TORONTO – A quick trip through Eastern Canada has the Edmonton Oilers feeling a lot better about their season.
Nikolai Khabibulin stopped all 33 shots he faced Thursday as Edmonton cruised to a 5-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, giving the Oilers their third road win in four nights.
Victories in Ottawa (Martin Gerber), Montreal (Devan Dubnyk) and Toronto each came with a different goalie in net. However, it’s the work being done outside the crease that has helped the team to its best stretch of the year.
“We’re definitely going in the right direction,” said Khabibulin. “We’re more aware of things. I was really impressed how we picked up the late guys tonight. We intercepted a lot of passes through the seams.
“It seems like we were doing better in the last few games managing the turnovers. It’s just a better effort.”
It was only 10 days ago that Oilers coach Tom Renney laid into his team following a 5-1 loss in Phoenix. The players have responded with four victories in five games since he questioned their commitment.
Renney can identify with what Toronto counterpart Ron Wilson is going through. The Leafs coach saw his team shut out for the sixth time in 16 games and briefly heard chants of “Fire Wilson!” from the frustrated fans at Air Canada Centre.
However, Wilson was calm when he met the media afterwards and focused most of his comments on the positive aspects of the game—a good strategy, according to Renney.
“I think the big thing for Toronto is to just stay with it and identify the little things that help with success along the way,” said Renney. “What we’ve done is we’ve just tried to break each game into increments of 20 minutes—and even beyond that five-minute segments—and identify the good things that they’re doing. Not to dwell too much on those things that can go wrong because that can happen to any team.
“Just try to build the resolve that is required to work your way through those tough stretches.”
The main sources of optimism in Edmonton played a big role in the team’s victory. Taylor Hall had the first two-goal game of his career—including a highlight-reel backhander after skating around defenceman Francois Beauchemin—while fellow rookie Jordan Eberle added a goal and two assists.
Hall feels like he’s coming into his own.
“At the beginning of the season, I said it was a process and I just wanted to get a comfort level down,” he said. “Definitely there are games now where I feel very comfortable out there and my confidence is good. Any player can tell you, when you do have confidence it’s a special thing.
“I’m feeling pretty good about my game right now.”
Sam Gagner and Ryan Jones also scored for the Oilers (9-12-4).
The Maple Leafs (8-12-4) hit a new low after dropping their 16th game in the last 20, sinking to 28th overall in the NHL standings. The game saw Jonas Gustavsson pulled after allowing two goals on six shots in favour of J.S. Giguere.
“I just felt like we almost quit on the goalies there a little bit and it’s not acceptable,” said Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur. “You go into the game all ready to go, the systems are all laid out and then we don’t want to follow them. It’s one of those things where if don’t we all buy in, you know you’re going to have nights like this and we didn’t buy in tonight.”
The next stretch of schedule will be tough. The Leafs host Boston on Saturday before facing a stretch of three games in four nights next week against Eastern Conference heavyweights—Washington, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Edmonton now gets a six-game homestand.
Khabibulin showed no lingering affects from the groin injury that sidelined him for the previous seven games. His second shutout of the season wasn’t particularly difficult, although he made a nice diving stop on a Nazem Kadri wraparound chance in the second period.
“I saw most of the pucks,” said Khabibulin.
The victory moved the Oilers past the Leafs in the overall standings. Even though the teams are only separated by two points, they seem to have vastly different outlooks.
As unlikely as it seems, Edmonton still has visions of trying to creep into a playoff race.
“You want to be close by Christmas, you want to give yourself a chance in the second half to play meaningful games,” said Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff. “That’s always been our goal. Sure, we went through a little bit of a tough stretch but that’s to be expected. I think now we’re starting to figure out our identity.
“Hopefully we can string some more wins together and get back into it.”
Notes:Edmonton’s Ryan Whitney had two assists, giving him 20 on the season … Ales Hemsky, J.F. Jacques and Jason Strudwick didn’t play for the Oilers … Toronto scratched Keith Aulie … Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf missed his 13th game with a laceration on his left leg … It was Gustavsson’s seventh straight start in goal for Toronto … Announced attendance was 19,465.