking and success in the faceoff circle.
They're all little components that add to the establishment a playoff-ready squad. With strong goaltending adding spice to the mix, an increase in goal scoring will, at the very least, propel the Oilers within reach.
Perhaps even as soon as this season, if early returns and 2005-06 are any indication.Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick