EDMONTON — It’s American Thanksgiving and the Edmonton Oilers are in first place in the Pacific Division.
Do not adjust your sets.
We all know the significance of U.S. Thanksgiving, a day on which — since 2005-06 — the 16 teams in a playoff position in the National Hockey League have made the playoffs at a 76 per cent success rate.
We all don’t love talking about that, however.
“Somebody handed me a whole bunch of those stats this morning,” said Edmonton head coach Dave Tippett. “I’m aware of them, but there’s a whole lot of time between now and the end of March.
“Just because you’re in the playoffs on American Thanksgiving doesn’t mean you will be at the end of the season.”
It’s the impossible angle: Get a good team to talk about how good they are, just 27 games into the season. But, we gave it a try.
What U.S. Thanksgiving has become to the hockey world, is an annual milestone. A date we have established — right at about the one-third mark of the season — when the sample size becomes large enough that we can begin to make some conclusions.
Sure, there is going to be the odd St. Louis Blues outlier, a last-place club at Christmas that wins the Stanley Cup. But the numbers are the numbers, and when you are in first place in the Pacific Division, second in the Western Conference and fourth in the entire NHL on Nov. 28, we are beginning to pass over the line that lies between “lucky start” and “good team.”
“We’ve tickled with playing our best hockey,” goalie Mike Smith said, “and we’re just trying to find the consistency in our game. To be a good team as often as possible through the course of the season.”
Through 27 starts the Oilers have lost back-to-back games in regulation only once, likely their most impressive stat thus far. They’ve won nine of their 16 road games, and seven of 11 at home.
Edmonton and Boston are tied atop the power-play rankings at 32 per cent, but by far the largest improvement here in Edmonton has been on the penalty kill, where they are second in the NHL at 87.5 per cent. That means the Oilers have the best combined special teams in the game, not so surprising on the powerplay — with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — but quite a revelation on the penalty kill.
Some perspective: Over the previous five seasons, Edmonton has had the worst penalty kill in the entire league. A power-play goal per night was almost a guarantee for every opponent, a stat that had to change if this team was ever going to drag itself out of the basement — let alone hang around first place for a while.
Which presents its own challenges, of course.
“Where we’re at in the standings is a bar we’ve set for ourselves,” said Smith, whose confident, Alpha male approach has been exactly what a meek, beaten down team required. “It will be difficult, going forward, to stay there. Every team now is looking at the standings, and every game is going to be where teams are coming in and saying, ‘They’re in first place. We’d better be ready to play.’
“We’ve done a lot of good things, and it’s set us up for an exciting season.”
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Of course, when you’ve missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, it is impossible to dismiss the ‘false floor’ narrative that hounds supporters of this team. The thought that something bad is hiding around the corner; that Mikko Koskinen’s glove hand is going to revert to last season’s quality; that Ethan Bear’s impressive rookie performance will somehow erode.
Until you exorcise those demons, they will always exist to some extent.
“I don’t feel like we’ve had that thought in our minds in this room,” said Sam Gagner. “We’ve had a mantra with Tipp, a Day 1 attitude. We try to bring it to the rink every day, regardless of what happens the day prior. Just build and get better.
“As far as we’re concerned, the next game is the biggest game of the year. That’s our mindset, and that’s the way we’re gonna keep it.”
There’s an old hockey joke about the coach lamenting how his team was already buried in the standings, their playoff dreams dashed by Thanksgiving. The guy he’s talking to wants to know how bad the team really is.
So he asks: “Is that American Thanksgiving, or Canadian?”
Here in Edmonton, it hasn’t looked this good on anyone’s turkey day for some time.
Frankly, you get the feeling they’d rather not talk about it at all.