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JONES: Oilers need to return home with focus on finishing first in Pacific

Connor McDavid (97) of the Edmonton Oilers tries to get off a shot against Corey Crawford (50) of the Chicago Blackhawks, but is pressured by Ryan Carpenter (22) at United Center on March 05, 2020, in Chicago.
Connor McDavid (97) of the Edmonton Oilers tries to get off a shot against Corey Crawford (50) of the Chicago Blackhawks, but is pressured by Ryan Carpenter (22) at United Center on March 05, 2020, in Chicago.

Yes, the Edmonton Oilers lost 4-3 to the Blackhawks Thursday in Chicago, failing with an opportunity to return home tied for first in the Pacific Division.

And, yes, they remain with 80 points, two back of the Vegas Golden Knights in a game they didn’t decide to play until it was half over.

But it says here the focus returning home from their recent run of endurance tests, credibility encounters, statement games and mettle meters should now be on finishing first after their final 14 games. Despite what happened in Chicago, the Oilers return home having earned the right to find a new focus going forward.

Since they last settled into Rogers Place for more than a quick visit back in mid-February, the question, they’ll find, has changed.

No longer is it: ‘Will Edmonton make the playoffs?’

It’s now: ‘Will the Oilers finish first in the Pacific Division?’

As much as they’re still likely six or seven wins from mathematically securing only their second playoff spot in the last 14 seasons, the Oilers have put themselves in position to have home-ice advantage for a series or two when it happens.

Consider what they accomplished since Valentine’s Day.

First was a three-games-in-four nights mid-February run of true grit games against Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina.

Home for two games, they headed out for a three-games-in-four-days run against Los Angeles, Anaheim and Vegas.

Back home for one, they hit the road again for yet another three-games-in-four-days confirmation confrontation tour through Nashville, Dallas and Chicago.

In a span where they had only three home games and a trio of torture test three-games-in-three-day excursions, the Oilers managed to get points from at least two out of every three of those games.

Edmonton had gone 6-2-2 in their last 10 games going into Thursday’s. During this stretch, the team had been without James Neal for nine, Oscar Klefbom for nine, Zack Kassian for seven, Kris Russell for seven, Connor McDavid for four of the six he missed and Kailer Yamamoto for three.

The Oilers went into Thursday’s game with a 15-6-4 record in 2020. That’s points in 18 of 25 games.

Ten of their final 14 games are at home.

Vegas has 10 of the team’s remaining 16 games on the road.

Two of them are at Rogers Place, including the second of a back-to-back Calgary-Edmonton pair on a three-in-four-days trip to Western Canada on Monday.

All 10 away games are against teams still in the battle for playoff positions in the West, two each against the Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton and one each against Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona and Vancouver. Three of the four games remaining at home are also against teams in the mix — Dallas, Vancouver and Arizona.

Not that the Golden Knights are stumbling down the stretch. They’re the hottest team in the league having gone 9-1 in their last 10 games. But there’s a significant difference between Vegas at home (22-11-4) and Vegas on the road (15-12-4).

Edmonton has a 16-10-5 record at home compared to a 20-14-3 record on the road.

It’s not that the Oilers’ strength-of-opponent factor is significantly different with one final three-games-in-four-days trip to Philadelphia, Washington and Ottawa, and a schedule-concluding visit to Calgary. Seven of Edmonton’s 10 home games are against playoff-race positioned teams including Columbus, Vegas, Winnipeg and the N.Y. Islanders in the home stand that starts Saturday, and Tampa Bay, Colorado and Vegas to follow on the six-game home stand to follow.

But there’s enough of a difference for Edmonton to have a different status going forward when it comes to the computerized SportsClubStats website.

The Oilers, with the wins in Nashville and Dallas, increased their chances of making the playoffs on the site to 97.7 per cent, behind only Boston, St. Louis, Colorado and Tampa Bay, all now listed at 100 per cent, and Washington (99.8 per cent), Dallas (99.7 per cent) and Philadelphia (99.6 per cent). Vegas is now listed at 97.2 per cent.

The site also computerizes chances of finishing first in the division. Edmonton went into the game in Chicago favoured to finish first in the Pacific at 47 per cent, followed by Vegas at 42 per cent with Vancouver and Calgary at five and four per cent.

You get the idea. The Oilers should be coming home looking at themselves differently, despite the loss in Chicago. This team has gone from proving they could reboot their season after a disastrous December to digging down and finding the desperation, to get into the insane scramble these past two weeks, to playing for first the rest of the way.

The Oilers should also be coming home to a crowd providing more and more of a playoff atmosphere as the schedule plays out.


On Twitter: @ByTerryJones

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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